Jagmeet Singh: Could NDP leader be Canada's next PM?

Jagmeet Singh has secured himself a seat in the House of Commons, and now his sights are set on becoming prime minister.

“We made history today,” Singh told his supporters Monday after winning the federal byelection in Burnaby South. “When I was growing up as a kid, I could’ve never imagined someone like me ever running to be prime minister. Guess what? We just told a lot of kids out there: ‘Yes, you can.'”

“It wasn’t very surprising,” political analyst Philippe Fournier said of the result, calling the B.C. seat a “favourable” for New Democrats, It also helps that the Greens didn’t run a candidate in the British Columbia riding, Fournier added.

The win is important for Singh because it provides a platform to share his vision in Parliament. It also gives him an opportunity to debate his biggest political opponents during question period.

But the byelection results weren’t entirely positive for New Democrats. The party did lose their seat in Montreal’s Outremont, the riding former leader Tom Mulcair held since 2007.

“He lost it, but he lost it badly, too,” Fournier said of the Quebec riding. The NDP is now polling at 12 to 14 per cent nationally, a distant third behind the Liberals and Conservatives, according to Fournier.

“It’s really, really bad,” the creator of political blogs 338Canada and Qc125 said of the NDP’s poll numbers. “[Singh] has not really been that convincing.”

Highlighting Canada’s housing ‘crisis’

The new MP will have to find a way to connect with Canadians if he wishes to fulfil his dream of becoming prime minister.

Former NDP national director Karl Belanger acknowledges the key to success for Singh will be showing that he can grow the party.

“He needs to find a way to connect with [voters] and to tell a story that they can relate to,” Belanger said. “So far, he has been unable to establish that kind of narrative.”

Hoping to improve on the 44 seats the NDP won in 2015, Singh may have identified an issue that affects nearly all Canadians.

“Across Canada, people are worried about housing,” Singh told CBC News Network on Tuesday. “People are finding it hard to find a home.”

Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham says this is a problem that is especially pressing for young people.

“The issue of housing is as important in Regina as it is in Vancouver,” Bramham told Yahoo Canada.

Singh says it’s a “crisis” that is top of mind for many Canadians, among the top three for many he has spoken to. He insists it’s the government’s job to find solutions for problems, and this one could be addressed with more affordable housing.

Why Quebec may be a challenge

The housing debate is one that could potentially win over millennials, but it may not be enough to regain the support the NDP has lost since the “orange wave” swept across Canada in 2011. Led by Jack Layton, the party became the official Opposition for the first time ever, propelled by strong gains in Quebec.

Fournier sees the Liberals emerging as the big winners if the NDP can’t improve on the 16 seats won in Quebec during the the last election.

“We’ve got lots of great support to build on, we’ve got great MPs that are there,” Singh said, as reported by The Canadian Press.

There’s a potential roadblock in Quebec this time around because of the fact that Singh, a Sikh, wears a turban. Fournier, a Quebec native, says it’s more about religion for Quebecers than it is about race when it comes to voting. After all, this is a province that last year gave a majority mandate to a government that has proposed a ban on public servants wearing religious symbols at work.

“It does turn off many Quebecers,” Fournier admitted.

That may not be as big of an issue for the rest of Canada. In 2017, an Angus Reid Institute poll suggested 56 per cent of Canadians could vote for someone who wears a religious head covering.

“I would argue that he’s still a fairly unknown entity to Canadian voters,” Belanger told Yahoo Canada. “So that’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity.”

Bramham says Singh’s message appears to be that the politics of division that we’ve seen mostly in the U.S. underscores social problems that aren’t being addressed.

“Young people can’t buy houses. Young people can’t afford to live in the Lower Mainland (Metro Vancouver) and they can’t find good jobs. They can get an education, but they still can’t get a good job.”

Is Singh Canada’s Bernie Sanders?

Singh’s message goes back to the roots of the NDP, according to Bramham, and that may be one that hits home with millennials — social justice and equality for all. 

“It’s a very socialist message that he’s sending,” the columnist said. “That message, it certainly resonated in the U.S. with Bernie Sanders, and it’s a message that’s resonating, I think, with younger people. The question is: will those younger people vote? And they did vote for Justin Trudeau; he mobilized that group.”

A progressive, populist message that appeals to average Canadians might be the key to success for Singh and the NDP, according to Bramham. How that message is delivered across the country will likely determine how successful the NDP will be in the fall election.

And if Singh wants the support of Quebecers, Fournier says improving his French by mastering pronunciation will go a long way, especially among voters in the Montreal area.

“If the NDP stays around that 12 to 14 per cent nationally, I don’t see them making any gains,” Fournier said. “I just do not see any Quebec seats staying with the NDP.”

Jagmeet Singh celebrates his Burnaby South byelection win on Monday in British Columbia. The federal NDP leader will now get a chance to represent his party in Parliament for the first time. Photo from The Canadian Press.

With files from The Canadian Press