OTTAWA — The relevance of the NDP in an election year will be put to the test next month in federal byelections called Wednesday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau set Feb. 25 as the date for byelections in the Ontario riding of York-Simcoe, Montreal’s Outremont and British Columbia’s Burnaby South — where NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is hoping to win a seat in the House of Commons.
The latter two will be important tests for New Democrats, who’ve been struggling to find their footing since their party was relegated to a distant third in the 2015 general election, reversing the NDP’s historic 2011 breakthrough. The NDP has trailed the Liberals and Conservatives badly in both fundraising and opinion polls ever since — a situation that benefits the ruling party and worries the Tories, who want a strong NDP to siphon off Liberal votes.
For Singh, victory in Burnaby South is crucial, giving him an opportunity to raise his profile and shake off internal criticism about his leadership. Defeat could prompt New Democrats to dump Singh and replace him ahead of the Oct. 21 general election.
“The time for timid is over,” he said in a news conference outside a Burnaby SkyTrain station. He said he’s ready to “fight Ottawa” and push for policies that will make life easier and more affordable.
“I’m determined to make people the priority,” he said.
The riding is no cakewalk for Singh, a former Ontario MPP whose political home had been Brampton, northwest of Toronto. Kennedy Stewart, now Vancouver mayor, won Burnaby South for the NDP in 2015 with just over 500 votes more than the Liberal contender. But Singh will benefit somewhat from the Green party’s decision not to field a candidate in the byelection, extending so-called “leader’s courtesy” to a leader seeking to enter Parliament.
The Liberals, after much internal debate about whether to stand down, are running daycare operator Karen Wang, while the Conservatives are fielding corporate lawyer Jay Shin. Former talk-show host Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson, who has championed opposition to B.C.’s inclusive approach to dealing with gender identity and sexual orientation in schools, is running for the People’s Party of Canada.
Singh said he’s confident of his prospects but also said he’ll lead the NDP into the next general election whether he wins or loses the byelection.
The race in Outremont, left vacant when former NDP leader Tom Mulcair resigned, will also be seen as a test of whether the NDP can hang on what’s left of the orange wave that swept Quebec in 2011.
Outremont had been a Liberal stronghold until Mulcair scored an upset in a 2007 byelection, establishing an NDP beachhead in Quebec for the party’s breakthrough there four years later. Trudeau’s Liberals, who are running well ahead in the polls in Quebec, are gunning to take the seat back.
The Conservatives are expected to easily keep York-Simcoe, left vacant by the resignation of longtime Tory MP Peter Van Loan.
It remains to be seen what impact the fledgling People’s Party of Canada might have. Former Tory minister Maxime Bernier split from the Conservatives and created the new party last summer. During the Tories’ 2017 leadership contest, Bernier won more support in both Outremont and York-Simcoe than Andrew Scheer, who wound up edging out Bernier on the final ballot.
Bernier hasn’t named byelection candidates in either of those ridings but is expected to do so by the end of the week. His party hasn’t had time to hold nomination contests so instead Bernier asked leaders in each riding to put forward names and then potential candidates were interviewed before a decision was made.
Bernier has defended Tyler Thompson as his first candidate, after critics questioned how her opposition to the “trans agenda” in schools squares with Bernier’s libertarian philosophy.
“Nonsense,” he said Tuesday on Twitter. “There is room for everyone who supports our platform and the values of freedom, responsibility, fairness and respect. And this includes Laura-Lynn.”
Trudeau has been criticized by both Singh and Scheer for refusing to call the three byelections last fall, at the same time as another eastern Ontario byelection. In December, his office said the prime minister would call the three early in the new year for early February.