BURNABY, B.C. — NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is poised to be the king-maker in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal minority government — even though his party’s caucus is significantly smaller than it was going into this election campaign.
Despite losing 15 seats from the party’s existing caucus, Monday night was ultimately a win for the rookie party leader who at the start of this campaign seemed poised to drop below the 12 seats required for official party status, and to lose the public funding that comes with it. Trudeau will need to work with at least one other party to govern, and a strong campaign fuelled by the youth vote has positioned Singh as possibly the man in Trudeau’s ear.
The NDP were elected or leading in 24 ridings late Monday night, dropping them to the fourth party behind the surging Bloc Quebecois. However, Singh campaign headquarters in Burnaby, B.C. was a party well into the night Monday from the moment it was confirmed the Liberals would form a minority government.
Singh made it clear Monday night that the NDP would likely prop up the Liberals for now.
“Canadians sent a clear message tonight that they want a government that works for them, not for the rich, not for the powerful. For the people,” Singh said.
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Singh entered the ballroom at the Hilton hotel to a wave of cheers just before 10 p.m. local time, descending into the fist-bumping crowd as his campaign song played. The mood was celebratory despite the lost seats. His speech was interrupted several times by supporters chanting “tax the rich” and “N-D-P, N-D-P.”
At one point, as supporters were chanting “we choose you,” the newly re-elected MP stopped them.
“No, I choose you!” he said, his voice catching from emotion, followed by raucous applause.
The NDP leader is poised to return to Ottawa with around two dozen NDP MPs in tow, and is ready to ensure that NDP priorities are on the table as soon as conversations with Trudeau start.
“Tomorrow morning we’re going to get down to work,” he said.
Singh has outlined six priorities for working with the Liberals, and Monday night he confirmed that he will pursue them. These include national pharmacare, increased action on climate change and Singh’s much-touted “super-wealth tax.”
He rides a wave of favourability into the minority government situation, arguably emerging as the most well-liked of the major Canadian party leaders. Following the conclusion of his speech, he hung back for over an hour with supporters, taking selfies as “YMCA” and “Old Town Road” played over the loudspeakers.
The orange crush
In the final days of the campaign, Singh’s approval rating skyrocketed as the other leaders plateaued. On Sept. 14, 7.6 per cent of respondents told Abacus Data that they found Singh “very favourable”; by Sunday, that rating almost tripled to 22.3 per cent. A Forum Research poll found voting intentions for the NDP spiked from 12 per cent to 20 per cent from Oct. 7 to Oct. 16 among decided voters.
The surge in popularity came thanks to his amiable campaigning style, plus a stand-out performance in the English leaders’ debate, and a better-than-expected showing in the French-language debate.
Singh drew praise for positioning the NDP as a viable alternative to the Conservatives and Liberals as evidenced by his perfectly timed debate quip calling out the other two leaders as “Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny” when it comes to addressing climate change.
WATCH: Singh’s “Mr Delay and Mr Deny” zinger. Story continues below.
He was also applauded for his handling of several racist incidents throughout the campaign. After images broke of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in brownface and blackface, Singh delivered an emotional address to Canadians who might’ve been hurt by it.
“I want you to know that you might feel like giving up on Canada ... I want you to know that you have value, you have worth, and you are loved,” he told reporters at the time.
Singh is the first major party leader from a racial minority, and spoke proudly throughout the campaign about his Sikh faith. At one Quebec campaign stop, a man approached him and told him to remove his turban to “look more Canadian.”
Without missing a beat, Singh pivoted.
“I think Canadians look like all sorts of people, my friend,” he said.
Singh also actively courted the youth vote throughout the campaign. He was the only leader to take to TikTok, the surging social media app, to mobilize young voters, with his videos garnering hundreds of thousands of views.
Not a complete win
It wasn’t entirely a night of smiles though. The party’s caucus was essentially cut by a third, from 39 seats to 24.
Going into the election, the NDP were expected to lose seats, it was just a matter of how many. As expected, the party was decimated by the rise of the Bloc in Quebec, but they lost more seats to the Liberals than expected in the province, too. Only one NDP MP survived the crushing weight of the other parties there.
“We will continue to fight for you,” Singh said in French during his victory speech. “I will continue to be present in Quebec.”
The NDP leader spent much of the campaign in the Greater Toronto Area, attempting to win back support in urban ridings lost to Trudeau in 2015. However, the Liberal stronghold remained deep red, which was a major defeat for Singh’s party, which hoped to break through there. Not a single Toronto area riding elected an NDP MP, and the party underperformed across Ontario.
While NDP stalwarts like Jenny Kwan and Don Davies in Vancouver, and Nicki Ashton in Northern Manitoba, won their ridings, several star NDP candidates fell Monday night.
Svend Robinson lost his play for a political comeback in Burnaby North-Seymour to Liberal incumbent Terry Beech, while longtime Quebec MPs Ruth-Ellen Brosseau and Guy Caron fell in Quebec.
Overall, half of the new 24-person NDP caucus hails from B.C.
From the province to the nation
Regardless, the bar was low to declare Monday a success for the NDP. Going into the night, maintaining a presence in parliament large enough to hold the balance of power in a minority government was the goal and they met that. If the mood in the room at his Burnaby HQ is any indication, Monday’s result — and the party reception he recieved — solidifies Singh as the future of the NDP for now.
Four years ago, Singh was a provincial politician in Ontario and Thomas Mulcair led the NDP to a crashing drop from official opposition status. The party lost 51 seats that year, falling from 95 to 44 after Justin Trudeau’s rising Liberals outflanked them with progressive voters.
Mulcair was panned for letting the Liberals move further left than his party on spending and social services. He initially planned to remain leader of the NDP after the election, but was forced to step down in October 2017. Singh was the only leadership candidate not in federal politics at the time, but won in the first round of voting with over 50 per cent of the vote.
At a final weekend rally in Vancouver, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip introduced Singh to a crowd of over 1,000 cheering supporters. After praising the leader and cracking jokes about how his wife — and Okanagan NDP candidate Joan Phillip — had a crush on the leader, Phillip grew sombre for a moment.
“We’ve been waiting for Jagmeet for a long time, I’d say we’ve been waiting since ... well since Jack went upstairs,” he said.
It was a quiet reminder of how the party has shifted in the past decade. Jack Layton led the NDP to official Opposition status and the most seats in party history in 2011, including a lucrative 59 seats in Quebec. But Layton died in 2011 after battling prostate cancer, leaving the party searching for stability.
Late in the campaign, Singh visited Jack Layton Park with his widow, Olivia Chow, who is also a former NDP MP.
“It’s thanks to Jack that the NDP now has the place it currently holds in the hearts of Quebecers, and it’s thanks to him as well that I am in politics now,” said Singh.
Singh also took a moment to acknowledge Layton during his victory speech.
“Jack started the work,” he said in French. “We must continue it.”
WATCH: Singh and Jack Layton’s family pay respects to former leader. Story continues below.
And while this election result by no means mirrors Layton’s success, party supporters are heralding the victory as a return to form for Canada’s labour party.
And there is precedent to the NDP collaborating with a minority Liberal government. In the 1960s Lester Pearson’s Liberal minority government channelled the support of Tommy Douglas’s NDP —then named the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation — to bring universal health care and the Canada Pension Plan to Canadians.
Can Singh channel Douglas as we enter the new government? If his victory speech is any indicator he’s going to try.
“Eat the rich!” someone shouted from the crowd about halfway through.
Singh turned with a glint in his eye.
“That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”