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Jagmeet Singh makes history with NDP leadership victory on first ballot

Jagmeet Singh celebrates with supporters after being elected the leader of the federal New Democrats in Toronto on Sunday, October 1, 2017.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Jagmeet Singh, the first member of a visible minority to lead a major federal political party, says his campaign for Prime Minister has already started.

Mr. Singh's ecstatic supporters, many wearing colourful turbans similar to those sported by the new NDP Leader, leapt into the air and danced with joy on Sunday when their candidate secured victory by taking more than half the votes on the first ballot in the race to lead the party.

Opinion: NDP opts for a leader who will shake things up with Jagmeet Singh

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His success is rooted in the large following he has amassed in the South Asian community. But Mr. Singh's win is also being celebrated by many in the party's old guard who see the Ontario politician as a force for renewal: someone who can capture the imagination of voters and invigorate the New Democratic rank-and-file after the demoralizing losses of the past election.

The sharply dressed, cosmopolitan, multilingual lawyer was drawn to the New Democrats through his social activism. At the age of 38, he is inheriting a party that is starved for money and has fallen significantly behind the Liberals and Conservatives in terms of donations with just two years to go before the next federal election.

Jagmeet Singh says he wants to ‘make people’s lives better’ (The Canadian Press)

But, on the heels of his victory, Mr. Singh was ebullient as he spoke about what lies ahead and confident about his ability to take on the Liberals, whom he accuses of backtracking on promises such as electoral reform.

"I am hoping to tap into that sentiment of wanting something better and saying 'listen, we've always been the true alternative,'" he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "We're going to connect with people on an emotional level and connect our policies and our values to an emotional message that actually stirs the hearts of people. And that's what was missing in the last election."

Mr. Singh, the former deputy leader of the Ontario NDP, was expected to top the first ballot. But a victory on Sunday was far less certain. In the end, he won with 53.6-per-cent support – more than 35,000 of the 65,782 party members who voted.

Charlie Angus, a veteran MP from Northern Ontario was in second, ahead of Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and Quebec MP Guy Caron.

Mr. Singh praised each of his rivals. He also asked for applause for departing leader Tom Mulcair, who did not attend the event. Mr. Singh has said he will likely not seek a seat in Parliament until the next election and will instead travel the country building support for his party.

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During the leadership campaign, he raised far more money than his competitors did and he said he believes he can continue that success as Leader.

Mr. Singh will announce on Monday who will take over the leadership job in the House of Commons. Some pundits, and even some New Democrats, have said the fact that he is a turbaned Sikh will make it more difficult to win support in secular Quebec, but recent polls suggest party members in that province warmed significantly to Mr. Singh over the months of his campaign.

The NDP parlayed its new-found support of Quebeckers into the so-called Orange Wave of 2011, which saw then-leader Jack Layton become the party's first Leader of the Official Opposition. Mr. Singh needs to replicate that kind of success. His supporters are optimistic.

Nathan Cullen, a popular British Columbia MP who endorsed Mr. Singh in the final weeks of the campaign, described Mr. Singh's win as thrilling. "There is nothing but potential and a sense of hopefulness and unity," Mr. Cullen said.

Peter Julian, another B.C. MP who abandoned a bid for the leadership several months ago, said Mr. Singh will bring energy to the party across the country. "There is a sense that there is a very strong, progressive, social-democratic alternative to [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau," Mr. Julian said.

Mr. Singh says the four issues that top his agenda are inequality – especially income inequality – climate change, reconciliation with Canada's Indigenous peoples and electoral reform.

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Getting them discussed in Parliament when he does not have a seat could be a challenge, but Mr. Singh says he will rely on the experience of his caucus. "I am confident that they can hold the government to account and put forward our agenda," he said in an interview. "I will have regular meetings with our MPs and caucus meetings to make sure that we are all on the same page."

Mr. Singh says he also intends to rely on traditional media and social media to get his message out. He was born in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough and has lived in Newfoundland and Windsor, Ont. He tells the story of becoming the breadwinner for his family in his 20s when his father took ill, an experience he credits for giving him a sense of what it means to live in economic uncertainty.

He also says he has been stopped many times by police simply because of the colour of his skin and vows, as NDP Leader, to continue the fight against racial profiling that he led while sitting in the Ontario legislature. He also knows he will face bigotry in his new position, but says he will deal with that with love and courage.

"I faced a lot worse in my life. It's not new to me and I never back down from a challenge," he told The Globe. "I welcome opportunities to rise above and I really, at the end of the day, believe in the goodness of the people of this country and I believe we all want the same thing, which is to build a better country, and build a more just country."

Olivia Chow, the widow of Mr. Layton and also an NDP MP for several years, said it is important for New Democrats to have a "fearless" leader such as Mr. Singh who has experienced deep poverty and discrimination.

"One ballot – pretty overwhelming," Ms. Chow said of Mr. Singh's win. "He had something that no one else had: the ability to connect with newcomers, people that are diverse and ask is the government on their side."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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