OTTAWA — Jagmeet Singh tightened his shaky grip on the reins of the NDP Monday by winning a do-or-die federal byelection in British Columbia.
But the challenge he now faces in reviving the party's flagging fortunes in time for this fall's national election was underscored by the NDP's simultaneous loss to the Liberals in Outremont — the Montreal riding that served as a launching pad for the orange wave that swept Quebec in 2011.
With most polls reporting, Singh captured Burnaby South with more than 38 per cent of the vote, ahead of the Liberal contender with 26 per cent and the Conservative with 22 per cent.
Had he lost, Singh would almost certainly have faced demands to resign as leader. Going into Monday's byelection, many New Democrats — including Singh's predecessor, Tom Mulcair — had questioned how Singh could lead the party in the October federal election if he couldn't win a seat for himself.
"We made history today," a triumphant Singh told supporters at a victory party.
"When I was growing up as a kid, I could've never imagined someone like me ever running to be prime minister. Guess what? We just told a lot of kids out there: 'Yes, you can.' "
However, the loss of Outremont cast a pall over Singh's victory celebration.
Lawyer Rachel Bendayan reclaimed the riding for the Liberals with 40 per cent of the vote, even as the governing party struggles with the fallout from allegations that the Prime Minister's Office improperly pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to halt criminal proceedings against Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
The NDP's Julia Sanchez captured almost 27 per cent.
Outremont was a longtime Liberal stronghold until 2007, when Mulcair scored a byelection upset for the NDP, creating a beachhead for the party in Quebec, from which it eventually went on to sweep the province in 2011 and vault into official Opposition status for the first time in party history.
Since those heady days, the party has fallen back to its traditional third-party status. It won just 44 seats in the 2015 election, 16 of them in Quebec. Monday's loss of Outremont gives credence to polls that suggest the party risks being wiped out altogether in Quebec this fall.
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Vancouver NDP MP Jenny Kwan acknowledged the loss of Outremont was "a disappointment."
"What we're going to do, of course, is learn from this experience and then we're going to redouble our efforts to ensure that the people of Quebec know we are there for them," she said at Singh's victory party.
Singh, who plans to visit Quebec next week to lay out his vision, said the party will build support in the province by championing the environment and opposition to pipelines.
As for whether his criticism of the Liberal government's handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair may be backfiring in the company's home province, Singh suggested Quebecers, like other Canadians, "don't believe we should be giving preferential treatment to one corporation."
In a third byelection Monday, the Conservatives handily hung on to the Ontario riding of York-Simcoe, which had been held since 2004 by former Conservative cabinet minister Peter Van Loan. Scot Davidson took 53 per cent of the vote for the Tories, well ahead of Liberal Shaun Tanaka with 30 per cent.
There were, however, a couple of potentially bad omens for the Conservatives in Monday's results.
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The breakaway People's Party of Canada, created last summer by one-time Tory leadership contender Maxime Bernier, faced its first electoral test in the byelections and results suggest it could be a spoiler that deprives the Conservatives of victory in tight contests come the fall.
While the fledgling party won no more than two per cent of the vote in Outremont and York-Simcoe, it did surprisingly well in Burnaby South, where Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson won about 11 per cent of the vote after running on a "Canadians first" campaign that was denounced by some supporters of rival candidates.
And in Outremont, the Conservative candidate ran a distant fifth with just seven per cent of the vote, behind the Liberals, NDP, Greens, and Bloc Quebecois.
The Greens, who've watched their vote share increase in a number of other recent byelection contests, came third in Outremont with some 13 per cent of the vote — up 10 points from the 2015 election. However, the party's vote share was down slightly in York-Simcoe, at less than three per cent. The Greens did not run a candidate in Burnaby South, as a courtesy to Singh.
When I was growing up as a kid, I could've never imagined someone like me ever running to be prime minister. Guess what? We just told a lot of kids out there: 'Yes, you can.'NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh
Singh's win was all the sweeter for the fact that Burnaby South was not a natural home or a safe seat for the former Ontario provincial politician. New Democrat Kennedy Stewart, now mayor of Vancouver, won the riding by just over 500 votes ahead of the Liberals in 2015.
His victory will give Singh some much-needed visibility in the House of Commons in the run-up to the general election and will help put to rest grumbling within NDP ranks about his underwhelming performance since being chosen leader almost 18 months ago.
But his problems go well beyond his low profile on the main stage of federal politics.
Singh has faced criticism about his seeming unfamiliarity with federal issues and his handling of internal caucus discipline.
Under his leadership, the NDP has plunged to its lowest standings in public opinion polls since 2000, when it won just 13 seats. The party is mired in debt and its fundraising results have been dismal. As well, at least 11 of the 44 MPs who won seats for the party in 2015 have announced they won't seek re-election this fall.
Liberal vote share drops amid SNC-Lavalin affair
While the Liberals could celebrate victory in Outremont, the party's vote share dropped by about seven percentage points in each of the other two byelections — at least in part likely due to the fallout from the SNC-Lavalin affair.
In Burnaby South, the ruling party was likely also hurt by the fact that it dumped its original candidate after she identified Singh as being of "Indian descent" and contrasted herself as the "only" Chinese candidate in a riding with a large Chinese-Canadian population.
Voter turnout, which is typically low in byelections, was just under 30 per cent in Burnaby South and less than 20 per cent in the other two ridings.
— With files from Laura Kane in Vancouver.