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Jagmeet Singh is not a natural for eat-the-rich populism.

If New Democrats had wanted their own version of Bernie Sanders, the closest approximation in this year's leadership contest was Charlie Angus, for whom suspicion toward the rich and powerful fits as comfortably as rumpled suits and sweaters. Instead, they went with someone who celebrated the launch of his law career by buying a sports car.

But, this week, as Justin Trudeau was on the defensive about his top fundraiser's appearance in the Paradise Papers, Mr. Singh was giving it his best shot – lamenting the failure of "the wealthy, the well-connected, the powerful" to pay their fair share.

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And as he did, there emerged an outside possibility that would turn Canadian politics on its head if it came to pass. Could Mr. Singh, of all people, wind up at the forefront of the populist upheaval we've been watching for in this country, since anti-establishment waves began sweeping across the Western world?

The common assumption, amid Donald Trump and Brexit, was that any such movement would come from the right. And for a brief period following Mr. Trump's election, there were enough signs of it – Kellie Leitch's leadership campaign, The Rebel's coziness with others vying to replace Stephen Harper – to encourage such speculation.

Now, Ms. Leitch has been relegated to the backbench, and, despite one of The Rebel's former directors serving as their campaign manager, the Conservatives have frantically erased Ezra Levant's website from their browser history. Under Andew Scheer, they have recommitted to Stephen Harper's version of conservatism – suspicious of some public institutions, at its darker moments flirting with Islamophobia, but well shy of the anti-immigrant or isolationist policies to which other countries' conservatives have become beholden.

That could change, but among other factors Canada's electoral map makes it unlikely. This is not a country where the path to victory normally runs through rural areas and rust-belt towns where right-wing nationalism has recently flourished. To be viable, a Canadian version of populism needs to also attract immigrants who heavily populate suburban battlegrounds.

But the more the current government struggles to meet expectations, the more one wonders if economic and social pressures and perceptions could unite those groups around a type of populism more easily offered by the left.

In the last election, Mr. Trudeau's Liberals successfully campaigned on a message they subsequently described as populism itself. Sounding the alarm that the middle class was being left behind, and proposing to shift the tax burden to the wealthiest Canadians, they believed they were positively channelling anxiety about the rapidly changing world.

But, while the Liberals have made good on promises to level the playing field (most notably with the Canada Child Benefit), and while metrics show the economy is in good shape, it hardly feels as though all the pressures and anxieties are being resolved.

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Tectonic economic shifts – toward automation, or away from entire industries disrupted by Silicon Valley – still make it hard for younger generations to plot careers as older ones did. The cost of living is still squeezing middle-class families out of big cities and much of the work force still doesn't know when it will be able to retire.

Meanwhile, the Liberals can increasingly be painted as part of a tiny global elite disproportionately benefiting from all the upheaval. Their Finance Minister forgot to disclose his French villa; their fundraiser is included, however tangentially, in revelations about how the superrich use tax shelters; their Prime Minister spends lots of time wooing the Davos set.

When the Tories take aim on these fronts, as they have with great gusto, it may reinforce to supporters that they're more grounded in the real world than the Liberals.

But if there becomes real demand outside the Conservative base for anti-rich populism, there is only one opposition party potentially well-positioned to meet it.

The NDP is not just more ideologically inclined toward trying to reorder the economy to the disadvantage of those at the top. It is also the only major party that doesn't have prominent members turning up in the Paradise Papers, can credibly claim not to be indebted to Bay Street, and has never had the chance to grow comfortable in power and in powerful circles.

At this point, Mr. Singh can do with that as he chooses.

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Most Canadians still don't know much about him. If he wants, he can lean on his early billing as the NDP's glitzy answer to Mr. Trudeau. He can also emphasize the grit that got him where he is; make his rhetoric a little less sunny and more righteous; play down his own success story and play up others' struggles; put the sports car in the garage.

It might not come easily, but the leadership campaign – a first foray onto the national stage in which he steadily grew more assured as a performer – showed some ability to adapt.

It would be a big risk for his party – and in terms of what he might unleash, if he aimed for an angry sort of populism and proved effective.

But New Democrats had to at least be thinking about it, as they did their bit this week in fanning the flames of anti-elite backlash.

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