Serendipity, and a stint with the Times, are part of the climb to the Topp
When Brian Topp graduated from university in 1983, the Longueuil native decided to parlay his recently acquired knowledge into a career.
Except it wasn’t the history and political science courses he studied that ignited his entrepreneurial spark, but the skills he picked up as a senior editor at the McGill Daily.
The writing, editing and publishing experience he acquired at the paper led Topp and some university friends to start Open City, considered Montreal’s first alternative weekly.
That experience morphed into a graphic design company Topp founded, possibly the city’s first venture in desktop publishing on Mac computers. And one of his first customers happened to be a publication just starting out. It was called The Senior Times, started 25 years ago by publisher Barbara Moser.
Topp, 51 and a front-runner to succeed Jack Layton as leader of the New Democratic Party, reflected on those groundbreaking days in Montreal publishing history and how he got from there to here, vying to be leader of the opposition.
“Barbara started it from scratch with a small sales team and a group of columnists and writers. Everyone who was working with me at the time could not get over the demonic energy she brought to the launch of that paper. She saw a niche that was going to work, a smart play initially, and she pursued it with tremendous determination.”
The phrase came up again when we concluded our brief conversation with a question on whether Topp, who has never run for public office, really believes he can catapult the NDP into forming a future federal government.
He replied: “By applying some of the demonic energy of a Barbara Moser to this project, I know we can do it because we do it in a growing number of provinces across Canada and if you look around the world—France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy—people are used to social democratic governments. The world is not destroyed by volcanoes when social democrats are elected.”
But enough about Moser, what about Topp?
Serendipity came to play again when Topp’s crew began publishing the Lemon Aid guide for car-buyers for consumer advocate Phil Edmunston. When Edmunston won a byelection in Chambly in 1990, Topp, who had joined the NDP, agreed to work for him as legislative assistant. He moved to Ottawa and after a year and a half transferred to then NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin’s office.
When the NDP lost seats and its parliamentary status in 1993, Topp was out of work. The national party’s communications director, who was Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow’s chief of staff, offered him a job as director of research there.
As part of his job, Topp claims some of the credit for negotiating a deal with the provincial Liberals to form a coalition after the NDP was reduced to a minority in the 1999 election.
When Romanow retired from politics, Topp moved back to Eastern Canada, working for the Credit Union Central of Canada in Ottawa, then to Toronto as a senior vice-president involved in planning, marketing and legal affairs.
Banking was fun for a while, but Topp says he was more in his element when he later went to work for the 20,000-member Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) at its head office in Toronto, where he is today executive director of the union in Ontario, its largest branch.
His connection with former NDP leader Jack Layton goes back to 2003, when Topp worked on the successful campaign to elect David Miller as mayor of Toronto. “I knew that David was a big admirer of Tommy Douglas and got his daughter, Shirley Douglas, to endorse Miller’s campaign.”
This came to the attention of Layton who, impressed with Topp’s background, got him to “run the campaign war room” in the 2004 federal election.
“We did OK, but I thought we could have done better, and I said so, and Jack said, ‘You think you’re so good, you run the next campaign’.”
Topp became national campaign director in 2006, and again in 2008, and in 2011 he co-chaired the platform committee and acted as debate co-ordinator, where Layton was impressive in English and French live TV faceoffs with the other party leaders.
When Layton died of cancer, Topp, the national party president, says he was asked by a number of leading party activists to throw his hat into the ring. These included former leader Ed Broadbent, the closest thing to an éminence grise in the NDP, who in his backyard in Ottawa told Topp: “If you run, I’ll support you.”
Topp said yes and was the first to announce his candidacy, and has since garnered Romanow’s support, another NDP elder statesman. With the NDP forming the official opposition for the first time, Topp says he could not turn down the opportunity to carry on Jack Layton’s work.
To win the leadership and the support of more Canadians at the next general election, Topp plans to focus more sharply on the theme of equality, “how the country has drifted more and more into greater inequality.”
Figures compiled by Human Resources Canada show that the difference in income between the top 20-per-cent income group and the bottom 20 per cent rose by 37 per cent from 1976 to 2007. It rose sharply in 1995 from $82,100 to $112,800 in 2007. The difference between the average income of the top 20 per cent and the middle 60 per cent increased to $77,900 from $54,067 over the period.
The Conference Board of Canada says Canada ranks 15th of 17 developed countries in poverty, mainly because of alarming levels of poverty among children, which rose to 15.1 per cent in the mid-2000s from 12.8 per cent a decade earlier. Only Japan and the U.S. are worse off.
“I want to try to move the country toward a more equal society, where there is less of an income gap, less child poverty,” Topp says.
And he trumpets his experience in getting the message across and participating in running a government, as he did in Saskatchewan.
“I know what it’s like to run a national campaign, I did that for nine years, and I saw what Jack did.”
“Unlike any of the other likely candidates, I’ve actually worked in a successful NDP government. (Thomas Mulcair was Quebec environment minister from 2003-06, but in a Liberal government.)
Topp says he’s satisfied that organized labour for the coming leadership convention will no longer be guaranteed 25 per cent of the delegates, but is adamant that the special relationship with the union movement should continue.
He is in favour of co-operating with the Liberal Party—he claims credit for negotiating the co-operation deal between the NDP and the Liberal that kept the Romanow government in power. But he is firmly opposed to any formal merger with the Grits.
On the question of the UN General Assembly recognizing a Palestinian state, Topp says he believes Canada should vote in favour unless the resolution is “grossly inappropriate” and as long as it is based on mutual recognition. Of course, the devil is in the details, such as boundaries and refugees, which we did not have time to discuss, but Topp’s preference is for Canada to work to bring the two sides together.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” he remarked.
Topp was diagnosed with prostate cancer a little over a year ago, and he says he was fortunate that it was caught “very early” and has a 95-per-cent chance for a positive outcome.
Layton died of an unrelated cancer, and Topp states that he is fine, and urges men to get the blood test that indicates whether they have prostate cancer “so it can be caught early and you can be cured.”
Having grown up in a household with a francophone mother and anglophone father, and attending French elementary school, Topp has the command of both languages, which will enable him to communicate well with all Canadians. Even in a suit and tie, he has the look of the guy next door. He is married to Rebecca Elbourne and they have two sons, Simon, 16, and Alex, 14, and an orange cat named Tigger.
Topp sums it all up with his conviction he can build on the NDP’s 103 seats and provide a government that “cares about equality instead of doing everything it can to create greater inequality.”