Ontario NDP candidate Sarah Jama won a provincial by-election Thursday in Hamilton Centre, securing a party stronghold represented for many years by former party leader Andrea Horwath.
Jama had garnered 54 per cent of the vote with nearly all of the polls reporting, beating Liberal Deirdre Pike, Progressive Conservative Peter Wiesner, the Green party’s Lucia Iannantuono and six other candidates.
She said there isn’t a moment to waste at the Ontario legislature.
“The Ontario NDP are in an important fight for improved access to public health care, stronger protections for renters, and the need for more affordable, accessible communities,” she said in a statement. “I’m ready to get to work. Let’s do this.”
NDP Leader Marit Stiles said Hamilton Centre has a long history of hard-working, progressive representation.
“Sarah has been a dedicated, tenacious part of that work for a long time,” she said in a statement. “She’s a leader who understands the power of solidarity to win more for people and build stronger, more caring communities.”
Jama had been widely expected to win, despite being put on the defensive over some of her activism.
She is the executive director and co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario and co-founded the Hamilton Encampment Support Network, among other community involvement. But Jewish organizations criticized some of her associations and remarks.
B’nai Brith charged she was a “radical anti-Israel advocate” and other groups later weighed in, saying they were troubled by some of what they heard from Jama.
She said the criticism centred around what she describes as standing up for Palestinian human rights and her association with student groups “running Israeli Apartheid week on campus 10 years ago,” which shouldn’t be conflated with anti-Semitism.
“I am against antisemitism wholeheartedly,” she said during a debate.
Jama also took heat online this week for a video circulating of her speaking at a rally, reportedly in 2021. In it, she accuses the Hamilton police of targeting Palestinian organizers, saying, “over and over and over again, the Hamilton Police protect Nazism in our city.”
She also talks about Israel, saying despite a change of government in the country in 2021, “the same people will continue to fund the killing of people here, locally and globally.”
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies condemned what they called the “wild conspiratorial accusations.”
The group’s president and CEO Michael Levitt met Wednesday with NDP Leader Marit Stiles, who later said she acknowledged the harm Jama’s choice of words caused, especially in a climate of rising antisemitism.
Jama also wrote to the group to apologize for her comments, which she called harmful.
“Jewish people deserve to feel safe, and should never be targeted because of their faith or their culture,” she wrote. “I pledge to speak out against antisemitism and show up for the community when I am needed.”
The Hamilton Jewish Federation also said Jama’s words had caused pain to the Jewish community. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said Thursday that it acknowledged Jama’s apology.
“We look forward to working with ONDP Leader Marit Stiles on taking action against antisemitism and ensuring Ontario is an inclusive place for all, including its vibrant and diverse Jewish communities,” vice-president Noah Shack wrote in a statement.
Horwath represented Hamilton Centre, as well as a predecessor riding, at the Ontario legislature since 2004 and consistently won with wide margins. She stepped down as leader and resigned her seat last year after the party failed to win the provincial election.
Turnout was low during advance voting – which experts say tends to favour incumbent parties – with about five per cent of those eligible casting a ballot, compared to an 11 per cent advance voting turnout in riding in the 2022 general election.