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Jagmeet Singh: ‘People Need Me, and I’m Going to Deliver’

The NDP leader is set for a critical byelection fight in Burnaby. What’s his plan? A Tyee Q&A.

By Christopher Guly 15 Jan 2019 |

Christopher Guly is a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery, the Canadian correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and a frequent contributor to the Ottawa Citizen.

Of the three federal byelections Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last week, national attention will be focused on Burnaby South.

That’s where federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is making what many commentators call a do-or-die bid for a House of Commons seat — one that could determine whether the New Democrats seek a new leader before the October federal election.

The NDP’s Kennedy Stewart represented the riding before jumping into municipal politics and winning the race to become Vancouver’s 40th mayor last fall.

Singh, the 40-year-old, Toronto-born son of Punjabi parents, made Canadian history on Oct. 1, 2017 when he won the NDP leadership and became the first non-white leader of a major Canadian political party.

A former criminal defense lawyer, he also was the first turban-wearing Sikh to sit in the Ontario legislature after twice winning and served as the Ontario NDP’s deputy leader.

But since his decisive leadership win, Singh has been plagued with terrible poll numbers and some public controversies, including his recent suggestion that previous NDP leader Tom Mulcair had left the party in shambles after his tenure — statements Mulcair and other party supporters directly challenged.

Singh tried to become a Member of Parliament in 2011, running in a suburban Toronto riding. He was narrowly defeated by Conservative Bal Gosal.

Now, Singh — a sartorial star of GQ magazine — hopes to be the right fit on the West Coast in Burnaby South, where he faces Liberal candidate Karen Wang and Conservative challenger Jay Shin in a tight three-way contest.

Singh spoke to Christopher Guly during a break from the campaign trail. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Christopher Guly: You officially opened your campaign office on Sunday, but you have already been out there door-knocking.

Jagmeet Singh: Every day.

How’s it going?

There are some politicians that like [certain aspects of their work] more than others — like community events or office work. One thing I literally love is knocking on doors — it’s such a cool way to meet people, understand how they live a bit. You get a little glimpse of who they are. It’s a little snapshot into the lives of people. Sometimes folks invite you in a way that you can learn so much about what they’re going through. I’m really honoured by the opportunity.

What’s your door-knocking goal?

To meet everyone I can — as many people as humanly possible, and even beyond — to understand what they’re going through and then be able to represent them the best that I can.

You have a bit of time between now and the election on Feb. 25.

I’ve had shorter campaigns before, and we covered a lot of ground. But I’ve been knocking on doors for months now. It’s helped.

Right. You announced last August that you would run in a byelection in Burnaby South.

Since I announced, I’ve spent a lot of time in Burnaby.

Were you familiar with the riding prior to announcing your bid?

Two years ago, when I was a leadership candidate, I spent a lot of time with NDP members in Burnaby. Kennedy Stewart was one of the folks who endorsed me, so I came out here because of his endorsement and to make sure that I could connect with the membership. I had an immediate affinity for the area.

But you’ve never lived in B.C.

No, I lived in Newfoundland and Labrador for six, seven years when I was a kid. Then I lived across Ontario — Windsor, London, Mississauga and then Toronto. But right after I got married [to 28-year-old fashion designer Gurkiran Kaur last February], the first tour I did as leader with my wife was on Vancouver Island. I had already fallen in love with B.C. I had an amazing trip when I was a student [at Osgoode Hall Law School in 2003]. I was here for 24 hours and spent a jam-packed day in the Lower Mainland.

When I came out here with my wife right after being married, she fell in love with B.C. and joked with me, “Wouldn’t it be cool if one day we could live in B.C.,” and I joked back, “Yeah, maybe when we’re retired,” and we kind of laughed it off. But lo and behold, we have a place here and my wife’s now putting her touches on it. I thought I had settled it in nicely, but she took a look at it and said, “No, we’ve got to re-do a lot of this,” so she’s been rearranging and reorganizing, and getting the place looking nice.

You found an apartment? Whereabouts in the riding?

The first floor of a house. Gilley Avenue and Imperials Street would be the major intersection.

Has Kennedy Stewart been out campaigning for you?

