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NDP aims to unlock suburban ridings under Jagmeet Singh's leadership

Jagmeet Singh listens to a speech before the announcement he won the first ballot in the NDP leadership race to be elected the leader of the federal New Democrats in Toronto on Sunday, October 1, 2017. Singh is launching an introductory tour today that is expected to take the party's new leader into every province and territory before a policy convention in February.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Jagmeet Singh listens to a speech before the announcement he won the first ballot in the NDP leadership race to be elected the leader of the federal New Democrats in Toronto on Sunday, October 1, 2017. Singh is launching an introductory tour today that is expected to take the party's new leader into every province and territory before a policy convention in February.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

OTTAWA — An energetic Jagmeet Singh came running on to a campaign-style set up in Ottawa on Sunday and later gave a window into how he sees himself as NDP leader — something equivalent to a high-risk stock.

Singh, a 38-year-old Ontario provincial politician named federal party leader on Oct. 1, is preparing to embark on an introductory tour in every province and territory before a party policy convention in February.

There's no time to waste on the road to replace Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Singh said in a speech to party faithful while he took aim at Liberal policies on the environment and electoral reform.

"You can be sure that we, New Democrats, will continue to push back and hold this government to account on all these issues and more," Singh said.

"We have to be the party that inspires, that truly touches the hearts of people. We have to inspire because we have to win  —we owe it to Canadians to do so."

Part of Singh's upcoming travel — set to include stops including around Toronto and Vancouver  — will speak to the party's goal under his watch: to unlock potential in suburban ridings.

Singh concedes the strategy comes with risks but believes it is key to take on the Liberals and Conservatives in these battlegrounds.

"What I have been saying about my candidacy is that I am high risk, high reward," he said.

"I feel like this is where we need to reach out to people, 35 per cent of Canadians live in suburban ridings. Those are places where it is fundamental for us to get out our message of progressive politics ... they are competitive but they are important, they are fundamentally important to building a coalition of folks to form government."

If Singh can break into these ridings, it could represent a significant political shift for the party comparable to its historic breakthrough in Quebec, said former NDP national director Karl Belanger.

"I am talking about a geopolitical shift in the NDP universe on a scale that was seen in 2011 when the Orange Wave was created by Jack Layton and the NDP," he said in an interview.

"Those areas are, in this country, key to form government and that's what Jagmeet's leadership brings to the table and it does have some Liberal organizers worried."

There are no guarantees, however, that Singh can deliver in suburban ridings, noting the party must also stay connected with supporters in Quebec, where it has 16 seats.

The realities of Quebec voters are quite different than those around Toronto and Vancouver, he said, adding it will be a challenge for the NDP to connect with both.

"If you are unable to make the inroads in the region you are seeking as growth ... but at the same time you lose the base that you have, you don't end up with very much at the end," Belanger said.

NDP strategist Robin MacLachlan, also the vice-president of the public affairs firm Summa Strategies, said it will be key for Singh and the party to visit the province early and often.

Singh and his parliamentary leader Guy Caron recently paid a visit to the Quebec riding of Lac-Saint-Jean, where a byelection will be held on Oct. 23 - a competition sparked by the departure of Conservative MP Denis Lebel.

MacLachlan said the national leader's tour in the weeks ahead will allow the party to tap into Singh's strengths.

"Jagmeet's greatest challenge is of course his greatest opportunity: a great many Canadians haven't had the chance to get to know him yet," he said.

"That's not surprising for a new federal leader but it is an incredible opportunity."

The more people get to know Singh, the more they like him, MacLachlan said, noting this was evident throughout the NDP leadership race and in the recent stop in Lac-Saint-Jean.

Singh is not a "quick fix" leader, MacLachlan added, pointing to the organizational abilities his leadership campaign showed through fundraising and signing up new members.

"You are going to see him and his team bring that same energy to the NDP," he said.

"It is badly needed. The organization has been in a rut since the last election ... it needs that rejuvenation."

The NDP said late Sunday that Singh's tour will also include stops in cities such as Saskatoon, Regina, Halifax, St. John's, Montreal, Sherbrooke, Que., Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Guelph, Ont. and the Niagara region.

While speak to reporters Sunday, Singh, a turbaned Sikh, also suggested he finds it "troublesome" he's been asked to denounce violence such as during a recent CBC interview that included questions on the Air India bombings.

Singh said he was about five-years-old when the attack happened in 1985.

"I can tell you as a leader of a party that I am fundamentally opposed to violence, fundamentally opposed to any innocent lives being taken, fundamentally opposed to any violence being perpetrated against people and the fact this is something I have to say is troublesome," he said.

"Why would anyone assume otherwise? It is obvious to anyone who's a leader in this country that they would denounce acts of violence. It's obvious that anyone would denounce something as heinous and tragic as that incident ... it is so basic and fundamental."

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