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Rights + Justice
Federal Politics

Jagmeet Singh on Power in the Pandemic Parliament

His party is propping up Trudeau’s government. ‘We can’t go back to the usual politics.’ A Tyee interview.

Michael Harris 19 Oct 2020 |

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly-awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

Jagmeet Singh is on the phone explaining why the survival of the Liberal government has worked to the benefit of the New Democratic Party he leads.

“We haven’t allowed them to follow their own agenda, we have used this chance to push our own. We have fought for our own policies and improved theirs.”

The author of Love and Courage, whose name in Punjabi means “friend to the world,” sounds brutally pragmatic when describing what binds him to Justin Trudeau. As the Bloc Québécois and Conservatives make noises about bringing down the minority government Trudeau heads, Singh is perfectly aware of the power he commands.

Many times, people have written off Singh as the wrong person to lead his party and, more recently, as too weak in his dealings with a scandal-wounded prime minister.

Then again, the more you find out about Singh, the more you realize there’s a toughness at his core — and what formed it. He was sculpted in part by a Pandora’s box of some of the worst society has to offer: adolescent bullying; violent racism; his father’s, or bapu-ji’s, debilitating alcoholism; sexual abuse as a boy by a martial arts coach; “Islamophobia” as a man. Singh is Sikh of course, not Muslim.

Not to mention the usual deprivations and hurdles of being a child of immigrants in a strange land. His bebey-ji, or mother, provided a counterbalance to the powerful headwinds facing her family and young son. No matter what we might look like, she told him, we are all connected and equal. Her words went all the way in.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Tyee, Singh explained how his most bruising experiences growing up prepared him for the mean streets of politics and the pivotal spot he occupies on the current Canadian power map.

With hate epithets like “diaper-head” and “terrorist” echoing from his past, the former defence lawyer changed careers and jumped into public life with both boots in 2011.

During a six-year stint as a provincial politician in Ontario, Singh rose to the role of deputy house leader of the provincial NDP. Then in October 2017, he became the eighth national leader of the New Democratic Party. In the process, Singh signed up 47,000 new party members.

The knocks kept coming his way, but the man in the turban soldiered on. So what was the most unexpected thing he experienced after becoming the first Indo-Canadian to lead a national political party?

“I went through a lot of tough things when I was kid. So after that, Michael, I haven’t really felt like anything else was unexpected. I found out there are always tough odds to overcome, no matter what you do. All of it just left me wanting to know how I could help people, how I could figure out a way of using my position to make people’s lives better.”

But how does one do that in an age when politicians and marketers have fostered so much cynicism? Who believes words anymore, especially from someone looking for votes?

“I think it’s by connecting with what people are actually going through. Take the pandemic. People are losing jobs and businesses that they’ve poured their whole lives into. People are afraid. We have to show them that we appreciate and understand what they’re going through. We have to give them words, words matter. But we must follow the words with action. That isn’t always what the public gets from Ottawa.”

What a quaint understatement.

Newly-minted Tory leader Erin O’Toole instantly rejected the recent throne speech out of hand, the better to go after Trudeau, his family and the alleged Liberal scandal around the WE Charity Affair. O’Toole is trying mightily to make WE into Watergate.

O’Toole’s haste to return to the toxic partisan sniping of the recent past is unseemly during a pandemic, but understandable. The Conservative party has had its nose bloodied in the last two federal elections. It is itching for a rematch with the man who threw the punches.

But while O’Toole wants everyone to know he hates Trudeau’s carbon tax, how does any new opposition leader presume to lead a government in waiting with no climate change plan? It is 2020. Apocalypse looms. Earth calling Erin: The big deal is not who got paid what for a speech, dude.

The Bloc Québécois is also going after Trudeau both personally and at the policy level. The party says that it won’t support the minority government’s new legislative blueprint unless the PM hands over billions to Quebec in the usual fashion: silent-guitar federalism; no strings.

Back in the spotlight after Parliament’s return, there is the inflatable elephant in the room, the WE scandal. WE isn’t exactly the Trump Foundation. Far from it. But apparently it isn’t Mother Teresa either. Just ask the people WE is supposed to be helping in Africa.

