He’s the most-liked national political leader in Canada, wears sharply tailored suits, has graced the pages of a men’s fashion magazine and is followed by starstruck fans on social media. And he’s not Justin Trudeau.
With Canada heading to the polls after a snap election controversially called by Trudeau, Jagmeet Singh, leader of the progressive New Democratic party (NDP), has quickly emerged as the most affable politician in Canada – and a powerful figure who is unlikely to become prime minister.
On that last point, Singh and party leaders disagree. He argues that, like the other leaders, he’s competing for a chance to govern when the country votes on 20 September. But although the former human rights lawyer may end up a casualty of a multi-party system that rewards Trudeau’s Liberals and the Conservatives, he could gain kingmaker status.
His appeal among voters comes as Trudeau has stumbled in the polls. Surveys have found up to three-quarters of Canadians disagree with holding an election during the fourth wave of the pandemic. The prime minister is trailing Conservative rival Erin O’Toole by three points. The rookie Tory leader has spent weeks closing the policy gap between his party and the governing Liberals.
On the left, however, Singh is looking to widen that gap. Running on promises to make prescription drugs available to all Canadians, cutting emissions to 50% of 2005 levels by 2030, writing off student-loan debt and tackling inflated housing and rental markets, Singh’s campaign has enjoyed an uptick in support since the election was called in late August.
With his youth and charisma, Singh, 42, has been compared to Trudeau, a leader criticised for focusing on optics over substance and policy. But at a recent visit to Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, where 751 , Singh drew a stark line between himself and the Liberal leader: “I’m not Justin Trudeau. I’m not like him. I’ve lived a different life. I understand the pain of being not valued, not worth anything. Indigenous people have been made to feel that way for so long. And I promise you, I’ll be different.”
Born in Scarborough, Ontario, Singh spent much of his early life on the move after his father Jagtaran, a psychiatrist, took jobs at different hospitals. Jagtaran became an alcoholic and was abusive towards both Jagmeet and his younger brother Gurratan. Following an incident with their father, Jagmeet, then at university, took Gurratan to live with him.
Gurratan recently said: “I was getting a bit frightened, quite frankly, and anxious at home. And Jagmeet kind of, at the perfect moment, took me off to London, Ontario.” Now a provincial politician and adviser to his older brother, Gurratan added: “He didn’t want me to feel those emotions again.” The pair lived together in a small apartment, with Jagmeet taking several jobs as he juggled his university work.
Jagmeet Singh’s story of persistence over adversity, and his gift for mingling with crowds, made him a strong favourite when the party voted for a new leader in 2017.
But his initial honeymoon was shortlived: veterans of the New Democrats fled amid infighting and backstabbing. The party bled money, and weak poll numbers suggested Singh would need to fight hard to both win himself a seat in parliament and prevent the party from splintering nationally.
His popularity soared after a powerful debate performance in the 2019 election, but the cash-strapped party could do little to capitalise on the success. Two years later, and with far more funding, Singh’s face is plastered across billboards, public transport, social media – and on newly released “Jagmeet swag”, including T-shirts celebrating “the Jagmeet UpriSingh”. He also has an immense following on TikTok, where his videos, ranging from policy critiques to clips of him skateboarding, regularly get millions of views.
“It is a personality-driven app. If you have charisma and you have personality on camera, that’s going to benefit you.” said Wave Wyld, a Toronto-based TikTok consultant. “There’s aren’t a lot of politicians on TikTok.”
In contrast, she points to Trudeau’s use of photo-ops, rather than videos, highlighting the different ways they engage with social media.
“Trudeau’s not making entertaining, compelling videos. He’s just talking to the camera in a professional, serious tone about what he stands for,” she said. “But on TikTok, the culture is very playful and light-hearted. And Jagmeet has also played into that. It makes him relatable – you don’t take yourself too seriously on the app.”
But TikTok views mean little unless Singh can convert them into votes. Under Canada’s parliamentary system, where the country elects local candidates to the house of commons instead of casting a ballot for party leaders, Singh’s favourability only takes him so far.
“People often think of the NDP as a third party, not as an alternative to government,” said Lori Turnbull, professor of political science at Dalhousie University. “Singh’s ability to grow his popularity effectively maxes out because people don’t think they’re going to form a government. The electoral system is no friend to him.”
Barring a political miracle, his party is set to capture far fewer than the 170 seats needed for a majority – putting the New Democrats in third place. But if polling projections prove correct and a minority government is elected, Singh could hold the balance of power in Ottawa.
For the past two years, his party has propped up the Liberals. Singh claims his party got concessions on emergency coronavirus benefits – but Turnbull says he didn’t go far enough. “He should have been harder on Trudeau. He should have had more to show for the NDP support,” she said.
In the last election, Singh refused to work with then Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. But this time he has expressed an openness to collaborating with O’Toole on policies that both parties say are priorities, including childcare and housing.
A shift in Trudeau’s political fortunes could produce a scenario in which the Conservatives win more seats than the Liberals, but still need another party’s support to govern.
“Singh … doesn’t want to be in the back seat of the Liberal car. He wants a presence in shaping policy,” said Turnbull. “If he and O’Toole sense they can bring down Trudeau, it might be a prospect too juicy to pass up.”