Singh sat down with the National Post to talk about the coming byelection, the Erin Weir controversy and where the NDP goes from here
SURREY, B.C. — Nearly a year into his job as leader of the federal New Democrats, and a year out from the next federal election, it’s not exactly smooth sailing for Jagmeet Singh. His party trails the Liberals and Conservatives in the polls and in fundraising, and is well off the level of support that saw it achieve official opposition status in 2011, let alone its more modest 2015 election result. In each of the byelections since Singh took the reins in October 2017 the party has fared badly.
Singh, who isn’t doesn’t currently sit in the House of Commons, has announced he will run in an upcoming byelection in Burnaby South, no doubt hoping that outrage over the Liberal government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline will help propel him to victory in a city where the project is to have its terminal. But a win there is no sure thing. Incumbent New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart won Burnaby South by just 500 votes in 2015, and Singh doesn’t yet live in the riding.
At the end of a three-day caucus retreat in Surrey, B.C., as he prepared to start knocking on doors in Burnaby, Singh sat down with the National Post’s Maura Forrest to talk about the coming byelection, the Erin Weir controversy and where the NDP goes from here.
Q:You’ve been in this job now for nearly a year, and it’s been tough. There have been troubles with fundraising. Polls have not been great. Byelection results have not been what you would have wanted. You’re now coming out of this three-day caucus retreat. How do you change the channel?
A: One of the things we did is we went around the table and talked about the stories that people living in the communities across Canada are faced with. The struggles they’re faced with. And we came out really determined. We’ve got to do something about these problems. And it was stories that really brought us together and reminded us all that these are the people that we’re here fighting for.
We’re here to fight for the woman who’s got two kids and she can’t take care of them the way that she wants to because she lives in a home that doesn’t have adequate insulation. These are the things that we really want to focus in on. And so coming out of this retreat, we’re focused in on ‘How do we tell the stories of the people across Canada who are facing so many struggles and talk about the solutions? How can we fix those problems?’ So these are the things we want to talk about.
Q:One of the stories that you can’t seem to shake is this ongoing drama with Saskatchewan MP Erin Weir (who was kicked out of caucus in May amid sexual harassment allegations). He’s saying that he wants to run again for the NDP in the next election. Now, 67 former Saskatchewan NDP MPs and MLAs have written a letter criticizing the way you handled this situation. What don’t they understand about this?
A: I think it’s important to point out that we had an independent investigator who investigated and found as a finding of fact that people were harassed. One complainant in particular was found to be harassed and then Erin went on national TV and said that that was trumped up, said that it effectively was not harassment. To publicly shame and attack someone who’s been found to be harassed, to intimidate someone who’s found to already have been harassed is unacceptable. I’ve made my position clear, the process was fair, and my decision is final.
Q: But you can’t accept that perhaps he understands what he did wrong?
A: He has not to date retracted that public attack of somebody who was found to have been harassed and he has not shown to me that he understands the implication and the impact of his behaviour. And I cannot in good conscience allow that to happen in a place that I am the leader. For the people that work for me, to set a good example for good workplaces, I’ve made a clear decision and I’m sticking with it.
Q: You’ve put out a statement calling for an emergency committee meeting in response to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause (to override a court ruling overturning cuts to the Toronto city council). Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that Ontario must deal with this situation in the way that it sees fit. Why isn’t that good enough for you?
A: The Charter is something that protects people. We all believe in the importance of having this protection of our fundamental freedoms. The threat of the notwithstanding clause being used regularly is something that causes great concern for me and I think it’s not enough to say we believe in the Charter. I think it’s time to actually bring experts together to talk about the routine use of the notwithstanding clause and how that would impact rights for Canadians. How is that going to impact the landscape of the protections that the Charter affords?
It’s our responsibility to make sure that we study or look at the impacts of what’s happening in Ontario
Q: But isn’t this a provincial issue? Why should the federal government get involved?
A: Well, the federal government has a responsibility to provide leadership in bringing together provinces. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we study or look at the impacts of what’s happening in Ontario. But what does that mean for the rest of Canada, and what does that mean for the protection offered by the Charter? I think it’s something we’ve got to have a conversation about. We’ve got to look at the impacts and have experts weigh in on that.
Q: There’s been an ongoing debate about statues and monuments celebrating Sir John A. Macdonald. We recently saw the City of Victoria decide to remove a statue of Sir John A. from City Hall. Where do you land on that?
A: I think it’s important to understand how people feel. There’s a lot of pain. Indigenous communities have suffered horribly as a result of residential schools. There is a really important discussion around what our public spaces should look like. Our public spaces should be places that are inclusive, that bring people together. Maybe we need to rethink what a public space looks like so that it is inclusive. And maybe there’s a place for history in museums.
Q: So do you mean that if Indigenous people are made uncomfortable by the presence of these statues, they should be removed?
A: What I’m saying is that’s exactly the type of discussion we need to have. If we talk about history, there’s a place for history in museums, in heritage sites, in preserving places where we can look to our history and remember where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. So there’s a balance that needs to be struck, but public spaces being inclusive is something that’s an important principle and I think we need to have a tough discussion about how we make our public spaces, parks, community centres more inclusive.
Q: You’re going to be running for a seat in the House of Commons in Burnaby South. If you lose that byelection, will you stay on as leader?
A: The byelection in Burnaby South is important for many reasons. Anytime I go to Burnaby and speak to folks, housing is top of mind. People are worried about how they can afford to live in the city they grew up in. Young people who graduate with degrees are worried about finding a place to rent, even. This is a serious crisis, and the government’s saying people should just wait two years, after the next election, when the national housing plan will actually start putting out money. I’m saying that’s not right. Canadians can’t afford to wait and we need to do something now.
Q: I’m asking what you’ll do depending on the results of this campaign. If you’re unsuccessful, will you carry on as leader?
A: I’m worried about the fact that people are faced with so many problems. I’m not worried about my future. I’m worried about the future of that elderly couple that’s saying that they can’t afford medication. I’m worried about that. I’m not worried about my future. I’m worried about their future.
Q: Nearly a year into this job, what is different about it from what you expected?
A: There’s a different appreciation for how diverse our country is. I was obviously an elected official in Ontario, and spending time across the country I learned how diverse the country is and diverse the needs are. But despite how unique the struggles are in Quebec as compared to Atlantic provinces or B.C. or the prairies, at the same time there’s a common thread that I was surprised by as leader. There is a really strong common thread that unites us all as Canadians. And that was something really surprising. What I found after a year is that at the end of the day, there’s a lot that connects us. In fact, there’s probably a lot more that connects us as Canadians than the differences that separate us.
Q: Is the job harder than you thought?
A: No, it’s what I thought. I knew that it was going to be a tough job and I think that anything important, anything that’s meaningful is going to take hard work. And that’s why I’m up for it.