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NDP hopefuls sew up B.C. support amid talk of Singh-Mulcair accord

Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair smiles after the final NDP leadership debate in Vancouver on March 11, 2012.

DARRYL DYCK/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

British Columbia may be on the left coast of Canada but it has become the centre of the battle to lead the federal New Democrats.

Amid reports that thousands of Martin Singh supporters in B.C.'s South Asian community are being urged to rank front-runner Thomas Mulcair as their second choice on the preferential ballot, the Quebec MP and two other contenders for the party's top job are announcing endorsements from key British Columbia New Democrats.

The province is home to almost 39,000 voting members of the party – about a third of the total number of people eligible to cast a ballot in the election that wraps up on March 24. So it is critical turf for anyone who hopes to fill the job left vacant by the death of Jack Layton.

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On Tuesday, Mr. Mulcair announced that he had the support of former federal cabinet minister Ian Waddell, labour leader Jack Munro, former MP Nelson Riis and MLA Nicholas Simons – all from British Columbia.

At the same time, Ottawa MP Paul Dewar released a letter of endorsement signed by 16 prominent B.C. New Democrats including MLA Mabel Elmore, former MP Catherine Bell and Ian Reid, who was chief of staff to former B.C. NDP leader Carole James.

And Brian Topp, the former party president, finished a five-day tour of the province earning the nod of two Prince George city councillors, former B.C. environment minister John Cashore and several other party notables.

There is just one candidate who hails from the province – Nathan Cullen, the MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley. He has recently been outpacing his competitors in terms of number of donors.

Meanwhile, Mr. Singh – a Nova Scotia pharmacist – has been forced to deny he is working with Mr. Mulcair after The Canadian Press reported that Sukh Johal, his former western organizer, is now working for Mr. Mulcair, who is the presumed front-runner.

Mr. Johal told the news agency he had signed up 4,500 members from British Columbia's South Asian community for Mr. Singh. He ceased working for Mr. Singh on Feb. 18, the deadline for signing up new party members eligible to vote in the leadership contest.

Now Mr. Johal concedes he's volunteering for Mr. Mulcair and urging the same people he recruited for Mr. Singh to mark Mr. Mulcair as second choice on their preferential ballots. What's more, he said he suspects Mr. Singh might openly deliver the same message to all his supporters in the next day or two.

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However, Singh campaign manager Wally Steven called Mr. Johal's assertions "a work of fiction."

"Sukh Johal is a disgruntled, ex-member of our campaign who was let go for non-performance and non-compliance," Mr. Steven said in a email. "Anything he says is suspect. He has nothing to do with our [get-out-the-vote]effort and we have not included these unsubstantiated [membership]numbers in our calculations."

With the vast majority of New Democrats expected to vote online or by mail before the March 24 convention, it would be important for Mr. Singh to signal his second-choice preference soon if he wants to influence his supporters.

Joan Bryden is a reporter with the Canadian Press

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