News / Canada

The four candidates who would lead the NDP

Profiles of Jagmeet Singh, Charlie Angus, Guy Caron and Niki Ashton as Canada’s New Democrats choose a new leader.

Left to right: Jagmeet Singh, Charlie Angus, Guy Caron, and Niki Ashton are vying to lead the NDP.

Toronto Star/The Canadian Press

Left to right: Jagmeet Singh, Charlie Angus, Guy Caron, and Niki Ashton are vying to lead the NDP.

The federal New Democratic Party starts voting for a new leader on Monday to succeed Tom Mulcair. Party members will vote by ranked ballot in a one-member, one-vote system. The first-ballot results will be announced Oct. 1.

A look at the four candidates.

JAGMEET SINGH: The viral sensation

Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh.

Blair Gable/For the Toronto Star

Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh.

'We want a country that really welcomes everyone'

For someone running to be the leader of any political party, let’s say in the western world, a message of support from the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. has to be campaign gold.

And so there was no way Jagmeet Singh could have let such a message, from Bernice King, pass unacknowledged on Twitter this week.

“I don’t have the words to express the impact your father has had on the world. Thank you for your work in continuing his powerful legacy,” he wrote to the daughter of the civil rights icon.

King had shared a video of Singh at a recent campaign event. It shows an incident that has been discussed, praised, and critiqued on a massive scale — millions of people have watched it online.

The video shows Singh, a practising Sikh who wears a turban and has a long beard, being confronted by a seemingly irate woman as he’s speaking to a room of supporters. He stands calmly as she shrieks in his face about “Shariah” and “the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Singh’s response: to offer his support.

“We love you. We support you,” he told the woman, who carried on screaming as the assembled crowd clapped and she left the room.

Days later, he explained that although he is not Muslim, he felt it was better not to correct the heckler. “While I’m proud of who I am,” he said in a statement, “I didn’t answer the question because my response to Islamophobia has never been ‘I’m not Muslim.’ It has always been and will be ‘hate is wrong.’”

Ian Capstick, a political strategist who was an NDP staffer for several years, said the incident said a lot about Singh as a potential party leader.

“He won’t be daunted,” Capstick said. “That is an incredibly powerful message for them to put forward. “It was very indicative to NDP members, who watch these things closely, that this is a leader who leads with love and kindness.”

There was hype building around Singh before he even entered the race. When he finally did, in May, he did so before a raucous crowd in Brampton, the suburban GTA city where he’s held a seat for the Ontario NDP since 2011.

Since then, the former criminal lawyer, who is not married, has gained a following for his push to protect temp workers in Ontario, and he went on to be named deputy leader of the provincial party — a position he relinquished to run for the federal leadership.

Part of his image is also sartorial — he once landed in the pages of GQ, which lauded his flashy custom-made suits. Singh is also prolific on social media, where he employs a loose-talking and affable persona that is decidedly youth-oriented.

This week, for example, while campaigning in B.C., he posted a video of himself on Instagram at a vegetarian restaurant. “I’m looking forward to gulping it all up — nom, nom nom!” he said, miming how he will shovel it down.

That’s not to say he’s not serious about politics. Singh’s raison d’être in the campaign is that he has the charisma and policy chops to expand the party to bring in younger voters and break through into communities, such as in the suburban GTA where he holds his Ontario seat, that it has never courted before.

“We’ve used social media in a unique and interesting way,” he told the Star when he entered the race. “We’ve put forward content that’s interesting, that’s fun, but that’s also packed with substance and ideas and values.”

To win the leadership, he said, “We’ll use the strategies we’ve already used, but use them on a larger scale.”

Campaign tagline: With Love & Courage

Age: 38

Riding: Bramalea-Gore-Malton (Ontario)

Fun fact: Singh practises Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and went out and bought singer Roch Voisine tapes when he decided as a pre-teen that he needed to learn French.

Standout policies: At a recent debate, he called for the Portugal-style decriminalization of all drugs — not just marijuana. He also wants to protect temporary and contract workers by creating laws that would force employers to hire them if they are on the payroll for six months.

Quote: “New Democrats believe in social justice. We want to see a country that really, meaningfully welcomes everyone, makes sure that everyone has an opportunity to succeed.”

MP Charlie Angus.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press file photo

MP Charlie Angus.

CHARLIE ANGUS: The everyman

‘It has to be focused on the people on the ground

Sometimes, the milieu is the message.

Such was the case when Charlie Angus chose to launch his campaign for NDP leader: this was no old-school suit sprouting out from behind a podium to make an announcement. Angus turned up at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, a fabled venue that’s hosted Stompin’ Tom and the Rolling Stones, to pump his fist in the air and proclaim his candidacy.

The intended takeaway is that Angus isn’t out to be taken for your stereotypical politician.

“I think he’s got that kind of ability to connect to just, sort of everyday, working people in Canada in a way that is vitally important,” said Andrew Cash, Angus’s long-time friend and a supporter in the campaign.

