Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh was announced as the leader of Canada's New Democratic Party on Sunday afternoon, bringing a months-long leadership race to a close. Singh handily outperformed Charlie Angus and the other contenders with 53.8 per cent of votes overall.
The announcement was made in Toronto following addresses by Quebec MP Alexandre Boulerice, former Toronto MP Olivia Chow, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Stacey LaForme, Chief of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.
‘The membership has spoken’
Many were surprised by the first ballot win for Singh, given that Charlie Angus, a northern Ontario MP, had strong support from labour union leaders and a significant share of the party's traditional base.
Angus finished second but captured only 19.4 per cent of all votes, while Niki Ashton received 17.4 per cent and Guy Caron 9.4 per cent of the 65,782 total votes cast.
"The thing you have to take away from this is that the membership has spoken," Sid Ryan told Ricochet by phone from Westin Harbour Castle where Singh's victory was announced.
"I have to say, hats off to him and his campaign. He organized very well. He understood that the campaign was going to be about who signs up the most new members, not necessarily who can convince the existing base."
Ryan, a former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, has been a long-time member of the Ontario New Democratic Party and mulled a federal leadership bid before endorsing Niki Ashton, whose campaign aimed to reinvigorate the party's left.
Singh is a criminal defence lawyer and served as deputy leader of the Ontario NDP. His entry into the race was marked by significant media interest, including attention to his fashion sense and apparel worn to reflect his Sikh faith, and a social media reach that dwarfed the other candidates. Singh's campaign highlighted issues such as insecure work — in his victory speech, for example, he related his own experience of being his family's sole income earner when his father fell ill.
Over the course of the race, Singh faced criticism from opponents over an initial ambiguity around his stance on oil and gas pipelines; an allegation that the campaign inflated its membership signups; his support for new Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew, who has been accused of domestic violence; and a proposed re-working of Old Age Security that would end eligibility for the affluent. The plan puts him at odds with long-standing NDP policy, which sees universal eligibility for social programs as a key ingredient for long-term legitimacy and support.
Fearing the ‘Third Way’
Singh also gained international attention when he was confronted by a heckler who accused him of being "in bed with sharia [and] the Muslim Brotherhood." Singh is Sikh, not Muslim, and the footage's viral spread brought renewed attention to his faith.
Singh's outwardly observant appearance had long been identified as a potential challenge to success in Quebec, a province instrumental in the NDP's 2011 growth, where debates about the public display of religious symbols have repeatedly flared up. Singh is the first Sikh and first person of colour to lead a major national party in Canada.
Singh's position on Old Age Security may have helped feed a perception among some New Democrats that he represents somewhat of a break from the party's social democratic roots.
"It's my big fear," Ryan admitted, when asked what he thought about the framing of Singh as sympathetic to a more centrist political orientation. "My fear is that if Jagmeet is not as strong on federal policy the vacuum that exists will be filled by people who believe in the ‘Third Way.’ But I don't want to pre-judge him because I can't really tell you where he stands based on his time at Queen's Park. He very well may surprise everybody."
Chris Gosse, a 42-year-old heavy duty technician and NDP member from Flatrock, Newfoundland, echoed that concern.
"I don't have a very positive reaction, to be honest with you. [H]e's more centrist than the other candidates," Gosse told Ricochet, specifically citing Singh's pension proposals.
John-Henry Harter, a history professor and lecturer in labour studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, expressed surprise at the strength of Singh's win and was heartened by the barriers broken by his candidacy.
"I kind of thought it would be more evenly distributed, that's all. So I was surprised. And then my other thought was how historic this is. . . . To have a Sikh, to have a South Asian or, even more broadly, leading a national, mainstream political party, is fucking huge," Harter said.
Harter was skeptical of concerns that Singh would not reflect traditional NDP values.
"So where does Jagmeet fit within the party or even compared to the [other] candidates? One of the accusations against Jagmeet was that he was too liberal, like small 'l' liberal. But I don't buy into that. . . . Jagmeet won't be lying when he says he supports a $15 minimum wage or if he argues for electoral reform."
As Singh develops his profile as leader, it may be some time before he can directly challenge Justin Trudeau in Parliament.
"I think he needs to get into the House of Commons as quickly as possible. I'm kind of cautiously optimistic about his leadership. I'm excited to see what kind of debates he has and what kind of vocal opposition he's going to be," said Thomas MacMillan, a 27-year-old menswear salesman and party member from Kingston, Nova Scotia, who told Ricochet that Singh's ability to connect with voters should not be discounted.
"Not my first choice, but I'm not forlorn. I want to see was he does straight away," said MacMillan. "I think Justin Trudeau has shown that a politician with some amount of charisma is capable of engaging voters in the office in a way that his predecessors in the office haven't. Out of the four candidates, Jagmeet Singh was the only one that had that quality. Policy aside, now that the leadership race is over, he maybe has the capacity to engage a lot of voters on a lot of issues that aren't being represented."