Ed Broadbent was ‘the best prime minister we never had’

The working class kid from Oshawa, who rose to lead an NDP caucus of 43 MPs, will receive a state funeral on January 28
Broadbent Institute
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John Edward Broadbent grew up in blue-collar Oshawa, one of three children, whose parents always voted Conservative.

Broadbent died January 11, in Ottawa, at the age of 87.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney once said of Broadbent: “He’d’ve been Prime Minister had he been leading any other party.”

But Broadbent was a member of the NDP for more than 60 years and never crossed over to the two old-line parties. In 1984, he called then-Liberal leader John Turner and Conservative leader Brian Mulroney, both corporate lawyers and fiscal conservatives “the Bobbsey Twins of Bay Street,” a reference to a popular series of children’s books about a pair of identical twins.

Broadbent was born in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression. The “Dirty Thirties” hit people much harder in the western and prairie provinces than in Ontario, but life was tough in Oshawa where auto production fell dramatically.

His father Percy, who worked at General Motors, was an angry drunk. Percy’s gambling caused the family to lose their home. Ed was much closer to his mother Mary, who he’d called a “remarkable person” for her empathy for the poor and her open-mindedness on issues relating to minorities.

Broadbent was a gifted student in high school and did well enough to get into university during the post war boom. In 1961, he married Yvonne Yamaoka, a Japanese Canadian town planner whose family had been interned by the federal government during the Second World War. The couple divorced in 1967.

In the 1979 leaders' debate Ed Broadbent faced off against Pierre Trudeau and Conservative Joe Clark.
CBC

He got his undergraduate degree in philosophy at University of Toronto’s Trinity College and joined the NDP in 1962. He remained in academia and went on to do a PhD in political theory, then became a professor at the newly-opened York University.

In 1965 Broadbent was named the head of York’s Political Science department.

Though he came from the working class he took to academia like a duck to water, even acquiring the uniform of rumpled corduroys and pipe.

It was then, as a 32-year-old professor in 1968, he was asked to run for the NDP. Broadbent knew one thing for sure — he was passionate about making a difference in the lives of working people.

The next election, he won the riding of Oshawa—Whitby.

The man who nominated him as candidate, Abe Taylor, later said Broadbent’s nomination speech was so terrible — too academic and far too long — that he actually regretted nominating him.

Over time, and numerous campaigns, he shed his tendency to pontificate, along with the academic uniform, to emerge as a smoother and more “professional” politician.

He was known as “Honest Ed,” “Mr. Decent” or simply “Ed”. He was consistent about his commitment to social democracy, wealth redistribution, and a better and fairer way to run the economy.

Robin Sears, former national director of the NDP, described Broadbent as a working class hero and an international statesman.

“Broadbent’s great strength was that he straddled the two worlds of his blue-collar, auto-assembly home town of Oshawa — also known as the Detroit of Canada — and his academic life in nearby Toronto, partly because he believed that if he could inhabit them both, they were not really divided. Not everyone agreed – he made his political champions in the United Auto Workers wince when, at his nomination meeting, he quoted C.W. Mills, a leading American sociologist, at length.”

In 1971, Broadbent married the bilingual Québécoise Lucille Munroe. The same year he re-married, he ran for the first time to lead the New Democratic Party. Lucille had a son and they adopted another son together. They stayed together until 2006 when she died of breast cancer.

Broadbent had a frank and folksy way of speaking and didn’t duck tough questions and frequently went “off message.” He was never rude or dismissive when speaking to reporters and broadcasters, though he could be extremely direct and even brusque.

He won the leadership of the NDP in 1975. Throughout the 80s, Broadbent would steer the NDP to unprecedented heights, with polls even suggesting he was set to become Canada’s first NDP prime minister.

In the 1988 election, the NDP won 43 seats in the House of Commons, a record he held until Jack Layton’s “Orange Crush” of 103 seats in 2011.

Sadly, he couldn’t win enough seats to form government. Broadbent was bitterly disappointed and stepped down as leader.

In 2004, persuaded to run by Jack Layton, Ed Broadbent was elected as MP of Ottawa Centre, a political comeback of sorts after serving as NDP leader decades before.
CBC

Throughout his political career, Broadbent never wavered from his principles.

He was known as "Honest Ed," "Mr. Decent" or simply "Ed”. He was consistent about his commitment to social democracy, wealth redistribution, and a better and fairer way to run the economy.

An interesting, and little known, detail is that Broadbent was one of the initial signatories of the Waffle Manifesto for an independent socialist Canada.

(If you're going to waffle, waffle to the left.)

That resolve soon mellowed as the party hierarchy pressured him to be more electable, the 'nice guy' of the NDP. One can wonder what 60 years of being 'nice' has gotten the NDP, the labour movement and the working class that Broadbent came from.

The best quote from Ed Broadbent comes from Duncan Cameron, formerly political science professor at the University of Ottawa, now rabble.ca president emeritus.

“Ed held strongly to the social democratic idea that governments could re-distribute income without necessarily transforming the way income was produced. That made him controversial on the Left. Many favoured undermining the profit-driven economy, and reversing the power relations, which favoured employers over workers,” he said.

“Today he is revered in the media, which mostly ignored him when he led the NDP. It’s a Canadian tradition to honour the NDP figures only when they pass away.”

Broadbent was the Member of Parliament for Oshawa-Whitby and NDP leader for 14 years through four elections stepping down as leader in 1989 — he later returned to the House of Commons, persuaded to run again by Jack Layton.

Here is Ed Broadbent in an interview with Mary-Lou Findlay of CBC’s As It Happens upon re-election to Ottawa South in 2004, when he was 68.

Ed stepped down from electoral politics in 2006 to care for Lucille who was deathly ill.

From opposing the War Measures Act, to helping shape the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to helping craft the Confidence and Supply Agreement between the NDP and the Liberals, Broadbent has devoted his life to the fight for a fairer and more equitable Canada.

In 2014, Broadbent married Ellen Mieksins Wood, a Marxist historian, political theorist and former colleague at York. Mieksins Wood, a distinguished scholar, served on the editorial boards of New Left Review and Monthly Review. She died of breast cancer in 2016.

At a dinner they both attended during the 2015 federal election, Meiksins Wood gently ribbed Broadbent about being too reformist. Broadbent laughed and leaned over and kissed her.

In November of 2023 he reflected on his legacy in a new book, Seeking Social Democracy: Seven Decades in the Fight for Equality, co-authored by Frances Abele, Jonathan Sas, and Luke Savage. Here he is at one of his last public appearances.

So long, Ed. It was good to know you.

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