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Singh and Trudeau last year. ‘We haven’t abandoned our legislative position’ on paid sick leave, says Singh. ‘We have imposed it. We won those victories for working people.’ Photo by Sean Kilpatrick, the Canadian Press.

Singh is all for holding the Liberals to account in those areas where contradictions have already been laid bare. How exactly was WE briefly chosen to administer a $900-million federal program that was shuttered in just over a week?

The PM has testified that the civil service decided. The opposition sees ministerial footprints all over the sole source contract award. And the paperwork — well it partially bears out what the prime minister has said, but also shows a lot of blacked out pages.

Whatever the truth is, holding the government to account should be done with precision, Singh says, with a focus on the facts and with a deadline. That is not what he sees O’Toole doing.

“The Conservatives are making it into a circus. To them, it is all about scoring political points. The point of looking at WE is to see how the Liberals helped their friends rather than students. The real goal of the kind of accountability that is needed here is making sure it doesn’t happen again. Meanwhile we have COVID-19 to deal with every day.”

Accordingly, the NDP has refused to bring down the government while there is still no firm, national recovery plan in place for the pandemic. The times are unprecedented, and that calls for constructive civility in Ottawa, not partisan incitement, Singh says.

“COVID-19 has done a lot of damage, but also laid bare a lot of problems people have ignored for a long time. We can’t go back to the usual politics, or back to ignoring those problems. The pandemic has exacerbated basic inequality, lack of a truly universal social safety net, things that low-income workers have felt for a long time. We have to imagine a better way of dealing with that.”

But doesn’t supporting the Trudeau government — indeed, preventing it from falling — carry a political risk? What happens to your own policies while you are busily supporting those of a government you want to replace? By putting the Liberals on life support, isn’t the NDP at risk of disappearing, lost in Trudeau’s shadow?

Singh’s answer is an instant and resounding “No.” Followed by his assertion, at the top of this piece, that the NDP’s agenda makes strides by shaping Liberal policies.

He offers examples. “All Trudeau wanted to do in the beginning was waive delays in applying for employment insurance. But EI only covers 40 per cent of workers. We changed that into CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit].

“Trudeau wanted a wage subsidy of just 10 per cent of salary. We pushed for 75 per cent and got it.

“And for the first time ever, we got the government to agree to paid sick leave for Canadians. We haven’t abandoned our legislative position; we have imposed it. We won those victories for working people.”

Singh says he would have done a lot of things differently in the battle against the pandemic.

“There’s kind of been a reluctance by the feds to do what’s right. In the beginning, they were very concerned about designing programs excluding people who didn’t need the money. In so doing, they were willing to let people who did need it to fall through the cracks. The approach we would have taken is that anyone who needed help quickly would get it. Same with helping the provinces with schools. We would have helped create smaller classes, and more teachers. We would have helped people, not turned it into a political and jurisdictional dispute.”

Singh also wonders about the wisdom of creating a huge financial backstop for banks, with very few conditions.

“Seven-hundred and fifty-million dollars is a lot of money to put aside for the banks. There were no strings attached to the government’s plan. We would have made sure that there were strings attached. Things like making sure banks give mortgage relief and continue to extend credit.”

Singh campaigning last year for MP for Burnaby South. ‘Liberals and Conservatives have had a monopoly on federal politics,’ Singh tells The Tyee. ‘That creates a certain inertia. In a lot of ways, it’s hard for people to imagine something better.’ Photo: Joshua Berson.

Beyond declarations, promises and parliamentary dust-ups, elections are every leader’s trial by ordeal. In 2019, Singh won just 24 seats, losing 15 MPs from the NDP caucus under Tom Mulcair. The NDP fell to fourth party status in Parliament.

It was not an auspicious electoral debut, though it could have been far worse. In fairness, the new leader was facing an array of problems — including financial and organizational issues that plagued Singh’s first campaign.

Not the least of the new leader’s woes was the fact that a third of the incumbents from the Mulcair era decided not to run federally in 2019.

