Federal Election

Jagmeet Singh spoke at I Vote/Je Vote on Dec. 7.  Photo: CC, OFL Communications Department.
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 NDP leader discussed wide-ranging issues in contemporary political discourse at iVote

New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh sought to address solutions to political polarisation and poor community engagement at an iVote event hosted by the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy on Dec. 7.

With the deterioration of political discourse over the last several years becoming a prevalent topic of conversation among politicians, activists, and media, the rapid and dramatic polarisation of the political spectrum has been witnessed across the western world. First in the United States in the lead up to the Trump presidency, then in the United Kingdom after the vote for a hard “Brexit,” followed by the French Le Pen campaign and ongoing tensions in Poland.

Canada is not immune to these breakdowns in civil discussion. The Quebec city mosque shooting, La Meute’s clashes with black bloc protesters, and the rise of several militaristic, isolationist organisations have proven that the nation at large is vulnerable to the same issues south of the border.  

Titled Breaking the Mould: The Next Generation of Political Engagement, the event was structured as a town hall session with the 2019 Prime Ministerial candidate.

Singh’s speech began with a review of his party’s Love and Courage campaign, and expressed the need for a dramatic change in the way political parties approach their voter base.  He claimed that the slogan caused a degree of discomfort among many of the party’s public relations advisors. However, he felt that discomfort reflected the NDP’s traditional role of pushing the boundaries of political discourse.

He explained, “you have these PR guys going ‘what, how are you going to have a political slogan that has love in it, that’s not going to fly’ … so we recognized that a lot of people were uncomfortable with it and maybe we are okay with that. We want people to be a little uncomfortable because real change requires us to leave our comfort zone.”

Singh then dove into his personal story behind the campaign, citing a rough and demanding childhood while growing up as a first generation Sikh Canadian in three different cities. He stated that a common theme among those immigrant communities was a feeling of disengagement with the political system, explaining they couldn’t even feel betrayed by political parties because no party was representing immigrant and visible minority concerns in the first place.

Using the opioid crisis as an example of advocating for underrepresented populations, Singh explained that so many political promises are based on programs, rather than values.

“Ottawa and the Vancouver East Side have become ground zero for the opioid crisis, and our response hasn’t been adequate,” he said. “And you have a system that doesn’t make this a public health issue, but a criminal issue … politicians will talk about getting tough on crime or their plans to fix things but lose sight of the goals and values backing their policies.”

He expanded on this statement during a question and answer period. “I’m a numbers guy— I like to see quantifiable ways to prove that issues are real. Well, the goal is to stop drug abuse. I don’t want any party campaigning on being tough on drug users— I want to see a party that wants to end drug abuse.”

Singh explained that treating drug abusers as criminals is expensive and has a low success rate. He champions alternative programs like decriminalization and rehabilitation efforts not because he supports drug use, but because it is a “more efficient way to stop drug use and stays true to those values.”

Following his speech, there was a question and answer period with the crowd. Covering issues ranging from French-language education in Ontario to recognition of the plight of the Tamil community, the session dug deep into the NDP’s platform and Singh’s convictions.

Of particular note was his support for voter reform. While he is unsure which specific voting system would work best for Canada, he points out that the current First Past The Post system is intrinsically flawed. Issues such as vote splitting often force people into strategic voting situations where they must vote for an opposing party to prevent their least savoury option from winning.

When asked what people could do to prevent the polarisation of political groups currently seen in the states from continuing in Canada, he reiterated the need for value-based politics and a pragmatic attitude that focuses on your ideals instead of attaching yourself to a party.

“You don’t need to be aligned to a certain party to have values … you need to look at yourself, evaluate what you want and vote in the moment for who you think is going to make that happen.”