NDP's Sarah Jama elected as next MPP for Hamilton Centre

Sarah Jama arrives to her campaign celebration Thursday, after she was projected to win the provincial riding of Hamilton Centre in a byelection. (Bobby Hristova/CBC - image credit)
Sarah Jama arrives to her campaign celebration Thursday, after she was projected to win the provincial riding of Hamilton Centre in a byelection. (Bobby Hristova/CBC - image credit)

New Democrat Sarah Jama has been elected as the next member of provincial parliament for Hamilton Centre.

With all 53 polls counted, Jama, a 28-year-old disability and housing activist, had won 54 per cent of the vote — or 9,560 votes — in the byelection Thursday. The Liberals' Deirdre Pike came in second, with 20 per cent, or 3,535 votes.

"Not only did we show [that] people who don't normally fit in processes could be political, could take up seats at Queen's Park, we also showed we could do this with resounding power," Jama said to a crowd gathered Thursday night at the Westinghouse building downtown.

"This was a decisive victory."

Jama thanked her team and supporters, saying they knocked on over 10,000 doors in the city.

The byelection was held to replace former Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who stepped down as MPP in the summer to run for mayor.

Horwath congratulated Jama Thursday night.

"I know you will take great pride in this new role as you advocate for & represent the people of Hamilton-Centre. It was an honour for me to serve this riding for 15 years & I look forward to seeing the commitment & passion you'll bring to the post," Horwath wrote on Twitter.

Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles told CBC Hamilton Jama will play "a powerful and important role" in the caucus.

When asked if Jama symbolized the NDP moving in a different direction, Stiles said Jama brings "new energy" and "new representation."

"Our party was formed by a bunch of farmers coming together with labour unions and social activists. It's in our blood," she said.

Across town, Pike thanked her supporters. "What an incredible campaign. It was such an honour meeting and hearing from so many of you," she said on Twitter.

She told CBC Hamilton she felt "really proud" about "all that we accomplished." In the June 2022 provincial election, the Liberal candidate came in third, behind the PC party candidate.

Ten candidates were vying to become the riding's first new provincial representative in 16 years. Also running was Progressive Conservative candidate Pete Wiesner, who received 15.2 per cent of the vote, and Green Party candidate Lucia Iannantuono, who received 6.9 per cent.

Voter turnout, according to Elections Ontario, was 21.97 per cent. There were 80,172 registered voters.

'A moment of pride'

At the Westinghouse building, more than 100 people gathered at the Jama campaign celebration, watching the results come in.

Michael Abraham, 29, said the room was "electric."

He said he was disillusioned with politics but Jama and her activism had given him hope.

Bobby Hristova/CBC
Bobby Hristova/CBC

Madina Wasuga was another voter who shared similar sentiments.

"She's been advocating for everyone who is vulnerable, who is marginalized," Wasuga said. "She will bring a lot of change."

Wasuga, who came to Canada with her family as refugees from Somalia, said Jama becoming MPP makes her feel "really part of the civic system."

"This is a moment of pride," she said.

An outspoken activist

Jama is a caregiver and renter who grew up as a recipient of the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Her style is a far departure from Horwath's. Her activism has been both applauded by her supporters and, at times, controversial.

Past actions included staying at an encampment in front of city hall for weeks in support of funding for housing, placing a coffin in front of former mayor Fred Eisenberger's home and spray painting "Defund The Police" on Main Street — all of which occurred in 2020. Charges against her and five other activists related to encampment protests in 2021 were dropped in 2022.

She has also spoken out widely against the expansion of Canada's Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) law and the impact on disabled and racialized people as a result.

Campaign controversy

Jama faced scrutiny during the campaign over past comments criticizing Israel and defending Palestinians.

A 2021 tweet from Jama stated she nixed a contract to speak with disability rights organization reachAbility after reportedly learning the chief executive officer was "defending the Israeli occupation."

In a video posted online, she also said local police were "protecting Nazism" by "targeting" Black Muslims and Palestinians."

Noah Shack, vice president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which advocates for groups like the Hamilton Jewish Federation, told CBC Hamilton the comments were "seriously concerning" and had a "significant harmful impact."

Jama issued an apology Thursday for "harmful" comments and said she would be an MPP for everyone.

"I pledge to speak out against antisemitism and show up for the community when I am needed," she wrote.

Shack said it was an "important first step" but said her "actions will speak louder than words."

Jama represents 'new potential direction' for NDP

Wayne Petrozzi, a professor emeritus in the department of politics and public administration at Toronto Metropolitan University, said the controversy could be a lesson for Jama to be more "self-disciplined."

"Running for provincial parliament … means they should focus on provincial issues," he told CBC Hamilton Thursday evening.

Petrozzi said Jama will be "easy pickings" for NDP's opponents in Queen's Park for some time due to her past activism and criticism during the campaign.

Clifton van der Linden, an assistant professor of political science at Hamilton's McMaster University, also said Ontario's Progressive Conservatives will "take a swipe" at Ontario NDP leader Stiles as a result of Jama's election.

He said the party will likely help guide Jama through the "significant transition" from advocate to MPP.

"It is possible we'll see a change in Jama's tone and tenor … but I also think [activism] is a big part of her brand," van der Linden said.

"What Sarah represents, potentially, is not only a new face, but a new potential direction for that party and that's something Marit Stiles is going to have to very carefully curate."

Bobby Hristova/CBC
Bobby Hristova/CBC

Jama said her priorities for her first 100 days include advocating for improved public health-care, tenant rights and resisting development on the Greenbelt.

At the local level, she said she'll create councils for residents, youth and seniors in Hamilton Centre. She also said she'd discuss shared priorities with Hamilton Centre elected officials and rebuild the downtown community fridge at her constituency office.

Petrozzi and van der Linden said people should temper their expectations given Jama is not part of the governing party and will likely be a backbencher or shadow cabinet minister.

In an interview with reporters Thursday evening, Jama said it won't be hard to balance activism with her role as MPP.

"Hamilton Centre wants someone who's vocal," she said.