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Singh Takes On MPs in Bid for NDP Leadership

Ontario MPP says social justice focus, organizing strength will overcome campaign challenges.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 16 Aug 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

At a glance there isn’t much happening outside a business centre in Mississauga, Ont., surrounded by industrial buildings and trees as hydro towers hum in the distance.

While the mid-August sun pounds a handful of parked cars the only sound is the roar of aircraft using nearby Pearson International Airport.

But inside one of the business centre’s units, there’s a herd of young people preparing the final push to sign up new NDP members on behalf of party leadership hopeful Jagmeet Singh before Thursday’s deadline. Those who sign up after that date won’t be able to vote in the October leadership contest.

Sporting an unusually informal look — sandals and a casual jacket — Singh, usually seen in tailored suits, floats around the room greeting his young volunteers with hugs.

This is Singh’s headquarters, but the energetic office is just one of many supporting his bid to replace Tom Mulcair.

“We’re the only campaign team that has multiple offices across the country and our two biggest offices are Vancouver and Toronto,” Singh told The Tyee in a quiet room at the front of the building.

The ground game is key to winning the NDP leadership, Singh said, especially since the former Ontario NDP deputy leader is the only one candidate in the race coming from provincial politics.

His opponents, Niki Ashton, Guy Caron and Charlie Angus are all federal Members of Parliament with critic roles.

“I don’t have that federal background,” Singh said. “I think that’s a bit of a barrier, making sure that the federal membership get that I can do this.”

Having to battle for recognition outside Ontario hasn’t deterred Singh. If elected leader he hopes the party can become in tune with grassroots groups concerned about social justice, channelling their concerns into Parliament, he said.

He said a push he began as an Ontario MPP to protect vulnerable workers — often young women, many of colour — from exploitation by temporary work agencies is an example of such ideals in action.Among other changes, Singh proposed making it illegal for agencies to claw back pay employees’ wages as a fee for using the service, which he said can be as much as 40 per cent.

Combined with things like tax reform and a basic income plan for those with disabilities Singh said he’s got a policy bundle that “speaks to the hearts and minds of Canadians.”

Some of those policies have been criticized by opponents, such as his suggestion old age security should be income-tested rather than universal.

During a debate in June fellow candidate Guy Caron said that’s a Conservative idea that would stigmatize impoverished seniors.

In response Singh insisted the plan will simply eliminate benefits for those who don’t need them.

A recent poll from Mainstreet Research has Singh in last place with 8.5 per cent of support compared to front-runner Charlie Angus with 28.2 per cent.

But polls don’t tell the full story, as Singh has raised $357,000 in a single quarter compared to Angus’s $234,000 raised over two quarters, according to Ipolitics.

Many political insiders argue that’s a better indicator of Singh’s potential to win the race, along with his high-profile endorsements across Canada.

Singh credits the ground game for securing support in British Columbia. He said he’s also kept up relationships with New Democrats in the province, including helping out during elections, and it’s paid off.

“Though I’m provincial, I've done a lot of work nationally,” he said. “Because of that I’ve built relationships.”

Federal MPs Jenny Kwan, Kennedy Stewart and Randall Garrison are just some of those who have thrown their support behind Singh. As well, he has gained support from BC New Democrat MLAs like Bruce Ralston and Harry Bains.

But Quebec has become a challenge for Singh. Questions about the impact of racism and a public not willing to vote for a turban-wearing Sikh have been raised by the media and some party members.

After the NDP’s lead in the polls turned into a disappointing finish in the 2015 election, many observers blamed the New Democrats’ opposition to a ban on women wearing a niqab during citizenship ceremonies for its collapse in Quebec.

But Singh said Quebec is no more of a challenge for his campaign than other provinces, particularly outside of more multicultural urban settings.

“When you look different it’s going to be a problem everywhere,” Singh said.“Quebec is no different in this than Ontario or anywhere in the Prairies.”

Overcoming any prejudice it is a matter of values, because Quebeckers care about social justice, Singh said.

That’s where Mulcair’s response to the niqab debate went wrong in the province, he continued.

“That issue sucked up all the attention and he didn’t actually put out values and ideas and policies that would engage people,” Singh said. “He just continued to fight this one issue.”

At the end of the interview a knock at the door reveals a campaign worker holding a freshly pressed, bright white shirt. Singh looks at it and smiles in approval.

Almost instantly he’s swamped by volunteers from the even busier office, with more questions and greetings as he disappears into the crowd.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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