POLITICS
01/19/2019 13:16 EST | Updated 01/20/2019 15:04 EST

Jagmeet Singh Scores Ex-MPs, But Heated Byelection Shows Leader's 'Rough Ride': Prof

The NDP is in talks with former MPs to run in 2019.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is interviewed while door knocking for his byelection campaign, in Burnaby, B.C. on Jan. 12, 2019.
Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is interviewed while door knocking for his byelection campaign, in Burnaby, B.C. on Jan. 12, 2019.

OTTAWA — Federal New Democrats have enlisted two former members of Parliament to run in the upcoming election, and the party says they're in talks with a few more.

An NDP official told HuffPost Canada that while discussions are ongoing, the courted candidates haven't yet decided whether to join former MPs Andrew Cash and Svend Robinson, who are hoping for political comebacks in 2019.

Karl Belanger, former national director of the federal party, described Robinson's nomination announcement earlier this week as "the first good news for the NDP in quite some time."

Watch: Svend Robinson on why he is attempting a political comeback

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's past 15 months as leader have been dogged by sluggish poll numbers, ongoing difficulty differentiating the party's platform from the Liberals, and a growing list of incumbents who have declared they won't be seeking re-election.

Belanger explained enlisting veteran MPs such as Robinson to the party's election roster plays to the NDP's advantage by boosting its profile and "countering the narrative that veteran New Democrats are leaving the ship."

The seasoned strategist, now president of Traxxion Strategies, is watching for Singh to come through on a promise to attract new blood to the party, candidates that aren't "traditional New Democrats," in order to expand the base.

Darryl Dyck
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh crosses a street while door knocking for his byelection campaign, in Burnaby, B.C. on Jan. 12, 2019.

With the election nine months away, the party has confirmed six new candidates for ridings in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. They include Cash, Hamilton city councillor Matthew Green, and Lindsay Mathyssen, daughter of outgoing NDP MP Irene Mathyssen.

Robinson will be officially nominated as the party's federal candidate in Burnaby North—Seymour Saturday and his return "is creating a lot of excitement" among NDP activists, said Belanger.

With Robinson's nomination, the NDP will have confirmed 22 federal candidates, including 15 incumbents. The party is on track to confirm 28 candidates total by the end of January.

There are 338 ridings across Canada.

Svend coming around the bend for Beech

Robinson, an environmentalist and human rights activist, was elected to represent the B.C. riding of Burnaby in 1979 and started his parliamentary career with some dramatic flair that year by housing a Chilean immigrant facing deportation. He told media at the time it was unlikely the RCMP would knock down an MP's door.

Among Robinson's political highlights include his famously interrupting U.S. president Ronald Reagan's 1987 House of Commons address by yelling "Stop Star Wars now" to protest America's proposed disarmament program to destroy Soviet missiles in space.

He also came out while in office, making history as the country's first openly gay MP. In 1993, he was arrested, along with more than 850 others, for participating in anti-logging protests in Clayoquot Sound.

He won seven consecutive elections and held public office for 25 years.

Then in 2004, under the stare of closed-circuit surveillance, he stole a diamond ring at a jewelry auction in a self-described state of "total, utter irrationality." He told CBC News that he was dealing with severe stress. He went on medical leave and announced he would not seek re-election. He pleaded guilty to charges and in the end was granted a conditional discharge.

Chuck Stoody/CP
Federal NDP MP Svend Robinson is supported by his partner Max Riveron (left) and fellow MP Libby Davies (right) as he cries while admitting to shoplifting a diamond ring during a news conference in Burnaby, B.C. on April 15, 2004.

It's been 15 years since Robinson's career-damaging mistake. Belanger thinks the scandal's long tail has waned, giving the well-recognized former MP an opportunity to present himself as tough competition for incumbent Liberal MP Terry Beech.

The timing of Robinson's nomination as as the party's Burnaby North—Seymour candidate means the veteran politician can lend his celebrity and campaign for Singh's byelection bid in the neighbouring riding of Burnaby South — and in the general election later this year.

Singh's odds of winning the B.C. riding increased Wednesday after his main rival, daycare operator Karen Wang, stepped down as the Liberal candidate after making a racial comment about the NDP leader on Chinese social media app WeChat.

StarMetro Vancouver was the first to report Wang's message, which appealed to Chinese voters on the basis of race and ethnicity, calling herself the "only (ethnic) Chinese candidate" and urging people to defeat Singh, who is "of Indian descent."

