House people, attack billionaires, dance, fight racism. Repeat.
When aging McGill debate club bro Justin Trudeau first busted out the baggy pants and Bhangra moves, a certain segment of Canadian progressives got pretty excited. Like Trudeau’s speech at the Paris climate summit, or his gender-balanced cabinet, it seemed like an encouraging sign of wokeness.
But when Jagmeet Singh jumped off a chair and danced into a cheering crowd of supporters in Burnaby Monday night, the difference was clear. “Jagmeet actually has rhythm,” one young volunteer remarked. His policies may be better timed for the current moment, too. We’ll get to that.
After a by-election campaign dominated by a media narrative about how much he sucked and the NDP sucked, in the end it wasn’t very close. Singh finished 13 points ahead of his closest rival, Liberal Richard T. Lee.
Then, after cautiously stumbling through media interviews for months, 40-year-old Jagmeet Singh took the stage and gave a victory speech that staff and reporters agreed was the best of his career. “When I was growing up, I could have never imagined someone like me running to be Prime Minister,” Singh said to cheers.
“Well, guess what. We just told a lot of kids out there that yes, you can.”
Part of the appeal for the young, diverse crowd was certainly linked to Singh’s identity. As a politician who wears unmissable symbols of his Sikh culture and religion — and raps along to dhol-inflected Drake and Post Malone — Singh is simply unlike any federal party leader who has come before him. But more important is what he says and does.
Housing, oil expansion key local issues
As a new renter in South Burnaby, Singh wisely spent much of his campaign talking about the top concern in the Lower Mainland. He focused on the need for non-market housing, including co-ops and cohousing — not just condos defined as “affordable” by developers. Singh could add some teeth to his housing plan by joining the call for a public inquiry into money laundering in the real estate market, but perhaps he’s saving that for another day.
Burnaby is also ground zero for the Trans Mountain pipeline and oil tanker proposal. Singh was a vehement critic of the Liberal government’s decision to buy the old pipeline from Texas company Kinder Morgan with $4.4 billion in public money. He remains opposed to Ottawa’s plan to spend billions more building an expansion.
Dogwood has more than 3,000 supporters in Burnaby South opposed to the Trans Mountain oil patch bailout. Volunteers canvassed for weeks with a “No More Tax $$$ to Big Oil” petition, then called and texted everyone to get them to the polls. With low by-election turnout and no Green candidate, Singh benefited from the same motivated anti-Kinder Morgan vote that helped his predecessor, Kennedy Stewart.
Crony capitalism, corporate corruption
As important as housing and climate are to any left-wing platform in 2019, the turning point in the by-election was the SNC-Lavalin scandal. That’s when Singh, a former lawyer in Ontario, finally hit his stride. He wove it into his campaign — and his victory speech — to tell a broader story about growing inequality, corruption and lack of political accountability.
Instead of solving problems for everyday people, Singh charged, the Prime Minister is solving problems for the wealthy and powerful.
“He’s helping his well-connected corporate friends at SNC-Lavalin try to get off the hook. He continues to subsidize, with billions and billions of our dollars, oil and gas. He’s putting pharmaceutical industry profits ahead of everyday Canadians who are struggling with the rising cost of medication. People should be angry at that,” Singh said, using a word he hasn’t used often.
“People should be angry at governments at Ottawa that continue to develop a system that puts more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands.”
Railing against predatory corporations and consecutive Liberal and Conservative governments that he said have rigged the system in their favour, Singh sounded almost like a prairie populist. Tommy Douglas in a turban. “The people at the top, and the wealthiest corporations, have had it way too good for way too long,” he said. “You need someone on your side for once.”
Eleven per cent for the People’s Party
Perhaps the most interesting turn in Singh’s speech was his oblique acknowledgement of Laura Lynn Tyler Thompson, the fiery, far-right People’s Party candidate who chewed a chunk off the Conservative Party’s 2015 vote. The two clashed repeatedly in debates, especially over immigration.
Thompson’s campaign zeroed in on the murder of Marrisa Shen, a 13-year old girl whose body was found in a local park in 2017. The accused killer, a young man from Syria, arrived in Canada as a refugee just months earlier. Thompson, like fellow far-right provocateur Faith Goldy, used Shen’s death to call for tighter restrictions on refugees.
The People’s Party has also aligned itself with the United We Roll convoy and Yellow Vest protestors. Together they deny human-caused climate change, demand more pipelines and spread conspiracy theories about “globalists” attacking Canadian sovereignty with “open borders” and mass migration.
Some of Thompson’s supporters appeared unhinged, screaming at debates about terrorists, carbon taxes and the United Nations. But Monday night, Singh expressed empathy for their fears and economic anxieties, which he linked back to a broken system that has eroded people’s material security and their ability to imagine a happy future.
“Now some people are going to use that fear, and that uncertainty, to blame not the ones that are responsible, but to point at your neighbours.”
Rather than preaching conversion therapy for racists or banishment to an ice floe, Singh returned to his theme of lifting all boats — by lifting up those struggling, while attacking concentrated political and economic power. Then there was dancing. Lots of dancing. Even the journalists couldn’t resist.
Eight months to go
Each of the federal parties face unique challenges as the general election draws closer. Although they took back former NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s seat in Outremont Monday night, it’s far from smooth sailing for the Liberals.
It must be said: they badly wanted the seat in Burnaby South. Rather than extending Singh the traditional “leader’s courtesy,” or throwing in the towel after their first candidate flamed out, the Liberals fought hard. They ran a four-term Burnaby MLA, flew in high-level party staff to run the campaign, sent Trudeau to the riding for two full days, and a dozen MPs and ministers too.
None of it worked. With Justin Trudeau plastered all over his campaign material, Richard T. Lee dropped eight points from 2015. If the Liberals lose a dozen seats Canada-wide in October, their majority is toast.
The Conservatives would like to capitalize off the rot emanating from Liberal headquarters, but they have a bland leader — and a bona fide insurgency on their right flank. Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada didn’t exist six months ago. It now has 338 riding associations and close to a million bucks in donations. If they find more candidates like Laura Lynn Tyler Thompson, the party could be a real threat. But they, too, face internal contradictions.
Bernier is a wonky Libertarian who gets excited about privatizing Canada Post and fighting the “maple syrup cartel”. Social conservatives like Tyler Thompson have used the PPC as a vehicle to advance their grievances, but on things like drug policy, they are completely at odds. We’ll see how long the whole thing hangs together.
The Greens have had the same leader since 2006 and still hold only one seat in the House of Commons. To increase their legislative clout and find a successor to Elizabeth May, they will need to find ridings where they can concentrate their funds and firepower. After stepping aside for Jagmeet Singh in Burnaby South, May could be in a position to negotiate.
Finally, the NDP. With Singh leading the party into the election, he’ll want to put his stamp on a fresh platform with more specific policies. The natural place to look for inspiration is social movements and the left-wing politicians that have championed their ideas, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But to be honest, Rachel Notley will have to lose Alberta before the federal NDP feels comfortable unveiling its own Green New Deal.
In the meantime, it will take a while to see if the NDP’s fundraising, candidate recruitment or polling numbers improve with Jagmeet Singh in the House of Commons. He would be wise not to stray too far from what worked in his new home of Burnaby South. There are lots more working-class communities across Canada in need of a warrior.