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New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh launches his election campaign at the Goodwill Centre in London, Ontario, Canada Sept. 11, 2019.

REBECCA COOK/Reuters

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who faces a steep uphill battle with this election campaign, chose to launch his bid in a location symbolically suitable for the occasion: London, Ont.

“It’s a city where I had a lot of my struggles,” said Mr. Singh in his first official campaign speech as federal party Leader. London is where Mr. Singh went to university, and where he faced his most difficult years: It’s where he lived when his father’s addiction and financial troubles grew to become unmanageable, to the extent the-then 20-year-old had to take guardianship over his teenaged brother.

“I wouldn’t have gotten through those tough times without [friends and family’s] support," he said. "That’s what Canadians believe. We believe in taking care of one another.”

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Mr. Singh is set to face many more challenges in the coming weeks. After the collapse of NDP support in the 2015 election, the party holds 39 seats in the House of Commons. And his ability to hold onto even those this time around is in serious question.

Since taking over as Leader in 2017, Mr. Singh has struggled to unite a party that had been left divided. Its fundraising efforts had dwindled, and its organization was left in disarray. Prior to this month, 11 currently elected NDP MPs had already announced that they would not run again. As of Wednesday morning, fewer than 200 of the 338 candidates had been officially posted on the party website.

For his formal campaign kickoff speech Wednesday morning, Mr. Singh stuck with the NDP’s traditionally positive messaging, and drew connections between the experience he endured in London with his platform pledges designed to help families facing similar challenges. This includes the promise of a national pharmacare program, and of extending the public health care system to include dental, vision and mental-health services.

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He also attempted to draw a clear line between the Liberals and Conservatives – “who always choose the priorities” of the big companies” – and his own party.

“Four years ago, [Liberal Leader] Justin Trudeau charmed us with pretty words and empty promises. He said the right things, but he didn’t do them,” Mr. Singh said.

“Who is really going to be there to fight for you? I’m saying it’s going to be the NDP.”

Making matters more difficult for Mr. Singh has been his inability to gain traction personally. In a poll conducted by Nanos Research for The Globe and Mail earlier this month, Mr. Singh trailed in fourth and sometimes fifth place among party leaders on most questions around leadership.

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The problem is especially pronounced for Mr. Singh in Quebec, where the NDP currently holds 14 seats but is expected to see a drop in support. It’s also where a fierce debate has unfolded in recent months over a law barring public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. When asked about the law on Wednesday, Mr. Singh, who is Sikh and wears a turban and kirpan, described it as “state-sanctioned discrimination.”

After repeatedly sidestepping questions from reporters on Wednesday on his party’s troubles, Mr. Singh was asked about the personal hurdles he will need to overcome in the weeks ahead.

“Sure, I’ve faced hurdles in my life historically, and I face hurdles maybe now, too,” he said.

He drew parallels between those and the challenges that marginalized communities – and ordinary Canadians – face everyday.

“Maybe I experience a little of what they go through. I hope people can see in me someone who can understand those realities.”

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