He has not. We’ve got a good relationship and we’ve been tight. I was supportive of him throughout the mayoral campaign, and I consider him a friend. We’re working on scheduling.

Before Stewart decided to leave Parliament and seek the Vancouver mayor’s job, it looked like you wouldn’t run for a House of Commons seat until the federal election this October.

I was initially going to wait. But a couple of things happened. Right after Kennedy’s announcement, a lot of folks reached out to me saying, “Hey, we want you to run here. It’s a great opportunity.” And then the other thing that really sunk in was that a lot of things happened over my first year as leader. I continually saw that the Liberals weren’t doing what people needed. They weren’t actually helping folks.

In the fall economic statement, we saw the wealthy and well-connected clamour for relief and the government delivered $14 billion of corporate tax giveaways. But around that same time period, people were asking for relief because they feel their lives are becoming more expensive and more difficult. Folks wanted help with the cost of medication, and the government was nowhere to be seen on things that matter to people. It just seemed to me that more and more, on action on climate change, we’re seeing [a] government that committed and promised a bold campaign and platform, but [whose] actions have been, at best, timid.

I think about knocking on doors in Burnaby and this couple I met, who had a beautiful baby. I asked them what they were concerned about, and they immediately said the environment. I then tried to read between the lines and assumed it was because of their daughter, their baby.

They said that they wanted to have a future for her to grow up in. They said, “We’re actually worried about next summer and whether our baby will be able to breathe the air because of the past two years the forest fires have been so intense and climate change has contributed to the longer duration and more intensity of these fires.”

This drove home to me that the Liberals are not delivering what people need, and that’s why I took this as an opportunity for me to be able to force the government to do what people need — on climate change, on the housing crisis, on affordability. I felt that this is the time to be able to be able to force the government.

By having a seat in the House of Commons.

That’s it. I’ve been putting pressure on the government as leader. But I felt that we needed to ramp up that pressure; that the government was not listening to people.

On the housing crisis, I met one couple who are feeling sandwiched. They have elder parents living with them and their kids who are grown up professionals and who aren’t able to find a place to live on their own. [The woman] called up her daughter, who is living in the basement and is a teacher and has a great job and she said to me: “I just can’t ever imagine buying a place of my own.”

So hearing their story and that the Liberals’ response to the housing crisis was to wait until after the next federal election, I decided that I needed to take on Ottawa, take on Trudeau in the House to get the solutions that people need. We need investments in housing, we need to end speculation, we need cooperative housing in non-market housing — and being in the House is going to be a way for me to put pressure on [the government].

Do you feel you have been at a disadvantage not having a seat in the Commons?

No, not at all. I made a commitment at the beginning of my tenure as leader to get to know the country and Canadians across this beautiful land and understand their concerns. And now I want to take that experience and bring it to Ottawa and to the House of Commons and take on this government and Prime Minister Trudeau and say, “Listen, we can do a lot better.”

The Green Party is not running a candidate against you in Burnaby South. But the Liberals and Conservatives are. What do you make of that? Traditionally, the leader of a major political party is offered the courtesy of almost running unopposed to secure a seat in the House.

I’m not worried about that personally. I’m more than happy to campaign hard and win the respect of constituents. I think about how hard it is for people and the fact that they’re not getting a break. I don’t need a break. I’m in this to make sure that people feel that there’s someone in their corner.

For the past while, they were promised the government was in their corner. But if you ask people if they feel their lives are better, most people tell me no, they haven’t improved. And they’ve seen at the same time this government not only continue subsidies to the fossil-fuel sector, but expand them, instead investing in people and helping them achieve what they want in their lives and instead of investing in the green economy. So there’s just too much at stake here. I’m not worried about whether I get a leader’s courtesy. I’m worried about fighting hard for people who deserve a lot better.

Do you have a relationship with the other federal leaders?

We see each other at events and have an amicable relationship. But nothing too much beyond that.

Kennedy Stewart won Burnaby South in 2015 by just 547 votes over Liberal candidate Adam Pankratz. Do you see your campaign as an uphill battle?

I look at everything as an uphill battle. But I look at what people have to choose between. They’ve got a Liberal Party that has told them again and again to wait, but that essentially they’re not a priority.