The NDP leader told HuffPost Canada that he didn't take Wang's comment personally. But he said the incident made him concerned about a type of politics that creates divides by stoking racial tensions.

"That to me is not what we want. Canadians are really proud of the diversity of our country, they're proud of the diversity of our cities," Singh said. "It hurts our society, it hurts people. We need to be committed to politics that bring us together."

Canada's rich cultural diversity is a strength, he explained.

That value, embracing diversity as a core to a Canadian identity, is one Singh shares with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This highlights the bigger challenge for Singh, which is to differentiate himself from Trudeau to win over progressive voters, according to a senior lecturer of political science at Burnaby's Simon Fraser University.

Sanjay Jeram said the time Singh has spent in the riding since the summer, and having his local presence covered by mainstream media, has lessened earlier name recognition issues reported in the summer. Earlier polls tracked Singh to be trailing behind rival parties in the high-stakes race.

The Liberals skipped convention by forgoing a so-called "leader's courtesy" by running a candidate against Singh. On Saturday, the party nominated former BC Liberal MLA Richard Lee to replace Wang as their candidate in Burnaby South.

"Getting a seat should be a sort of a given for a leader," explained Jeram. "The fact that it's this much of a challenge for him goes to show what a rough ride he's had since taking on the leadership."

Watch: 'I am not a racist': Former B.C. byelection candidate

Burnaby South is a progressive riding, Jeram reasoned, and Singh will likely win over the remaining Conservative, People's Party of Canada, and independent candidates. "If there was any doubt he was going to win, the NDP should be feeling good."

The SFU lecturer pointed out the NDP's short and long-term prospects are markedly different.

Having Robinson is an advantage and adds credibility to Singh's profile, Jeram said, "But I don't think that changes much in terms of his chances at the federal election which I think are still pretty grim."

Liberals not engaged in 'tofu and beans' issues of people's lives: former NDP MP

The other ex-MP plotting a comeback, Cash, said in an interview that "not a day goes by" that he doesn't run into someone who tells him they're thankful he's running again.

Cash is seeking his old seat representing the downtown Toronto riding of Davenport. He lost it to Julie Dzerowicz by less than 1,500 votes in 2015.

He said getting back into federal politics was an easy decision to make. "I think we need stronger voices for our city, for Toronto, in Parliament," he said.

I think for a lot of folks who would normally support the NDP here took a rider on the Liberals in the last election and it's turned into a bitter pill to swallow for a lot of folks.NDP candidate Andrew Cash

Without explicitly criticizing Dzerowicz, a backbench MP, Cash said it's easy for Liberals to "hide behind their prime minister and not really get engaged in the meat and potatoes, the tofu and beans of what's going on in Toronto."

The Liberals swept up all of the city's seats in 2015. And since his election loss, Cash went on to co-found The Urban Worker Project, a non-profit created to support people employed in precarious work.

He maintained voters have grown disenchanted with what the Liberals have been able to achieve over the last three years. They promised a new vision on the environment and the Canadian government's relationship with Indigenous peoples, he said.

"I think for a lot of folks who would normally support the NDP here took a rider on the Liberals in the last election and it's turned into a bitter pill to swallow for a lot of folks."

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Looking forward to the election campaign, Cash said he'd like to see a few of his former colleagues make a return to federal politics such as Laurin Liu, the former NDP MP who represented the Quebec riding of Rivière-des-Mille-Îles.

Like Cash and Liu, former Halifax NDP MP Megan Leslie was ousted by the Liberal wave in 2015. Since then she has become the president and chief executive officer of World Wildlife Fund Canada. When asked if she was mulling a political comeback, Leslie declined to answer, explaining she doesn't "do interviews on partisan politics these days."

Also out is Libby Davies, the former MP for Vancouver East. The veteran politician retired from federal politics in 2015 and told HuffPost her schedule will be busy between book promotion — she has a memoir coming out in May — and volunteer commitments.

Davies confirmed she has no plans to un-retire and make a comeback.

"I'm still active politically — but not running!" she wrote in an email.

With files from Mohamed Omar

CORRECTION - A previous version of this story stated that Svend Robinson was NDP house leader at the time of the ring incident. In fact, Libby Davies was NDP house leader from 2003-2011.