Guy Caron brings economic expertise and Quebec knowledge to the race

Image of Guy Caron. Courtesy of Caron campaign

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One prominent Conservative leadership candidate famously dropped out because he lacked support in Quebec. Without Quebec, he said, he could not win a general election. Pundits point out that, in fact, Stephen Harper won a majority in 2011 with only five seats in Quebec. And so the lack-of-support-in-Quebec argument may have been more of an excuse than a rationale for U. S. reality TV star Kevin O'Leary.

The NDP does not have the luxury of even thinking about ignoring Quebec. Nobody knows that better than the NDP MP for Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques, Guy Caron, the only Quebec candidate in the current leadership race.

Caron was first elected as part of the Jack Layton-led Orange Wave in 2011, and is one of the few who did even better, last time, in 2015. He had run for the NDP, in the same riding, three times prior to 2011, but never did better than a fourth-place finish. 

Caron and the 15 other NDP MPs who won in Quebec last time are proof that the NDP's result in 2011 was not just a flash in the pan. Sixteen elected MPs is a long way down from the 59 seats the NDP won in 2011. But the party still won 25 per cent of the vote in 2015, and its share of the francophone vote was even higher. Were it not for that five-letter word worth 16 points in Scrabble, niqab, it is likely the NDP's results in Quebec in 2015 would have been considerably better.

Believes the 2015 campaign was off the mark

Caron still regrets the way the NDP conducted itself in his home province during the last campaign. He believes the party could have offered more to Quebecers, and should have more deftly handled the controversy over a person's right to wear a full veil while taking a citizenship oath.

Caron points out that the NDP's two main election platform proposals last time out were universal pharmacare and a national child-care program.

"Quebec," he says, "already has both."

But the platform was not the big stumbling block for the NDP. What most injured the NDP in Quebec in 2015 was the intrusion of what Caron calls the "question identitaire," the identity question. In Quebec, Caron points out, the issue of public display of religious symbols is not merely one of individual rights or religious freedom. It is also bound up with Quebec's evolving image of itself as a secular society, having only recently thrown off, in Caron's words, "the shackles of the Church."

In principle, Caron readily agrees that the NDP's position on the niqab controversy -- that the state should not dictate to people how they should dress -- was correct. However, the Quebec MP thinks his party did a terrible job of communicating -- and, perhaps, nuancing -- its position, and so fell victim to the Conservatives' opportunistic attacks and the Bloc Québécois' more unabashed appeals to anti-Islamic bigotry.

Caron argues that in 2015 the NDP needed to find a way to embrace both multiculturalism and secularism. It needed to uphold the basic religious rights of all, including Muslims, while at the same time recognizing the fundamentally non-religious nature of society as a whole.

Of course, the idea of a secular identity might apply more to Quebec than it does to English Canada. For Quebec, Caron believes the NDP needed to craft a message that showed a measure of, in his words, "empathy" for voters who felt that public display of religious symbols constituted a threat to their society's hard-won victory over the forces of theocracy. It was -- and is -- possible to express that empathy, Caron says, without kowtowing to racism or xenophobia. That is the lesson, the eastern Quebec MP asserts, the party must learn for the next election.

Finding his vocation as a progressive economist

Caron is not, of course, a one-trick pony. While he has a complex understanding of Quebec's political culture and psychology, his main preoccupation is with the intersection of economic and social policy. He relates how, as president of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) in the 1990s, he witnessed with great chagrin the deep cuts the Chrétien government inflicted on post-secondary education.

"It was my political awakening," he says.

After the CFS, Caron worked for a while with the Council of Canadians and then decided to go back to school to study economics. He wanted, as he tells it, to add his voice to that of such progressive economists as Jim Stanford, because he believed conservatives of the Thatcher-Reagan school had come to dominate economic thinking. The Liberal Party, especially in power, has not been immune to the prevailing economic ideology, Caron argues, and the NDP must provide an alternative economic vision.

That vision should focus on two big challenges, Caron says: climate change and inequality. He promises, by the end of summer, to put out a detailed, and fully costed, platform that will address those twin challenges. For now Caron's main signature policy is the guaranteed annual income, an idea whose time might be coming, but which many on all parts of the political spectrum vigorously contest.

Caron points out that three-quarters of those living in poverty are actually working, and his plan would provide a neat and seamless way to lift the working poor to an acceptable standard of living. Caron's basic income would be merged with the existing Child Care Benefit for families and Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors, with the intent of covering all Canadians, regardless of age or family status, who fall below the low-income cut-off line (LICO). Statistics Canada defines the LICO as the income threshold below which a family must devote the lion's share, if not all, of its income to the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter. 

Caron's other main policy thrust, for now, is also economic, and focuses on taxes. Caron has three tax-related proposals: a new financial activities tax on the profits of banks and other financial institutions and on their executives' remuneration packages; elimination of the stock options loophole, whereby business executives receive shares in their companies in lieu of pay, and thus avoid income tax; and a new tax-crime division within the federal justice department, to help catch cheats and tax evaders. 

The need for a 'just transition' from a carbon economy

On pipelines, Caron is slightly less categorical than a number of other leadership candidates.

He is unequivocally opposed to Energy East, which would run through his own neighbourhood. On the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline-twinning project, he repeats the NDP's official line that, for now, it should be a "no-go" because it has not been subject to a sufficiently "robust" environmental assessment -- an assessment, Caron says, which must include impact on climate change.

Caron worked with the union movement in the past and today talks about the fact that labour was an early adopter of the need for strategies to address climate change. But, he adds, the labour movement has also insisted on a "just transition" for workers. The Quebec MP insists that we have not seen anything resembling a plan for such a just transition and pledges that he would prod the NDP into elaborating one.  

The practical and economic focus of Caron's campaign is, it seems, earning him some support. 

Retired Hamilton area NDP MP Chris Charlton announced in mid June that she decided to support Caron because he "understands that social, economic and environmental justice must go hand in hand." 

"As a labour economist," Charlton said, "I trust Guy to support workers and not throw them under the bus as he tackles climate change and builds an inclusive economy where no one is left behind."

Guy Caron's campaign has also attracted the support of well-liked MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau, who represents a largely rural riding east of Montreal. Brosseau emphasizes Caron's ability to connect with the people of Quebec's regions. The NDP won most of rural Quebec's seats in 2011 and then lost most of them the next time. Many still consider Quebec beyond the main urban areas to be potentially fertile ground for the party.

Caron's two distinct advantages are that he is the only Quebecer in the race and the only one who can lay claim to being a professional economist. He just might be able to ride those twin horses to a respectable showing, or even victory, in October.

This article is part of a series profiling candidates in the 2017 NDP leadership race. Read the full series here.

Editor's note: Guy Caron worked with the Council of Canadians, not the CCPA, as written earlier. This has been corrected in the article.

Image: Guy Caron

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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