Conservatives aren’t going to get up in the House and say there’s a housing crisis and we need immediate relief for people, or hear them say we need to invest in renewable energy and the green economy. You’re not going to hear a Liberal backbencher take on Trudeau and [on his proposal] to study the cost of drug prices instead of implementing drug coverage for all.

People are counting on me. More important than [my] uphill battle: people are facing an uphill battle. They’re counting on someone to be in their corner. The Liberal leader is not in people’s corner. The Conservatives are not in people’s corner. I want to be a fighter for people in their corner. People need me, and I’m going to deliver. I’m confident we’ll win if we do the hard work, and I’m prepared to do it.

The fighter imagery reminds me of our chat in late 2017 for The Telegraph when you joked that you could take Trudeau on in the political arena or on a wrestling mat. But polls show the race is tight in Burnaby South. What happens if you don’t win?

The people have too much to lose, and they have an opportunity now to send a message that what they’ve received so far is not good enough. [Liberal] promises that were made [in 2015] have not been delivered. We need to win because people need us to win. People need us to be in their corner, and I’m looking forward to being their strong voice.

I’m looking at this as an opportunity for people to voice their frustrations and sense of betrayal and feeling they’re not being made a priority. I want to channel that energy and bring it to Ottawa and take on the government. I’m not giving up. I’m going to work really hard. I’m confident we will win if we work hard.

If you win, could this pave the way for the NDP to win more seats in B.C. in the federal election?

There’s lots of opportunity for growth here. There are a lot of folks who feel let down.

Is the NDP looking at making significant gains in the federal election?

We’re looking to grow the party. We’re looking to grow our movement. We’ve got a lot of excited folks that are coming forward; candidates are getting nominated. B.C. is a massive priority for us.

Jagmeet, I wish you well. But if you don’t win, will you resign as leader?

I’ve said before that I’m not worried about my own political future. I’m worried about the future of this country. So I’ll be leading our party into the 2019 election, and I’m confident that we’ll win this election with the support of people and if we work hard.

Your party is experiencing low polling numbers across the country. To what do you attribute that?

My political future or the party’s future and polling have never really been my focus. My focus again is on how to tap into the frustrations people are feeling and provide solutions to those frustrations. When that family talks about climate change being their biggest concern and their fear for their daughter, I want them to know that New Democrats will be in their corner to fight for a cleaner environment for their daughter.

When I hear the family that’s worried about their kid being able to find a place to call home, I want folks to know that I get that. I get the squeeze that people are going through. I remember going through tough times myself. When I was growing up, I went through some difficulties where my family went through a lot of financial hardship and times were really tough. We got through those tough times because we got support from people around us, and I want to build a country where we support each other.

As we get closer to the general election, I’m confident that people will see what we have to offer and we’ll be able to show the alternative that folks want — a better Canada where we lift each other up. I am that option as leader and New Democrats are that option.

Should you become an MP, do you see yourself having the opportunity to serve as a broker between the NDP in B.C. and Alberta?

I see myself as a broker for people, and acknowledge that both the BC NDP and the Alberta NDP in Alberta are fighting hard for their constituents and communities. I always want to find a way to work together and bring people together. That’s something that I’ve done in my career, and I would love to be able to do. But I’m going to be a strong voice for what people need, and I want them to feel like they know that they’ve got someone who is going to fight for them.

I recently wrote a series on newcomers for the Ottawa Citizen, much of it focused on Syrian refugees who’ve settled in the capital. One thing that struck me was the amount of bigotry and intolerance many of them face. Have you noticed or felt that too at the federal level or while campaigning in Burnaby South?

I’ve grown up with it and I’ve lived with it. A lot of people have been made to feel that they don’t belong for many different reasons — whether it’s because of the colour of their skin, their ethnicity, where they’ve come from in the world, the language that they speak, their socioeconomic status, or their sexual identity. I want those folks to feel like they belong in Canada. Everyone belongs here; everyone should be celebrated. We’re really all in this together. The struggles are because of a lack of social programs. When we come together and build a more equitable society, all of us succeed.

You got into the martial arts, including submission grappling, because of racial taunts you faced.

I got into it to defend myself and my family and my friends.

Do you feel you’ve gotten a fair shake from the media?

Journalists have to do their jobs and ask questions, and I have to do my best to answer them.  [Tyee]

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