Singh seeks to build momentum despite NDP's weaknesses in campaign's early days

As other leaders spent much of the first two days of the federal campaign crisscrossing the country, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh stayed close to familiar territory and issues as he tried to build momentum — and keep costs under control.

Singh chose the city of Brampton, where he previously served as a member of Ontario legislature and deputy leader of the provincial NDP, as his main campaign stop Tuesday after launching his bid for the Prime Minister's Office in London the previous day.

The early part of the NDP leader's campaign clearly reflected the party's financial situation, with Singh forced to stay close to Toronto and conserve money following years of poor fundraising results and debt from the 2015 election.

Yet the venue also harkened to his previous political experience, as did his pledge to build a new hospital to ease overcrowding at Brampton's existing medical facilities, given that hospitals fall squarely within the domain of provincial governments.

Questions of jurisdiction aside, the event was clearly aimed at playing to Singh's strengths in an area where the New Democrats feel they have a real chance to steal seats away from the Liberals.

Not only did Singh previously represent the area at the provincial level, it also boasts a large South Asian population that the NDP is hoping will connect with Canada's first federal leader who is not only a visible minority, but also Sikh.

The Liberals swept Brampton's five ridings in 2015.

During Thursday evening's leaders' debate, Singh hammered his key message that Liberal and Conservative governments look out for corporate interests, saying an NDP government would look out for everyday Canadians.

At times he struggled to join arguments between Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, but he delivered a strong message on Quebec's secularism law, saying it tells people like him that they are less worthy.

"I think about what this bill says to a lot of kids out there that are made to feel like they don't belong because of the way they look," he said. "It's legislated discrimination and it's sad and it's hurtful."

Singh also took up the cause during the debate of trying to tie Scheer to Ontario Premier Doug Ford — a favourite tactic of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who did not attend the debate.

Some of the challenges facing the New Democrats during this election campaign were evident during Singh's event earlier in the day, which included poor staging and an awkward line of supporters strung out behind Singh on the side of a busy road outside the Brampton Civic Hospital.

Singh was also forced to again explain why his party still has not nominated a full slate of candidates. The NDP were without candidates in 93 of 338 ridings by the end of Wednesday, including one in B.C. where a candidate said he was forced to resign due to his social-media posts.

Another candidate in Montreal said Wednesday he was stepping down after being accused of domestic abuse. Olivier Mathieu, the NDP candidate in LaSalle-Emard-Verdun, denied the accusations, but said he was withdrawing to keep from being a distraction.

Singh promised the party would move quickly if there is information "which makes us doubt the quality of a candidate" while deflecting questions about the slow pace with which the party has been naming candidates.

"We haven't enough marginalized communities represented," he said. "We haven't seen enough women represented in politics. So I'm working hard to make sure that our candidates reflect Canada. And that's a tough thing to do, but a very important thing to do."

Singh appeared comfortable as he promised the new hospital, though he later acknowledged he would have to work with Ford to make it happen, and even answered one question in Punjabi about why local voters should support him.

Repeating the question and answer in English afterward, Singh accused the Liberals and Conservatives of having failed Brampton by failing to address the city's health care "crisis," which includes many people being treated in the hospital's hallways.

"You don't need to choose between Liberals or Conservatives," he said. "Conservatives who are going to cut to make things worse and Liberals who are going to take you for granted. You can choose New Democrats who are going to fight for you."

Singh later tied his promise to build a new hospital to his party's pledge to introduce universal pharmacare, which he said would also ease hospital wait times by ensuring Canadians get the medication they need to stay healthier.

While the NDP leader has been forced to run what is essentially a grassroots campaign, which includes touring Toronto on Friday following Thursday night's Maclean's/Citytv debate, he has also been able to avoid any serious gaffes and stick to his party's message.

That is more than some of his competitors can say as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer have spent the first two days of the campaign fielding questions about the SNC-Lavalin affair and abortion.

— with files from Allison Jones in Toronto and Alanna Rizza in Brampton

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press