MONTREAL — NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh painted his Liberal, Conservative, and Green rivals as unfriendly to to the labour movement on Wednesday, as he sought to shore up his party's traditional union support.
But his rousing, 45-minute speech to a Canadian Union of Public Employees convention in Montreal made no mention of the Bloc Quebecois — a party rising in the polls and competing for Quebec votes, both inside and outside the labour movement.
Singh got a rock-star welcome in the packed room at Montreal's Palais des Congres, where he was cheered onstage by some 2,000 delegates of the 700,000-member public-sector union as he pitched the NDP's promises to bring in pharmacare, to address on-the-job violence faced by some public workers such as nurses and teachers, and to crack down on tax havens to fund better public services.
CUPE is a founding partner of the NDP, and endorses the party on its website. In Montreal, members rose to their feet and danced to Singh's campaign song, at his urging, at the end of his speech, and mobbed him for handshakes and selfies as he left the stage.
But other unions no longer choose to align themselves so closely with one party, especially in Quebec where Singh desperately needs support.
Unifor national president Jerry Dias says his union — the biggest in Canada's private sector — has officially taken an "anyone but Conservative" position but ultimately doesn't tell its members whom to vote for. In Quebec, while Unifor is supporting some well-known NDP incumbents such as Ruth Ellen Brosseau and Alexandre Boulerice, he expects most members to back Liberal or Bloc Quebecois candidates.
Dias said he's "frankly pleased" with the NDP platform, which includes support for auto workers and the creation of a national child-care strategy. He also gives Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau credit for many of his policies, such as lowering the age of eligibility for Old Age Security back to 65 and giving labour a seat at the renegotiation table for the North American free-trade agreement.
"We have our incredible loyalties to many who are in the NDP, but we're also practical," he said in a phone interview. "If I take a look at a riding and the NDP candidate is a distant third, or maybe even fourth, and the Liberals and Conservatives are in a horse race for first, maybe our members we'll talk about supporting a Liberal," he said.
In Quebec, Dias said "there's no doubt" many of Unifor's members support the Bloc Quebecois.
"As a union, we believe in the whole issue of self-determination for Quebecers," he said. "So we clearly have many members who are separatist, we have many members who are nationalist."
When asked if he was worried about losing union support on Wednesday, Singh stressed his party's platform.
"I want to put it to working-class people this way," he said. "When it comes to the party that's going to stand up for working-class people no matter what, that's New Democrats."
He painted Trudeau as a friend of the wealthy who met some 1,500 times with oil and gas lobbyists and legislated striking postal workers back to work as prime minister, and accused Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer of wanting to cut services in return for a few dollars in tax cuts. The Greens, he said, are open to supporting a Conservative-led minority government, indicating they're no friends of labour.
Green Leader Elizabeth May called that "outrageous" and said support for organized labour is core to the Greens' vision. Workers in precarious employment need better protection, she said, and workers in fossil-fuel industries will need all sorts of supports during an economic transition away from carbon-emitting activities.
Singh didn't mention Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, whose party is polling second in the province and who has made no secret of his ambition to claim some of the NDP's 14 Quebec seats.
In late September, Blanchet appeared alongside members of the United Steelworkers in Sept-Iles, on Quebec's North Shore, and expressed his party's desire for stronger union ties. The union, which represents 60,000 members across Quebec, has endorsed Bloc candidates in at least four ridings.
When asked to comment on Blanchet, Singh said the differences between the two parties are clear.
"What we offer is, we're a party who can work with the progressives in Quebec and the progressives across Canada, working together to bring in action on the climate crisis, bringing in universal pharmacare," he said.
The NDP leader was in Montreal, where traffic was paralyzed for hours on Tuesday when three environmental activists from a group called Extinction Rebellion climbed the Jacques Cartier Bridge.
When asked, Singh said young people fear for their future and he understands why people would resort to civil disobedience.
"When people are angry, they don't make careful choices, but it's out of frustration," he said.
Montreal held the largest protest last month on a day that saw hundreds of thousands of Canadians take to the streets to demand greater action on climate change, with 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg joining the event.
Singh blamed the anger on a "lack of leadership" from the Liberals on climate change.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2019.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press