One of the reasons was the party’s low standing in the polls, suggesting that the NDP would go further down after the votes were counted in 2019. Two notable MPs who left federal politics, Murray Rankin and Nathan Cullen, are now running in B.C.’s snap election for the provincial NDP.

Can Singh bring a reversal of fortune to the NDP? Since his first federal campaign, the response to his performance as leader has been mixed. He has been given credit for standing up vigorously for traditional NDP values, pushing a people-first agenda and a commitment to social spending and increased taxes for the wealthy.

Singh has also proven to be forceful and articulate in the House of Commons, though it would be hard to improve on the gold standard set by Mulcair’s often forensic cross-examinations of the government.

In those instances where he has been confronted with racism, Singh has acted with grace and aplomb. Nowhere was that on better display than when a voter confronted Singh and invited him to cut off his turban to “look more like a Canadian.” Instead of calling the man a racist, Singh explained that in Canada, people can do whatever they like under the law.

An ugly encounter was turned into a “teachable moment.” He had remembered his mother’s words: “We are all connected.”

But Singh did call the House leader of the Bloc Québécois, Alain Therrien, a racist after his refusal to unanimously support a motion by the NDP leader to recognize systemic racism in the RCMP. When Singh wouldn’t withdraw his comment after a ruling by House Speaker Anthony Rota, he was expelled from the chamber.

There was bad press for Singh in the wake of the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, the 29-year-old woman of Black, Indigenous and Ukrainian descent, who fell to her death from the 24th floor balcony of her apartment in Toronto. The tragedy occurred after police were asked to respond to a family dispute in the building.

Singh tweeted out that the young woman had died because of police intervention. It had even been alleged by others that police had pushed Korchinski-Paquet to her death.

But Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit — four investigators and two forensic experts — concluded there was no one on the balcony but the victim when she lost her footing trying to climb to an adjacent apartment. Nor was there was any police bullying or undue show of force, according to investigators, just a failed attempt by police to de-escalate tensions.

A Globe and Mail columnist had this to say about Singh’s tweet-from-the-hip: “His response betrayed poor judgment for someone with ambitions of becoming prime minister.”

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As a boy, Singh faced racism, bullying, conflict with an alcoholic father and was sexually abused by a coach. ‘I found out there are always tough odds to overcome.’ Photo via Simon & Schuster.

That the words prime minister and Jagmeet Singh even would appear in the same sentence would have been impossible to imagine in the Canada of his youth.

Singh was sent back to the Indian state of Punjab as a one-year-old in the care of his grandfather. That way, his mother and father could devote themselves to getting better jobs and moving out of their cramped, one-bedroom apartment in Scarborough.

After they were reunited, the road eventually led the Singh family through five different cities, including St. John’s, Newfoundland, where Singh sometimes had to fight his way home from school.

Since his harassers were usually older than he was, he learned early on how to punch above his weight — a trait that has come in handy in a minority Parliament where the NDP is the fourth party with just 24 seats.

When he was 21-years-old, Singh had to throw his alcoholic father out of the family home to hold things together until he could get help — “the hardest thing” he has ever had to do. In the end, the son saved his family and his father.

Through that unpredictable alchemy of the good, the bad and the serendipitous called Life, it all somehow came down to the words Singh chose for his autobiography: Love and Courage. So, how realistic is it to think that the infant who started life sleeping on a pile of blankets beside his parent’s bed in a one-bedroom apartment in Scarborough will be prime minister of Canada?

History is a damning witness against that possibility. Despite several successes at the provincial level, there has never been an NDP federal government. And that is with some of the strongest leaders of any political party in Canada carrying the torch — Tommy Douglas, David Lewis, Ed Broadbent and Jack Layton. Singh gets it, but is undeterred.

“We know there’s a lot of inertia to overcome. Liberals and Conservatives have had a monopoly on federal politics. That creates a certain inertia. In a lot of ways, it’s hard for people to imagine something better. Liberals invoke fear of the Conservatives to win, rather than to dream or imagine a better world. Our challenge is more than just fear politics, but hope politics — health care from head to toe, a true social safety net for everyone, harder things to imagine, but better things.”