Cash is also one of the NDP MPs to lose his seat in Toronto when the Liberals under Justin Trudeau swept through the city in the 2015 election.

Angus argues that the best way to win those seats back is to reorient the party’s culture. Rather than chasing the issue of the day in Ottawa, Angus thinks it needs to be intimately connected to “people on the ground” — workers and supporters of the NDP who felt unenthused by the 2015 campaign under Tom Mulcair.

“We have to rebuild that trust with people,” Angus told the Star this week.

“We became a very centralized, leader-focused party,” he said. “We can be a modern political machine, but it has to be focused on the people on the ground.”

The former punk rocker — he was in a band with Cash in the 1980s — likes to describe his journey into politics as having two prongs. He got his start as an environmental activist, protesting a garbage dump development near Kirkland Lake in northern Ontario. But he also comes from a working-class family and represents a riding where mining and other industries are big employers.

As such, he feels he’s uniquely positioned to mend conflicts within the party, such as the debate over the Trans Mountain pipeline that has the NDP governments in B.C. and Alberta at loggerheads. He opposes the pipeline but recognizes the need to create new industries, in renewable energy for example, for workers that are transitioning out of a declining oil industry.

“It’s an important question because I represent a blue-collar region and I came into politics for environmental justice,” said Angus, a married father of three.

Angus has also spoken about supporting “the new working class” — people working part-time or on contract without benefits, who have trouble paying for a place to live or finding a new job after getting laid off.

Among his platform policies are pledges to create an ombudsperson in Ottawa for Indigenous children, enforce a legislated cap on greenhouse gas emissions and provide new funding for affordable housing.

In the waning days of the campaign, he sees Singh as his biggest rival, but believes that he has the second-choice support from voters of other candidates that could bring him the victory.

“My strategy is an open door,” he said, adding that the next leader should be someone with a seat in Ottawa — Singh has said he won’t run federally until 2019 even if he wins the race — with solid parliamentary experience.

“You don’t get to ask Canadians to get promoted to prime minister without doing the work.”

But first, of course, he’s asking members to promote him to party leader.

Campaign tagline: Got Your Back

Age: 54

Riding: Timmins-James Bay (Ontario)

Fun fact: Angus co-founded a punk band called L’Etranger in 1980 with his childhood friend and former MP Andrew Cash. He was later nominated for two Juno awards with his subsequent band, a folk-leaning outfit called Grievous Angels.

Standout policies: Angus wants to create an ombudsperson to ensure federal departments are properly funding services for Indigenous children. The officer would have the power to launch investigations and force the government to act if it’s deemed to be failing its obligations.

Quote: “We had an enormous opportunity in 2015, and we blew it. We blew it because we were too safe, and we assumed that it was our time. It will be our time when we make it our time, and that means being rooted in the grassroots and never forgetting why we’re here, which is to speak up for people who have been written off the political and economic map of our nation.”

Quebec MP Guy Caron.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press file photo

Quebec MP Guy Caron.

GUY CARON: The policy Guy

‘A Quebecer who was with Jack from the beginning’

It’s certainly debatable whether his policy proposals are right for Canada, but you can’t deny that Guy Caron has a strong record of determination.

In 2004, the young economist decided to run for the NDP for the first time. This was in Rimouski, Que., one of many places in the province where New Democrats had long been invisible. In its entire history, from before the socialist Canadian Commonwealth Federation transformed into the modern New Democratic Party under Tommy Douglas in 1961, the political formation had never established a solid presence in the francophone province.

By the time Caron decided to run, the party was actually less popular in his riding than the yogi-transcendentalist Natural Law Party, and the rookie candidate was soundly defeated.

Then he ran and lost again in 2006. And in 2008.

He finally tasted victory in 2011, when the NDP broke through to Quebecers under le bon Jack Layton in its historic Orange Wave that brought 59 New Democrat MPs to Ottawa from the province.

He was then one of the few New Democrats to actually increase his share of the vote in 2015, when the party’s Quebec stronghold crumbled under the Liberal party and its new prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

Since joining the race for NDP leader, the father of two kids — an 8-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy — has made his status as the only Quebec MP a key part of his pitch.

He has also released detailed proposals for revamping the economy, including his marquee plan to introduce a basic income to bring low-income Canadians up to the poverty line.

He wants to raise the federal corporate tax rate to 19 per cent from 15 per cent. He would also create new taxes for financial institutions, bank executives and the wealthiest 10 per cent of Canadians.

Much of this new money would go to infrastructure: Caron has earmarked $90 billion over 10 years— on top of the $125 billion already pledged by Trudeau and his Conservative predecessor — for green energy projects, high-speed rail, public transit and building retrofits and more.

In short, Caron argues his policy prescription is meant to support workers in the 21st-century economy and address what he calls the two biggest challenges of the era: income inequality and climate change.

That vision has gained him some high-profile backers, such as former leader Alexa McDonough, who described him as the “perfect foil to Justin Trudeau’s buzzword and photo op-reliant approach to politics.”

