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Jagmeet Singh Lays It on the Line

Tense, and clarifying, times on the Burnaby campaign trail with the NDP leader.

By Geoff Dembicki 20 Feb 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Foreign Policy and the New York Times.

On a recent sunny afternoon, I visited Jagmeet Singh at his campaign headquarters in Burnaby with the hopes of finding out what he and the New Democrat Party he leads stand for. I brought a notebook where I’d written questions sourced from friends and colleagues, many of whom lean politically progressive but aren’t automatic NDP supporters.

Who is responsible for our housing crisis? What federal laws can be put in place to fix it? How does Singh feel about new oilsands pipelines in general and not just Kinder Morgan (which he opposes)?

Has he been paying attention to the Green New Deal, an unapologetically ambitious and progressive approach to climate change being debated in the U.S.?

Is he, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, prepared to go directly after the billionaire class?

“Do you mind if I stand up?” Singh asked. He and I were in a small back office insulated from the buzz of staffers and volunteers leading his campaign into a critical final week. For 15 minutes, I fired away on my questions, and he in turn described a vision for the country more detailed and ambitious than anything I’d heard from him in recent media appearances and byelection events.

In Singh’s opinion the housing crisis now faced in places like Metro Vancouver and Toronto was caused by “consecutive Liberal and Conservative governments” who refused to invest in new affordable housing supply. Singh proposes building 500,000 co-op and non-market units and using the tax system to rein in the speculators who help drive up prices.

On pipelines he wants a new regulatory regime capable of denying projects that compromise Canada’s Paris climate targets, as well as the principles behind the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He supports the idea of large-scale infrastructure investments, similar to those proposed in the Green New Deal framework, rapidly shifting Canada away from fossil fuels and towards 100 per cent renewable energy.

Singh believes it’s fundamentally unjust that less than 90 Canadian families have as much wealth as everyone in Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island combined. He wants to tax the rich more heavily, specifically by ending the capital gains exemptions and getting rid of the CEO stock option, in order to help close the gap.

“My goals,” Singh said in conclusion, “Are to reduce inequality, to tackle climate change and to build a more just and equitable society.

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Jagmeet Singh meets voters in Burnaby. Photo by Joshua Berson.

This Jagmeet Singh felt edgier, more immediate, more formidable even, than the one, for example, on his official website, which I’d visited preparing for our meeting. The website contains rich details about Singh’s background and identity: growing up with immigrant parents, struggling against intolerance, supporting his ill father, proving the doubters wrong and becoming the first Sikh leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party.

But beyond promises like “a fairer, more just Canada where everyone can realize their dreams,” the site offers few specific details about how Singh proposes to solve a housing crisis, counter climate change or bridge vast inequality.

I asked him why, given his answers to my questions, his website lacked much substance about the ideas and policies he supports. “There’s a certain amount that people want to know about me as leader,” he replied. “We’re planning on releasing a lot of our details and our platform well in advance of the [federal] election.”

But that’s assuming Singh wins the Feb. 25 byelection first.

Supporters seeking details

About a week earlier, I’d attended a town hall-style event where people from across the progressive spectrum asked Singh pointed questions about his strategy and goals as NDP leader. The event, which took place at Burnaby’s Firefighters Banquet and Conference Centre, was hosted by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, poverty group ACORN, anti-pipeline campaigners the Dogwood Initiative and other labour and advocacy groups.

The conference hall was packed with familiar faces: former NDP MPs Libby Davies and Svend Robinson, recently elected Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley, former B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Seth Klein. Though all the major candidates in the byelection were invited, Liberal contender Richard T. Lee and the Conservative Jay Shin didn’t show up.

Only Singh was there, flashing smiles, making small talk, shaking hands and taking careful notes in a black notepad each time a succession of opening speakers addressed the crowd. Singh then took a seat at the front of the room and fielded questions. He delivered his answers standing up.

“My question is pretty straightforward,” said Mazdak Gharibnavaz, referencing a recent poll suggesting half of Canadians favour a 70 per cent tax bracket on people earning over $1 million. “Do you support raising taxes on the rich in terms of income taxes and wealth taxes to fund things like affordable housing and delivering [renewable] community power?”

Singh replied that we have to “redistribute in a way that’s more just.” He talked briefly about capital gains tax exemptions and tax havens. “There’s some massive problems with our taxation system that allow this inequality to grow and we’ve got to be serious about tackling that and I’m committed to doing that,” he said.

I caught up with Gharibnavaz and asked what he thought of Singh’s response to his question. “Obviously it’s hard to commit to specific numbers,” he said. “I would like to see more teeth on that kind of answer.” People like Ocasio-Cortez in the U.S. are talking in precise and simple-to-understand language about raising taxes on the rich. “I hope to hear more of that,” he said.

A comparable exchange took place when Gene McGuckin, a retired union member and paperworker who belongs to the Vancouver Ecosocialist Group, asked Singh if he would put forward a climate transition plan comparable to the scale and ambition of the Green New Deal.

“That is very important, there’s no question about it, we need to have a bold plan and that plan has to talk about how we take our country into the future,” Singh replied.

Later, as the room cleared out, I asked McGuckin for his opinion on how Singh handled the question. “Well, he said basically ‘we’re working on it.’ He didn’t say that they’re going to present a plan. He didn’t talk about any of the comprehensive elements that are going to have to be included in that plan,” McGuckin said.

Others also appear to have noticed. “One of the most frequent criticisms of Singh is that he’s evasive — that he avoids staking-out clear positions on controversial subjects,” Jamie Maxwell wrote recently on Vice.

