Skip to main content

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 24, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In less than four years, Jagmeet Singh has evolved from an inexperienced – and sometimes insecure – rookie leader of the New Democrats to one of the longest-serving heads of any federal party. Only Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had more time on the job.

Now the member of Parliament for Burnaby South must translate experience and opportunity into success, by bolstering his party’s representation in Parliament after an election that could come as early this spring. The pandemic emergency may help his cause.

“I want to put to Canadians that we have in this minority government fought and won some serious victories for them, that they can count on us, and count on me as leader,” Mr. Singh said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

“We now can show them that we are on their side.”

In the months leading up to the October, 2019, election, Mr. Singh’s situation seemed desperate. Having vaulted from the role of an Ontario MPP to leader of the national party two years earlier – after Tom Mulcair failed to build on Jack Layton’s 2011 breakthrough – Mr. Singh seemed out of his depth.

Fundraising was abysmal, staff were inexperienced and party veterans leaked stories of discontent. Almost a third of the caucus chose not to run again. The New Democrats faced decimation.

But Mr. Singh proved to be a happy warrior on the campaign trail, in which the ballot question was: Who do you find more distasteful – Justin Trudeau, tarred by the SNC-Lavalin scandal and revelations he wore blackface; or Andrew Scheer, who can’t convince anyone he isn’t a closet social conservative? Though the NDP shed almost every seat gained in Quebec under Mr. Layton, it came out of the election with 24 seats and 16 per cent of the vote, better than many pundits’ expectations.

And then, in the year of the pandemic, Mr. Singh came into his own. The NDP always demands more government intervention to help those in distress, and in March, 2020, much of the nation was in distress.

In the opening days of the pandemic, Mr. Singh demanded far more support for workers who had lost their jobs and for those whose jobs were in jeopardy than the Liberals were willing to provide. It only took a few weeks for the government to change its mind and introduce the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS).

And as horror stories emerged of neglect in nursing homes so severe that people died unattended and the army had to be called in, Mr. Singh called for an end to privately owned long-term care facilities.

“We fought and won some real victories for people, and I’m proud to be part of a team that’s done that,” he said.

The NDP also decided it would not force an election while the pandemic was in full force. Mr. Singh took some lumps from Mr. Trudeau last fall, when the Prime Minister counted on the NDP to keep the Liberals in power without even bothering to offer anything in return.

Today, that worm has turned. Though it appears the Liberals are spoiling for an election in the spring, Mr. Singh still has no intention of bringing the government down, regardless of what’s in the April 19 budget, especially when so few Canadians have been vaccinated and a third wave of the pandemic may be under way.

“I know a lot of people are worried, myself included,” Mr. Singh said. “I think about the moment when my parents, who are over 70, get the vaccine, how it will be a moment where I breathe a sigh of relief, not worrying about them because they’re high risk,” he said.

With the situation so precarious, “I think it would be the wrong thing to do, to give the Liberals the election they’re looking for.” If Mr. Trudeau wants to force a return to the polls, he’ll have to do it himself, and come up with a reason why.

If there is an election, the NDP will be much better placed to make gains than it was last time out. Deeply in debt, the party spent only $11-million on the previous campaign. Today the party is debt-free and prepared to spend as much as $24-million, which would be a record.

And the pandemic will limit the ability of all parties to conduct national tours and to campaign door to door, which will allow the New Democrats to devote more resources to television and social-media advertising.

The NDP will run on a three-pillared platform: an end to private long-term care; a national pharmacare program (which the Liberals perpetually promise but never deliver); and student debt relief, all to be paid for by increased taxes on corporations and wealthy Canadians.

At a time when so many are struggling, even as the richest profit from the pandemic, such a message might resonate.

That said, the party isn’t expecting any major breakthroughs. A seat or two in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, in Southwestern Ontario, in Hamilton, in Toronto. Perhaps, just perhaps, a seat somewhere in Montreal. After all, the party is still well back in third place in the polls.

Not only has the Quebec caucus virtually evaporated, Mr. Singh has failed to make inroads in suburban Greater Toronto, despite having first been elected in Brampton, Ont., provincially.

“This is something that I take as a challenge, and I’m going to work hard” to win over suburban voters, he said. “I really believe that Canadians need New Democrats, and we’ve shown we can make life better.”

At the moment, though, Mr. Singh appears set to lead the NDP to the place it occupied under Ed Broadbent and David Lewis and Tommy Douglas: a non-governing party, advocating for social change, listened to but never trusted with government, and always at risk of being squeezed out – this time, not only by the Liberals, but by the slowly ascending Green Party under its new leader Annamie Paul, and even by the Conservatives under Erin O’Toole, who is trying to repeat British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s feat of wooing blue-collar voters over to the Conservatives.

But we live in a time of trauma. And the policies that got Canadians through that trauma are policies championed by the NDP. Whether the party can capitalize on that is up to Mr. Singh, at 42 years of age and less than four years on the job, a grand old man of federal politics.

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.