Gary Robichaud, leader of the New Democratic Party.
The 41-year-old high school teacher was bogged down by the Beatles - he has every recording on CD, cassette and vinyl - and by his Elvis Costello collection. But by the end of the fall election, it’s almost certain he’ll have dragged his weary campaign workers from Peter Gabriel to Robert Palmer.
Robichaud’s party also needs to make some headway. The NDP is last in the popular vote and doesn’t have a single MLA or the funding that member could bring. But Robichaud says even small victories for the party this time around would be music to his ears.
So if pundits were picking a tune for his first election as party leader it would likely be The Rising by Bruce Springsteen. There's nowhere to go but up.
"You who are on the road
Gary Robichaud was born in Saint John, N.B., in September 1962. Three years later his family moved to St. Raphael in western Prince Edward Island. His father is French and his mother English. Gary and his siblings grew up bilingual, and he is one of a handful of politicians in this race comfortable speaking both languages.
"Growing up in the Evangeline area, I came from a fairly well-to-do family, comparatively speaking to my neighbours," says Robichaud. "My dad had an excellent employment in heavy construction in the Maritimes and we were never wanting for anything."
The family did not depend on the seasonal economy that drives the region to this day. However, from a young age Gary was immersed in a community where people care for each other and share what they have.
"But at the same time my parents, who came from pretty modest backgrounds in their youth, for some reason always instilled the idea of humility and appreciation for the better things in life and that was not just material matters. I think a lot of those ideals kind of spill out."
Growing up, Gary was the "boy in the middle," between the bully and the victim, the school principal and the accused student, his classmates and the teacher. Those experiences, he says, followed him into his professional life and now into politics.
parents always instilled an important sense of social responsibility.
And what attracted me to the party is that we felt a really strong
responsibility to be a voice for people that have no voice, and
that true democracy means that everyone should have an equal say
in the matter of what goes on in government."
"Radio is a sound salvation"
The classroom was not his first choice, something he says many teachers will tell you.
Graduating from the French high school in western P.E.I., Robichaud did not follow his friends to the French language university in Moncton. He moved to Charlottetown, and after 12 years of French school, began an arts degree at the University of Prince Edward Island.
"The first year at UPEI, it was a bit of a struggle taking English lit and all of that. But I was a reasonably good student so it didn’t last very long. But the reason I really ended up at UPEI was student radio and to get rid of the French accent."
At that point in his life, teaching was not even an option. After growing up hosting local talent shows, emceeing events and speaking for his school, Robichaud wanted in to the media.
"In 1980 the radio station there was starting from scratch, and I just got sort of seduced by it and said, 'Well, maybe I'll just stay at UPEI and do my thing there, and afterwards decide what I want to do.'"
During his time at UPEI the would-be DJ spent hours listening to music in the studios and the library. He interviewed all of the bands playing on campus, and before he knew it was graduating with a history degree.
That’s when dreams of on-air stardom were shelved in the name of an education degree, and an honours program.
Now he's heading into his seventeenth year of teaching. He’s currently employed at Three Oakes High School, where he has a reputation for playing his car stereo a bit loud and chastising his students for not listening to better bands.
"You tap into that energy, and you feel that somehow you're making a positive impact. When it works it works extremely well. That's the angle I like, to look at the entire person and try to make them good citizens, to make them care about their province and the environment, I really like that aspect of teaching."
"Do what they say, say what you mean
Robichaud says his entry into the political ring was also accidental. Those ideals instilled in western P.E.I. followed him out west to Manitoba. He was active in politics in that province and dabbled in the arena when he returned to Prince Edward Island in the mid ‘90s.
"I was very new to the party. I joined the party just before the 2000 election. I had helped out in previous years with other parties, and I had been involved off and on. I taught in Manitoba for a number of years and I got involved in the party there."
The social studies and political science books were not enough for him. During the last provincial election Robichaud decided to find out what political life is really like.
"You know it's like saying 'this is what it's like to be a candidate, but I really don’t know because I've never been.' So part of my rationale as a novice candidate in 2000 was almost as part of a professional development for me."
He did well, grabbing 12.5 per cent of the popular vote in the Wilmot-Summerside district. Only three NDP candidates did better as the Tories swept to power with all but one seat. It also convinced Robichaud that he should stick around for another election.
Running for the New Democrats on P.E.I. also gave him plenty of experience to share with his students.
"In a way it was kind of an advantage to be a New Democrat in the sense that it was so incredibly grass roots, where the candidate did everything. I put up my own signs and I worked on my own budget, things that the other candidates didn't have much experience with [because] those things are taken care of. In that sense I had the full experience of being a candidate."
In April 2002 he took the next step, taking over the role of leader when Dr. Herb Dickieson, the country doctor and first NDP candidate ever elected to Province House, decided to get back to medicine and his family.
"Even though I was a fairly new face in the party I thought,
'let's see what I can do.'"
"Great expectations, everybody's watching you
Robichaud faces the task of trying to put the New Democrats back on the political map. Working for, or leading, the party is a lesson in humility. This election is being run on a budget of $75,000 and the federal party will help supply an organizer for the duration of the campaign.
As leader he still has to find his own campaign headquarters, schedule his own time and answer his own phone calls. The home office where he usually marks papers and makes lesson plans has been transformed into the NDP war room.
The lesson plan for this election is not that long. Modest gains and the job of building credibility occupy Robichaud's mind.
"The New Democrats are really new. This is only the third election where we've had full slates. So we've really only been a provincial party since '96, so we're really fledgling. We've been running candidates on and off for 40 years, but even that is young compared to the other parties."
Robichaud says the NDP candidates running in this election campaign will dictate the fortunes of the party. "Our goals are pretty modest. We want to elect a member or two."
The day after this election campaign? Robichaud says it's not realistic to expect We are the Champions to be in his CD player. He says Stevie Wonder's I wish would be the right song.
"Even though we sometimes would not get a thing, we were happy with the joy the day would bring," the song says.
Humble lyrics, along with a couple of NDP MLAs, and a political party coming of age.