Dressed casually in a black sweater and jeans, New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh looked eager to greet the throngs of supporters lining up to take selfies with him and shake his hand.
The crowd was filled with Sikh men in turbans clamouring to get some time with one of their own who’d made it onto the big stage. They’d come out last Saturday for a get-out-the-vote rally in a quiet residential neighbourhood in Brampton, Ontario.
Singh wore a bright yellow turban and had the traditional Sikh kirpan visibly strapped to his side.
The giant NDP campaign bus looked out of place as it rolled by narrow, suburban driveways. Singh briskly stepped off it to speak to fans and reporters. With cameras and mics in front of him, he delivered a familiar message:
“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says nice words but he’s really all about looking out for his rich and powerful friends, just like the Conservatives. I don’t work for the rich and powerful. I work for people!”
Most candidates want voters to believe they’re the only ordinary candidate to look out for ordinary people. Even Trudeau, the son of a former prime minister, says only he can stop Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives from cutting Canadians’ services.
But it’s Singh who has gained the most from branding himself the hope and change candidate these past two months. His party has enjoyed a boost in the national polls—a big win for a party that seemed to be heading for a weak showing not all that long ago—and as a result Singh is sticking to the script.
During stops last Saturday in Brampton and Toronto’s Davenport riding, Singh answered almost every single question with a variation of that message. The words go well with his disarming charm and everyman demeanour, but listen long enough and the whole thing starts to sound predictable.
Singh on how his party is doing in the Toronto suburbs:
“Great! We’ve shown people that you don’t have to be taken for granted. You don’t have to settle for less!”
On how he’ll deal with Canadians’ disillusionment with politics in general:
“It’s not a coincidence that Mr. Trudeau broke his promises; it’s actually been a pattern of behaviour.”
But campaigns are all about nice words and, like Trudeau, Singh and the NDP are perfectly capable of making big, bold promises: 500,000 affordable housing units, universal pharmacare, 500,000 new child care spaces, green transit across the country, clean water for all Indigenous reserves, and so on. If anything, Singh promises more than 2015 Trudeau. (And 2015 Trudeau promised a lot.)
In the Davenport campaign office of NDP candidate Andrew Cash (packed with loud supporters wearing orange shirts), Singh was asked why Canadians should believe him. He answered by bringing up Trudeau’s patchy record: “We’ve not seen action on the climate crisis, but when Mr. Trudeau wanted a pipeline he found almost $5 billion and bought one right away.”
Then, more nice words about how, unlike the Liberals, he fights for people.
But nowhere has Singh’s nice words carried him further this election than on the well-worn terrains of Canadian multiculturalism, identity, and inclusion. It’s another thing he has in common with 2015 Trudeau, who marketed himself as a pro-diversity leader in an era of rising nativist populism.
The first person of colour to lead a major Canadian party, Singh is well positioned to address these issues. The NDP bus is wrapped in a giant photo of him smiling next to a diverse group of happy, millennial-looking supporters.
In both Brampton and Davenport, Singh was approached by crowds of people of colour who wanted their picture taken with him.
“I support him mostly because of what he said he’ll do for Indigenous issues, and for the fact that he went to Grassy Narrows,” said one young woman, who declined to give her name, who spoke briefly to Singh inside a cafe near Davenport’s Dufferin and Bloor neighbourhood. She’s referring to the Grassy Narrows First Nation reserve in Kenora, Ontario. The community has been struggling with mercury poisoning for decades.
Singh has pledged to fix the problem and has said numerous times throughout the campaign that he knows what it feels like to be marginalized. He regularly draws on experiences as a young Sikh kid who got bullied at school to help illustrate why he’s made it a goal to stand up for people.
Circumstances have often forced Singh to lean hard on issues of race and identity for advantage: Trudeau’s photos in blackface, some guy in Montreal telling him to cut his turban, or people who say explicitly that they won’t vote for him because of the way he looks.
During the first official English leadership debate, he told Trudeau, who jabbed at Singh for promising to not challenge Quebec’s religious symbols law if elected: “Every single day of my life is about challenging people who think you can’t do something because of the way you look.”
Singh’s standing has risen after such incidents. Just like for 2015 Trudeau, nice words often produce nice results, even in these divisive times.
But the NDP still has to prove that those widely broadcasted words about race and inclusion actually mean something for its commitments moving forward. It has taken advantage of the issues during this campaign, but like Trudeau, it must live up to the rhetoric.
For one, the party must demonstrate that it can do a lot better in suburban neighbourhoods where so many of Canada’s visible minorities now reside. Big talk about diversity and inclusion means very little in 2019 Canada if you have limited support in some of Canada’s most diverse areas—such as the Greater Toronto Area’s suburbs. In recent years, the NDP have had almost no success in the suburbs of Mississauga, Brampton, and Oakville.
Singh is adamant that the NDP has turned it around since then.
“We’ve had a breakthrough,” he said. “Brampton for example is an area where we’ve broken through provincially. We led the charge because people were feeling like they were being taken for granted by the Liberals and Conservatives.”
Singh was an MPP in Brampton’s old Bramalea-Gore-Malton riding, now Brampton East. His brother Gurratan now holds the provincial seat there.
Three of Brampton’s provincial ridings went NDP in last year’s Ontario election, won by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives. But even Singh admits that the NDP has had zero success there federally. It finished in a distant third in all five of Brampton’s federal ridings last election. And Brampton has a significant Indian population; over half of the city’s residents are immigrants.
The Liberals swept all five federal ridings in 2015. In fact, they took all of Toronto along with Mississauga and Oakville. They also won most suburbs in Vancouver and B.C.’s Lower Mainland. The NDP finished third in all of Toronto’s suburban ridings. It won two of those ridings in the 2011 election and none in 2008.
Canadians will see on election day whether Singh is right to be so optimistic about suburban Brampton and these diverse suburbs.
The NDP has never gotten so much campaign traction on identity and diversity issues than it has under Singh. It can simply point to its leader’s racialized identity when challenged on any of these issues, but it’s a superficial gesture.
It’s easy for any opponent to question Trudeau’s rhetoric and record on race, or for not keeping promises. He’s the only one this election who has a record of governing. The NDP has never governed and it knows it won’t have to. It is in a distant third in national polls even with Singh’s rise.
But that doesn’t mean Singh can’t be held accountable for all his nice words too. His rhetoric this campaign has raised the bar high, not just on platform items, but on whether the NDP is willing to shift its approach towards diverse suburban areas.
Both Trudeau and Singh continue to talk a big game. Trudeau says he’s the only guy who can stop Scheer from cutting social services. He constantly brings up Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney, and Doug Ford. Singh is constantly telling voters that he wants to unrig a flawed system dominated for more than 150 years by the other two parties.
But it’s Singh who’s had the better campaign this year and he has a lot to live up to.
Follow Steven Zhou on Twitter.