Scott Duvall, an MP from Hamilton, was the first member of caucus to get behind Caron; he endorsed his run in the waning weeks of the campaign. And it’s mainly because he finds Caron’s argument on Quebec the most convincing.

“We’ve got four great candidates running, but I really feel to go forward, we need more seats in Quebec, and I think Guy is the guy that can bring that together,” he said.

Caron, meanwhile, said he’s already obtained a sort of victory in the campaign. When it started, he felt he was barely known in the national NDP. During the final official candidates’ debate, he put it this way: “These days, I don’t hear ‘Who’s that guy?’ quite so much. Instead, more and more people are saying, ‘Hey . . . I like this Guy.’”

Get it? Guy?

Campaign tagline: Guy Caron For NDP Leadership

Age: 49

Riding: Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques (Quebec)

Fun fact: Before he got hooked on economics, Caron’s dream was to be a sports journalist. He has said one of his fondest memories is when he got to interview hockey legend Guy Lafleur for his student newspaper.

Key policies: Basic Income (payouts to bring Canadians with low earnings up to the “low income cut-off,” the poverty line that varies by region and family size and is set by Statistics Canada); create new electoral system in first six months as prime minister.

Quote: “I’m really bringing a significantly unique perspective, which is the perspective of a Quebecer who was with Jack from the beginning, who can bring economic credibility to the party.”

Manitoba MP Niki Ashton.

Richard Lautens/Toronto Star file photo

Manitoba MP Niki Ashton.

NIKI ASHTON: The movement builder

You can either choose the faux progressive or the real progressive

Niki Ashton is a political animal.

Her father, Steve, is a former cabinet minister in their home province, and right now is running for the provincial NDP leadership.

But Ashton also entered politics at a young age — she was 23 when she won the NDP nomination in her northern Manitoba riding, spurred on to challenge an incumbent who opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage. Ashton broke through to the House of Commons in the next federal election in 2008 and has been a prominent New Democrat on the Hill ever since.

In the current race to replace Tom Mulcair as federal leader, Ashton has taken on the mantle as the champion of a new generation — her generation — which she predicts will become the most influential voting bloc in the coming years.

Her prescription for winning their support involves steering the NDP to the left of the political spectrum. Ashton heaps scorn on the “corporate greed” she blames for causing climate change, creating economic inequality and leaving too many people to work in contract jobs without benefits or pensions. When she launched her bid for the leadership in March, she took dead aim at “the power of Canada’s elites, the rich and powerful who are benefitting from growing inequality in our country.”

She argues the NDP lost its way in 2015 under Mulcair when it allowed the Liberals to appeal to young and left-leaning voters that yearn for true progressive government.

Her campaign is about bringing them home to her party and pointing out that the Liberal government — which approved the Trans Mountain pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to the B.C. coast, and broke its promise to change the electoral system — isn’t as progressive as some voters were led to believe.

“Trudeau has broken his key promises,” she told the Star during the final week before members started voting for a new leader.

“The battle for engaging our demographic is one that is on progressive terms, and you can either choose the faux progressive or the real progressive.”

Karl Bélanger, a long-time NDP insider, said Ashton is the candidate in the race who has most tried to channel America’s Bernie Sanders and Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn — social democrats who sprang to prominence on unabashed leftist campaigns that appealed to voters’ discontent.

“She’s been more radical — (appealing to the) left spectrum of the NDP,” he said.

As such, Ashton said she was “surprised” when Peter Julian, a British Columbia MP who was the first person to jump into the leadership race, went on to endorse her opponent Jagmeet Singh after Julian dropped out in July. Julian and Ashton shared key policies, such as their joint promise to make post-secondary education free and block three major pipeline projects (Energy East, Trans Mountain and Keystone XL.)

“A number of key folks from his team are actively involved in our campaign,” Ashton said.

Once he left the race, she added, “there was this clear sense that we were the campaign taking the bold positions.” For instance, she said she is the only candidate with a “gender justice platform” and was also the first to release policies dealing with equality for LGBTQ communities.

She argues that her campaign has actually drawn other candidates to the left, for example, when she got every one to explicitly oppose the Trans Mountain pipeline with her call for a united stance (even though Alberta’s NDP government wants the project to go through.)

With just days left before a new leader is chosen, Ashton said she feels the race is still wide open — especially if there are several rounds of voting.

“I think anything can happen.”

Tagline: #BuildingAMovement

Age: 35

Riding: Churchill—Keewatinook Aski (Manitoba)

Fun fact: She’s pregnant with twins and is due to deliver in November, shortly after the new NDP leader is chosen.

Standout policies: Free post-secondary tuition; universal pharmacare; new taxes on bank executives and financial services; Indigenous veto on resource projects; raising federal corporate income tax to 21 per cent from 15.

Quote: “We need a substantive vision that is truly progressive and a substantive vision that truly tackles the challenges of our time.”

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