“Fossil fuel extraction is a case in point. Singh might be staunchly opposed to the Trans Mountain development in southern B.C. — and, in particular, to the Liberals’ $4.5-billion bail-out of it — but he supports the equally fraught and environmentally problematic liquefied-natural-gas project in the north of the province,” he wrote.

Tense moment in Burnaby

Several days later I returned to Burnaby to see Singh in action against his byelection opponents. I arrived slightly early to the all-candidates debate being hosted at Maywood Community School by the Burnaby Inter-Agency Council.

Killing time as people filed into the gymnasium, I was surprised to hear a man talking about George Soros and the supposed “Zionist conspiracy” behind groups opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

The man turned out to be a supporter of Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson, a Burnaby candidate running with the People’s Party of Canada, a far-right political organization led by Maxime Bernier in Quebec. Singh and Thompson ended up sitting next to each other during the debate.

SinghAllCandidatesDebate.jpg
A candidates debate hosted at Maywood Community School got heated on the topic of immigration. Photo by Joshua Berson.

The first stretch of the event was fairly uneventful, with Singh making the pitch for more affordable housing, the Conservatives’ Shin arguing that the Liberals squandered taxpayer money buying Trans Mountain and the Liberals’ Lee brandishing his credentials as a businessman and former BC Liberal MLA.

Midway through, when the debate turned to immigration, Thompson began raising alarms about refugees. “The issue is we do need to know who they are, we do need to understand that there are some people who would enter our country who might not share our values,” she said.

Thompson told the story of Marrisa Shen, a Burnaby teenager who police suspect was murdered by a Syrian refugee, failing to mention that 16 Syrian-Canadians have released a statement condemning the crime and pleading for it not to be the basis for a wider refugee backlash.

“Not all refugees would do such a heinous act, but surely we need to know who is coming into our country,” Thompson said.

Singh was up next. “I don’t take any pleasure in saying this... but I’m disgusted by some of the values being espoused,” he said. “We’re talking about refugees, we’re talking about people who are fleeing danger. These are people fleeing death, these are people fleeing serious situations. We need to have a caring heart.”

Someone in the crowd shouted “terrorists,” while the man next to me muttered “murdering our daughters.”

Unfazed, Singh went on, “we can’t allow divisive rhetoric to purposely pit one against the other... our country is built on immigration, we should celebrate that.” Many people in the room applauded. Thompson’s supporters booed.

When the debate was over, I remarked to someone on Singh’s staff that this seemed to be his strongest moment during the debate, the point when he took an unambiguous stand against hate and racism. Later, as I reflected on it, I remembered that Singh has been forced to take these stands his whole life. In Burnaby that night, rather than talk about the policies he stands for, he once again had been obliged to defend his background and identity.

It’s not just hecklers and outright racists who are making Singh overcome questions about an Indo-Canadian’s legitimacy to lead a federal party. “Taken as a whole,” Andray Domise wrote in Maclean’s in 2017 as Singh was running for the NDP leadership, “the response to his campaign from the political class seems to be that Singh should hang back in Brampton until the rest of the country — a country which prides itself on not being as despicably racist as America — has evolved enough to accept him.”

He added that “Canada’s serious thinkers,” practicing a passive-aggressive method of racism, “can’t help but find polite ways to explain why he doesn’t belong.”

Two years later, Singh likely must win this Burnaby South seat in order to lead the NDP into a fall federal election.

Such a victory is within reach but not guaranteed. Nationally, meanwhile, Singh’s polling numbers are low and fundraising isn’t going very well.

Looking to election day

When I visited Singh at his Burnaby headquarters, someone on his staff made a comment about him winning the byelection next Monday, then quickly, and half-jokingly, found some wood to knock on.

A poll conducted in early January by Mainstreet Research suggested that Singh had 38.8 per cent support from decided and leading voters, compared to 26.3 for Liberal Karen Wang (who was replaced by Lee after making comments singling out Singh’s Indian background). Conservative Shin polled at 22 per cent. But the poll also suggested high levels of undecided voters.

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Victory in Burnaby South is within reach for Jagmeet Singh, but far from guaranteed. Photo by Joshua Berson.

“I’ve been an MLA for 16 years,” Lee said when I asked about his entry into the byelection, citing his time as a representative with the BC Liberals, who tend to lean more conservative than the federal Liberals. “So I know the community, I talk about the local issues. The other candidates seem to touch on bigger issues outside this area.”

Lee said Canada needs the Trans Mountain pipeline, a polarizing issue in the riding, “to open up our market to the world so our resources can have the world price.” He explained, “That’s why some of the U.S. groups don’t want us to have the pipeline.”

I pressed him on this final point, an attack that’s commonly made by right-wing voices to undermine the message of environmental groups, including by former Tory natural resources minister Joe Oliver.

“We heard that there are some local organizations funded by the U.S. that are opposing the pipeline,” Lee said. “That’s what we heard.”

Shin is also making support for Trans Mountain part of his pitch to voters. He told me that when he knocks on doors, “by far most people I speak with are for the pipeline. They recognize that it’s good for the economy of Burnaby South, it’s going to create jobs.”

Shin added, however, that the Liberals never should have purchased the project for $4.5 billion. “It shows that they’re not managing our taxpayers’ money efficiently and wisely,” he said.

In Burnaby, with the February snow melting, Singh and I finished our interview and walked out into the NDP campaign office. He took me around the room introducing me to people working behind the scenes to get him elected.

Singh, bouncing with energy, pointed me towards a blackboard covered with aspirational words and phrases: “Change your thoughts, change the world,” “fairness,” “equality,” “diversity,” “Burnaby wants progressive.”

There is no doubt the son of Sikh immigrants has an ambitious vision for the country. “I want to build a better world that is more equal,” Singh declared to me in a way that made it clear he was in no mood to sit down.  [Tyee]

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