Longtime New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent, who moved the party further to the left and up in the polls, has died at 87.
The Broadbent Institute, which he founded, announced his death in a statement Thursday afternoon.
“Our country has lost a fierce champion for ordinary Canadians, an intellectual who strongly believed in building a good society,” the statement said. “Ed devoted decades of his life to fighting for justice and equality in Canada and around the world.”
John Edward Broadbent, a companion of the Order of Canada, was known to New Democrats as “Honest Ed,” “Mr. Decent” or simply “Ed,” Broadbent led the NDP for 14 years and through four elections — and even returned to the House of Commons later in life.
While he failed to realize his dream of forming the Official Opposition, over his 20-plus years in federal politics he helped to establish the NDP as a viable option for voters disenchanted by years of Liberal and Conservative governments. He was also the first leader of the New Democrats to see his party rise to first place in public opinion polling.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called Broadbent “a lifelong champion of our movement and our party” and said he was always generous with his time.
“When I was newly elected leader of our party, Ed helped me tremendously with his advice and encouragement,” Singh said in a media statement on Thursday.
“Whenever I asked anything of him — to talk through policy ideas, to help with a challenging political problem or to campaign with me — he always said ‘yes.'”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent his condolences to Broadbent’s family, friends and Canadians who are mourning his passing.
“Canada is better off because of Ed Broadbent’s selfless service,” Trudeau said in a media statement. “An advocate for equality and champion for justice, his commitment to helping others never wavered. He leaves behind an incredible legacy – one that will, no doubt, continue to inspire people across the country.”
The Current24:30What Ed Broadbent thinks of today’s politics
The second of three children, Broadbent was born in Oshawa, Ont. in 1936.
While his childhood in the union-oriented, blue-collar city would become the stuff of NDP lore, he formed his democratic socialist views after leaving home. His father, a clerk at General Motors, and his homemaker mother were both steadfast conservative voters.
After a stint in academics, during which he wrote his PhD thesis on utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, Broadbent began his political career with the nascent NDP in 1968 when he won the riding of Oshawa—Whitby, a region he’d go on to represent for more than two decades.
He first ran for the party leadership in the 1971 race to replace Tommy Douglas, losing to David Lewis. But he snapped up the top job just a few years later, in 1975.
“When I say we’ll move to the left, I’m not content personally as a politician with nice vague generalizations. I want to think about what that means,” he said during the leadership campaign.
As leader, he emphasized economic issues. He played a critical role during Joe Clark’s minority government when his party moved the non-confidence motion that brought down the Progressive Conservative government and effectively brought Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Liberal Party back to power.
Shrugging off internal dissent after he supported Trudeau’s patriation of the Constitution, Broadbent solidified his position as leader in the 1984 election.
After running a campaign focused on tax reforms, lower interest rates and equality for women, the NDP won just 10 fewer seats than the Opposition Liberals.
In the election’s aftermath, Broadbent rode a wave of popularity in the mid-1980s, when he was consistently ahead of Liberal Leader John Turner and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the polls.
As a benchmark of his popularity, Chatelaine magazine named him one of Canada’s 10 sexiest men. “There are many good things I would call Ed,” his wife Lucille Broadbent said at the time, laughing. “But sexy? No.”
In the 1988 election — a bitter campaign fought over the free trade deal — he pushed the party to the brink of a breakthrough with 43 seats. That made Broadbent the NDP’s most successful leader ever — a title he’d hold until Jack Layton’s “orange wave” election in 2011.
But after having set his sights on leading the Official Opposition, Broadbent was open about his feelings of disappointment. He stepped down as leader in 1989.
In his emotional resignation speech to supporters, he urged the party to find someone new to “take us the next step towards building that decent, exciting and compassionate Canada we all believe in.”
During that hour-long speech, he addressed a growing debate among New Democrats about the tensions between the party’s principles and its pursuit of power.
A single-minded adherence to principle, he said, can be “narcissistically self-indulgent.”
“To pursue only power is to deny our reason for being.”
After leaving politics, Broadbent served as director of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development from 1990 to 1996. He stayed involved in domestic issues, including a campaign to eradicate child poverty.
But Broadbent continued to field questions about an eventual return to politics. He once suggested that a second career playing for the Blue Jays would be more likely.
But he couldn’t stay away forever.
More than a decade after walking away, he was lured back by then NDP leader Jack Layton in 2004. He reintroduced himself to a new generation of voters with a rap video, “Ed’s Back.”
He went on to win Ottawa Centre in the 2004 election. He did not seek re-election due to his wife’s worsening health. Lucille Broadbent, who Ed called the love of his life, died of breast cancer in 2006.
He remained a respected elder statesman for the NDP and, along with former prime minister Jean Chrétien, helped to negotiate the formal coalition agreement between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party to replace Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2008. The coalition talks died after Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean prorogued Parliament at Harper’s request in December 2008.
During his second period outside of politics, he helped to establish a political think-tank — the Broadbent Institute — to study issues of social democracy.
“Our founder [Tommy Douglas] well understood a political movement or idea doesn’t live in the past,” he said.
“A lot of pressure is on politicians … to win the battle that’s two months ahead rather than build for a Canada five or 10 years down. So institutions other than the party have to come in and provide this.”
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