In Jagmeet Singh’s mind, Canada is at a “precipice” when it comes to country’s future.
“It can go in a beautiful direction, but without some changes, it could be a scary place,” he said. “And that uncertainty is where a lot of people are at right now.”
It’s also this uncertainty that Singh, as federal NDP party leader, wants to tackle if he’s elected MP in the riding of Burnaby-South.
Singh is currently running in a byelection that was called in the riding, after former NDP MP Kennedy Stewart resigned his position to run for – and ultimately be elected – Mayor of Vancouver last fall.
He was a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) in Ontario, before being chosen as NDP party leader in October 2017. Since then, he has been without a seat in the House of Commons, but that could change if he is elected into Stewart’s now-vacant riding this month.
And as the byelection date draws closer, Singh said that while there are differences between campaigning in Ontario and BC, there are also many similarities.
“We share far more in common than things that separate us,” he said during a sit-down interview with Daily Hive. “Most people are worried about similar things.”
While Singh said he feels a more “laid back vibe” on the West Coast compared to what he’s experienced in Ontario, he noted it doesn’t mean that people here care any less about what happens in their community.
Campaigning, he said, gives him a ” snapshot of someone’s life and what they’re going through. It’s a powerful reminder of why I do this and what I’m in this for is for: The people that I meet and the stories that I hear.”
So what’s he hearing in Burnaby?
“While people share concern about the environment everywhere, I feel like people in Burnaby are intimately connected to it,” he said. “You see these epic mountains, you’re living right on the river, here on the coast.”
As such, “there’s maybe a particular nuance of appreciating the impacts of things like oil spills and what that means, and how that would devastate the ecosystem and the planet in a different way.”
And much like his predecessor, Singh is firmly opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
“I’m the only national leader of a recognized party that’s come out firmly opposed to it,” he noted. “The project is deeply problematic on the environmental front and on Indigenous rights.”
Asked about Stewart’s pledge to door-knock with Singh during this byelection campaign, Singh said this is still very much the plan.
“Our teams have been in contact, and we’ll be scheduling that,” he said. “He was a strong MP for this constituency, and I was very supportive of him.”
No matter who he meets, or where he campaigns, Singh said there is one issue at the forefront of many people’s minds in BC.
“Housing is, without any question, the major concern and it’s really the entire spectrum of housing from the stories that I’ve heard,” he said. “I’ve met with people who are struggling with homelessness, or low-income, as well as young professionals – but also the folks that don’t fit into any of those categories.”
To further his point, Singh offered up the story of a woman he met who “owned her home, but she couldn’t afford to keep it and was thinking of selling, but she couldn’t sell it and find another place in the same city, and was worried about what it would mean to have to leave her community.”
Calling the housing situation a crisis across the country, Singh said it’s an issue he, along with his party, is taking seriously and making a priority.
And it’s why he “put forward a bold proposition to build half a million affordable homes across the country in the full range – the way we used to.”
Canada, he explained, “has built hundreds of thousands of homes in the past…and I want to see us do that again.”
Beyond just building units though, Singh said he also wants to take into account the kind of homes being built.
In particular, he sees co-operative housing as an easy and affordable way to get people into the market and help solve a myriad of problems.
Singh recalled a woman who told him that because she lived in a co-op, “she was able to save up some money and purchase a home.” Another woman who had lived in a co-op for 40 years told him it meant she was able to build a life and raise kids. “That to me is a real solution,” he said.
There’s another aspect of the housing issue he wants to go after, as well.
“We need to get at speculation because it’s really unsustainable,” he said. “Prices are rising in such a way right now, that if we try to envision the future, I can’t even imagine what it’s going to look like if things continue down this path.”
A relative newcomer to the Lower Mainland, Singh responded to the notion that he lacks real connection with the riding and that his decision to run in the riding of Burnaby–South was simply a politically opportunistic one to fill the empty seat left by Stewart.
This, he said, is not the case.
“I’m the only candidate who lives in the riding,” he noted. “My wife and I have made this our home, we live here and we love living here.”
This byelection, he said, comes down to three choices for voters.
“There’s a Liberal backbencher who will continue the same status quo… or the Conservatives – who have contributed to the creation of the housing crisis with their lack of funding for home investments… that got us into this situation,” he said.
But if voters cast a vote for Singh, “they’ve got a New Democrat who’s going to fight for them and is not afraid to call out this [housing] crisis and demand action on it, or demand action on climate change.”
Asked about remarks that were reportedly made by some members of his party that he would be voted out as party leader and have to step down if he fails to win this byelection, Singh didn’t directly answer the question, but did have a direct response.
“We’re going to win,” he said. “I’m confident in this because we’ve worked really hard and the options are clear.”
The fact his party lags behind both the Liberals and the Conservatives in terms of fundraising dollars doesn’t overly bother him either, although he recognizes his party “needs the support of people” to overcome this obstacle.
“Of course, it’s a bit tougher for us,” he said. “We don’t have the same connections that some of the other parties do with the wealthy or the well-connected. What we rely on is the generosity of everyday families, and what we’re going to do is continue to provide solutions to the problems that people face.”
Singh said he and his team are “looking at what’s at stake right now, and I know from the response that we’re getting that people are really resonating with our message and we’re getting a lot of support.”
He added that he’s “not worried” about his future.
“I’m actually worried for the future of those people who are being let down, and for the Canadians who want to live a bright and hopeful future, but don’t see that future because of decisions this government has made,” he explained.
With 2019 being a federal election year, Singh addressed the question of whether or not he’d be catapulted straight into campaign mode for Prime Minister if he wins the byelection – at the expense of voters in Burnaby who cast their ballot for him, based on local issues in the community.
This, he said, wouldn’t be the case.
“The three biggest issues I hear from Burnaby are housing, affordability, and medication coverage,” he said. “These are the three biggest issues I’m going to be campaigning on, so I’m going to take those concerns people have ion Burnaby, use the platform of national leader, and really highlight them and fight hard for them.”
So is Canada ready for its first Prime Minister of a visible minority?
“I think Canada is ready for whatever to takes to reach our full potential,” said Singh. “I think far too many people have been counted out for different reasons and I understand a little bit of what that’s like.”
At the end of the day, “I think Canadians are ready for brighter future and I think we can make that happen. So yes, I think Canada is ready.”
Burnaby-South voters head to the polls on February 25.