A week ago, Jagmeet Singh’s leadership of the NDP was hanging in the balance.
If the 40-year old former Ontario legislator failed to win the Burnaby South by-election on 25 February, he faced being ignominiously sacked by his own federal caucus in Ottawa.
But on Monday night, Singh did win the race in Burnaby—and he won it with ease, taking 39 per cent of the vote, 13 points clear of his nearest rival, the veteran BC Liberal Richard T. Lee, and 17 points clear of Conservative candidate Jay Shin.
Sing celebrated the victory with an impassioned speech that seemed to mark a shift in both the tone and substance of his 18-month tenure at the helm of Canada’s third largest party.
“Conservatives and Liberals have rigged the system [so] that [it] works for the powerful, the wealthy, and the well-connected, not for everyday Canadians,” he told a crowd of NDP supporters at the Burnaby Hilton Hotel shortly after the results had been announced.
“It doesn’t have to be this way. We can fix it, and we will fix it.”
Since being elected NDP leader in October 2017, Singh has often looked adrift in Canadian national politics.
He’s faltered in front of the media, wavered over key policies, and sometimes struggled to differentiate himself at the federal level from Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
But after Burnaby, that uncertainty has largely dissipated.
Leftwing activists, in particular, are buoyed by what they see as Singh’s increasingly strident—even “populist”—turn.
“I think the NDP is zeroing in on some issues that are pretty universal, namely the cost of living and the growing sense that the economy is set up in a way that is fundamentally unfair,” Kai Nagata, the communications director for Dogwood, a progressive, BC-based campaign organization, told VICE.
“The Liberals came to power four years ago promising ‘real change’, but have mostly tinkered around the edges,” Nagata, who was at Singh’s rally on Monday, said.
“So I would expect to see more of that kind of left-populist, Tommy Douglas rhetoric [from Singh], along with policies that echo the program of politicians in the US like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
This is probably a smart assumption.
During the by-election, Singh focused relentlessly on a few core themes—the crisis of affordability in Canada’s housing market, opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline development, and problems within the healthcare system—in order to amplify public frustration with Trudeau.
According to one senior NDP figure, these issues—which are symbolic of the prime minister’s burgeoning unpopularity—will be central to the party’s strategy ahead of the federal vote in October.
“In Burnaby, we were absolutely talking to voters about what we intend to talk to them about in the general election,” strategist Marie Della Mattia—who, alongside Quebec MP Alexandre Boulerice, will co-chair the NDP’s 2019 campaign—said in an interview with VICE on Wednesday.
“When people voted for Trudeau, they thought they were going to get action on the state of healthcare, on climate and the environment, and on proportional representation, but they didn’t get any of those things.
“We’ve been hearing that more and more, not just in Burnaby or British Columbia, but across the country.”
Della Mattia added that the NDP plans to launch a number of its flagship policies—notably, on expanded Pharmacare coverage, the green economy, and the affordability of post-secondary education—well in advance of the federal election, with the aim of framing a “deeper conversation” about “where the real pain points lie” for Canadians.
“We’re in that period now where we’re talking about the struggles that young voters and millennials, in particular, are facing, because so many of the things we’ve counted on to build a good life over the years have been stripped away by successive Conservative and Liberal governments,” she said.
“We’re not waiting until the campaign to lay it out for voters.”
To the extent that it reinforces the party’s attacks on Trudeau as an elite politician out of touch with the challenges faced by “everyday Canadians”, the intensifying scandal surrounding SNC-Lavalin will also be crucial to the NDP’s messaging in the coming months.
Unlike Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, Singh hasn’t yet called on the prime minister to resign over claims he pressured former Liberal justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to interfere in the prosecution of the Montreal-based engineering and construction firm.
Instead, he wants a public inquiry into the matter.
Still, the NDP views the controversy as indicative of Trudeau’s willingness to bend the rules for his friends in the corporate sector—and of the gulf that exists between his initially pristine political image and his current, less-than-pristine conduct in power.
“I think [SNC-Lavalin] is a case in point,” Vancouver East NDP MP Jenny Kwan told VICE on Wednesday, not long after Wilson-Raybould’s dramatic four-hour testimony in front of the House of Commons justice committee had wrapped up.
“It raises a whole lot of questions about Trudeau and the political issue of obstruction of justice.
“Trudeau talked about ‘sunny ways.’ He talked about being a feminist. He talked about openness and accountability. He said, you know, sunlight was the best disinfectant. But since coming into office, he’s failed Canadians on so many promises.”
It may not be a coincidence that Singh’s political fortunes have improved so radically—and Trudeau’s plummeted—in such a short amount of time.
Rick Smith, who worked as chief of staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton and is now executive director of the left-leaning Broad Institute in Toronto, thinks Canada is going through a period of profound political turbulence at the moment.
“There’s an unprecedented amount of volatility in politics today,” Smith told VICE recently.
“Take the last Alberta election—nobody gave Rachel Notley a chance of winning, but look at what happened. And if [Maxime Bernier’s] People’s Party (PPC) hits 5 per cent plus across the country, the Conservatives are toast this year—they are toast.”
Even before SNC-Lavalin, Singh’s by-election victory, and the emergence of the PPC as a serious electoral force (the party’s candidate, Laura-Lynn Thomson, took a full 10 per cent of the vote in Burnaby), observers were warning that 2019 might produce some explosive political surprises.
“It’s not even really under the surface,” Gerald Baier, an associate professor of political science at UBC, told VICE in January.
“We’ve got NDP governments in Alberta and BC, and then you’ve got [Ontario premier] Doug Ford and [Alberta United Conservative leader] Jason Kenney being very outspoken at the federal level.
“So I think it’s pretty clear that we have volatility, because multiple jurisdictions illustrate that reasonably well. There’s been some polarization on an ideological basis.”
With speculation about his leadership settled, at least for now, and the NDP unified ahead of the Fall election, Singh looks well placed to capitalize on that volatility—even if there’s still a massive amount of ground to cover before the polls open in October.
“I know it’s been a long slog, but I hope you have more left in the tank,” Singh told party activists and supporters in his Burnaby victory speech at the start of the week.
“We have eight more months to let the people know they can choose a government that stands up for people and not corporations … I need you to be a part of this.”