Tom Mulcair loves to show visitors around his elegant panelled office. He points out the old oak floor planks explaining they are “supposed to be a metaphor for the ship of state.”

The office was used by only one prime minister, Mackenzie King. The rest of the time, leaders of the official opposition used it to plot how to get to that other office, a floor below, belonging to the prime minister.

When Parliament is sitting, Mulcair’s aides join him in his office every day after lunch to plan their questions for the government.

Mulcair has been an elected politician for more than 30 years, first in Quebec and now in Ottawa. That experience is put to good use as he works through the right lines for his daily attack on the Conservative government of Stephen Harper during Question Period.

Being in the room during the session is a lesson in political gamesmanship. What will work today?

Principal secretary Karl Belanger’s advice is simple: “We’ll stick to our basic messaging about the economy.”

Mulcair and secretary

Mulcair is quick to agree so the discussion turns to the best tactics to use. The punch line comes easily for Mulcair. He stands up.

“Where is the plan for the middle class? Where is the budget” he intones, practising his lines in front of his team.

His executive and media assistant George Smith likes it. “We’ve got to stand up for the middle class.”

But Belanger wants to be sure the line is delivered with more gusto. He waves his arms as he hones the line. “We have a plan they have no budget! Just make it tighter.”

They work to weave in a story Mulcair remembers from a recent visit to Sudbury. A woman was disappointed that things “are actually getting worse.”

Belanger likes that human touch.


The question is practiced a couple more times and as the meeting breaks up, Mulcair predicts “it will be a set to” saying Prime Minister Stephen Harper “is going to be throwing white phosphorus back against us.”

Mulcair needs one last thing to prepare for the coming exchange.

Alone in his office, he rams a coffee puck into the espresso machine by the window and gets a final hit of caffeine before walking down the stairs and into the House of Commons to take on the Prime Minister.

Minutes later, the well-rehearsed question rolls off Mulcair’s tongue, only this time it has more edge and more heat.

The prime minister’s answer comes as no surprise to Mulcair or his aides. There is no mention of a budget or a plan; instead Harper counter-attacks about the NDP’s voting record on small business tax rates.

Mulcair’s performance in Question Period has earned him some very good reviews. One that got a lot of attention was from a former leader of the opposition and prime minister, Brian Mulroney.

Mulcair notes

In an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play, Mulroney praised Mulcair as “the best opposition leader since John Diefenbaker” while adding “I’ve known them all and seen them all.”

All of that is nice on a resume but most voters simply don’t pay attention to what happens on

Parliament Hill. And many of Canadians don’t feel they know the man behind the beard, Tom Mulcair.

His wife, Catherine Pinhas, has done few interviews. Before we talk to her, she worries about what she will say.

But then she opens up and her answers are revealing about her husband. She notes that the man she’s been married to for almost four decades is shy, but adds “he’s the kindest man you’ve ever met.”

Mulcair and his wife

When asked about Mulcair’s reputation for having a quick temper, she doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Thank god,” she says, noting that issues arise that Mulcair needs to take on. “There are things that happen that somebody has to be mad and say it and change it.”

Mulcair gives a more politically correct answer when asked if he has a short fuse. “I do have what we lovingly refer to in the family as a good Irish temper.”

He goes on to say politics is a tough game, adding, “When you’re facing a tough adversary like Stephen Harper you can’t be a pushover.”

Mulcair is more dismissive of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, his other opponent in the coming election.

“I sometimes feel like a well-read National Geographic running against the cover of Vanity Fair.”

He goes on with a dig. “(My) priority is to get rid of Stephen Harper. Justin Trudeau’s priority is Justin Trudeau.”

Mulcair and Lloyd Robertson

On occasion, Mulcair does give politics a rest and he does it best with his family.

Tom Mulcair and Catherine Pinhas make sure that there is time carved out of a busy schedule to keep them grounded.

They have two sons and two grandchildren. Their get-togethers are often north of Montreal at the family cottage in the Laurentians, north of Montreal.

On a very cold Saturday afternoon in February they all meet at their favourite spot to snow shoe.

Mulcair snow shoeing

Granddad was out in the morning to tamp down a path for the family. Juliette, not yet six, is on her snow shoes, but her little brother, Raphael, is tucked in on a sled.

For an hour the family enjoys a winter afternoon that includes a stop by a snow-covered marsh for hot chocolate and cookies.

His son, Mathew, is a police sergeant based in the area and says the family is prepared for a year of political campaigning.

His other son Gregory, a physics teacher in Montreal, is less enthusiastic about what politics means for the family. He says his dad “is in a field that is just a bit more in the public eye.”

Catherine and Tom Mulcair have been married for almost 40 years. Their relationship is a close one.

On the road Mulcair says after a long day his “first reflex it to pick up the phone and call Catherine.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to pull back,” he says, “so talking to Catherine helps to give me perspective.”

Catherine, a practising psychologist, clearly values those calls.

“Most of the time I will listen and we’ll share the day when we’re not together.” She then adds “We’re honest with each other and we approach what is difficult together and find strength together.”

Both know that the coming months will be full of challenges. Catherine calls it an adventure and says they will take it all “one day at a time and do the best we can.”

Her husband tells audiences it’s “game on” to win the election and he’s waiting for the real campaign to begin.

“I’m really looking forward to it. So is the whole family actually. We’re pretty excited.”

Travel back through time to see photos of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair over the years, with many never-before seen by the public exclusive family photos.

Mulcair outdoors