There is also the question of how to resolve policy differences between the national party and NDP provincial governments.

In Alberta, then-NDP premier Rachel Notley supported bitumen pipelines. In British Columbia, incumbent NDP premier John Horgan is all in for fracked gas and all the government-subsidized infrastructure that entails. I asked how the national leader deals with the impasse when the federal party disagrees with a provincial position. His answer is a measure of how thorny this issue is.

“We try to find a way forward,” Singh said. “It is not easy to find a way forward. In the case of Alberta, they just can’t imagine better jobs. They’ve only seen one road to prosperity. They are afraid right now. We have to give them security about the future by convincing them we are not going to forget about the working class. I know we can do that with hard work.”

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Singh celebrating his byelection victory that made him an MP last year. His NDP wants Canada’s big COVID-19 bill to be paid for by a tax on those who have made fortunes during the pandemic, like internet giant Amazon. Photo: Joshua Berson.

A good place to start would be absorbing the lesson of 2015, when the tide went out on Jack Layton’s Orange Wave, and the NDP fell from official Opposition to third-party status in Parliament. In that election, and coming from a mile behind, Trudeau deftly buried the NDP by running to its left. It appears that Singh will never let that happen again.

Nor does he choose to express any love for the federal Greens in our interview. Asked about co-operation between Greens and his party, and his decision not to give new Green Leader Annamie Paul a pass but rather to run a New Democrat against her in the Toronto Centre byelection, Singh’s camp said he’d respond later. Still no word, however.

So what would a Canada led by Jagmeet Singh look like?

A very progressive place.

Prime Minister Singh would make war on systemic racism, starting with the police and the justice system. He would ban racial profiling, and the practice of “carding,” which disproportionately targets young Black men.

“This costs no money and could be done immediately,” he said. In fact, Singh reduced carding in Ontario while in provincial politics, though “loopholes” in the legislation still permit its use.

Singh would also reform the prison system.

“Incarceration is not the answer and is not working. Long sentences don’t make society safer or inmates better. What is needed is better health care and education outcomes — the real root of this problem.”

When a health-care crisis arises in someone’s home, PM Singh would send medical personnel, not the police.

“Calls for help triggered by some health-care crisis shouldn’t bring police, who end up killing or injuring the victim. This should be a health-care response, not a police response.”

The bill for the enormous expenditures of fighting COVID-19 would be paid for by an excess profit tax on those who have made fortunes out of the pandemic, like internet giant Amazon and various grocery chains. Singh was unhappy with Trudeau’s reaction to that idea when he asked him whether or not he agreed with it in the House of Commons.

“I just don’t understand why he didn’t say yes. He was very unclear. Where is the openness? All indicators from experts and economists is that such a tax is the only way to a fair recovery. The bill should be paid not by the ones who’ve lost so much, but by the people who have made the profit.”

Unlike the current government, PM Singh would not sell arms to Saudi Arabia, or participate in November’s G20 meeting being hosted by the kingdom.

Despite the moratorium the Trudeau government placed on new export licenses for arms sales to Riyadh after the ghastly murder of Jamal Khashoggi two years ago, Canada sold $3 billion in arms to the kingdom in 2019 — twice the amount exported before the moratorium was announced in 2018.

“The decision to participate in the G20 is a complete failure on the part of PM Trudeau and his government. I can’t imagine a more egregious example to justify non-participation — the brutal killing of a journalist, a clear connection to the House of Saud and horrific human rights violations in Yemen.”

Finally, Singh says that Quebec’s Bill 21 banning religious symbols like his own turban must be challenged. He thinks Ottawa should be more engaged on the charter issues at stake here.

“Once it gets to the Supreme Court, the feds will have a role to play. That role should be to protect the rights of all people. Bill 21 discriminates against minorities.”

Jagmeet Singh is still punching above his weight. When you meet the world with love and courage, that is quite a left-right combination.  [Tyee]

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