OTTAWA — For NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, the path to a stronger presence in Parliament runs through Quebec — but the trail is littered with obstacles.
New Democrats, whose members gather virtually for a policy convention this weekend, are targeting younger voters with renewed pitches on student debt relief, more affordable housing and a cap on cellphone and internet bills.
All were highlighted during a virtual tour of la belle province last week, dubbed Oser — dare, in French.
But the party is polling below 20 per cent with little concentration of support outside of a few neighbourhoods in Montreal, says Karl Bélanger, president of consulting firm Traxxion Strategies and former senior adviser to the NDP.
"The prospects at this point are limited. But the potential of growth is there," he said, citing polls that show a majority of Quebec voters would consider the NDP as their second choice. The challenge is to convert this group to the orange team.
A flare-up of identity politics touching on issues from language rights to systemic racism — and fanned by the Bloc Québécois — threatens to cast the NDP on the far side of sensitive cultural divides.
Internal splits over the definition of anti-Semitism and proposed policies calling for abolition of the military and nationalization of major automakers could give the impression of preoccupations that differ from Canadians' immediate concerns: COVID-19 vaccinations, economic recovery and the white-hot real estate market.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to hog much of the spotlight during a federal vaccine rollout that has begun to flow more quickly, despite a shaky start.
Singh repeatedly states that the NDP fought successfully over the past year to beef up emergency response benefits, wage subsidies and sick-leave payments, and that Canadians recognize that achievement.
"I'm not so worried about recognition in terms of, like, I need people to be able to rattle off the NDP did this, this, this and that," Singh said in an interview.
"I just want people to know I fought for them."
But failing to get credit for programs unfurled with NDP input in a minority Liberal government has been the bane of New Democrats for decades at the federal and provincial levels.
Minority regimes under Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa and David Peterson and Kathleen Wynne at Queen's Park have all roared back to majority status come election day after co-operating with NDP lawmakers in various ways that proved electorally fruitless for them.
"He’s got a problem there," Brooke Jeffrey, a political-science professor at Concordia University in Montreal, said of Singh.
"(Liberals) have pulled the classic manoeuvre of accepting some of the NDP suggestions and making them theirs. And therefore if the public approves of them, it’s them who get the credit. This has been going on since Pearson’s time."
The Liberal tilt to the left on issues ranging from pharmacare to government spending leaves the NDP compelled to propose even more leftward policies if it wants to stand out. That move runs the risk of isolating some voters, particularly those wary of heavy-handed feds muscling in on provincial turf.
On top of national plans for pharmacare and dental care, Singh says an NDP government would work to eliminate for-profit long-term care by 2030 and establish publicly owned vaccine-manufacturing facilities.
New Democrats say they have no intention of stepping on the provinces' jurisdiction, despite the more interventionist stance.
"Of course some will say, ‘This is not the business of the federal government," said Alexandre Boulerice, Quebec's sole remaining New Democrat MP.
"But the approach will not be Ottawa knows best."
In the 2015 campaign, the party pledged that an NDP government would let Quebec opt out of new federally funded social programs and receive cash with no conditions.
Boulerice is banking that this asymmetrical federalism, a long-standing NDP approach, will work to the party's advantage.
The legacy of Jack Layton also looms large. The NDP hit a high-water mark of 59 seats in Quebec in the 2011 federal election under "le bon Jack," only to ebb to 16 seats in 2015 and just one in 2019, sapping its organizational strength.
While observers sometimes forget Layton was on his fourth go-round at the polls as leader in 2011, his family also had a long history in the province's politics. His father was a Montreal-born cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney's government and his grandfather served under Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis.
Singh has no such lineage, nor as solid a grasp of the French language, though he speaks it fluently.
A socially conscious Green party is openly looking to siphon off votes from the NDP in Montreal, while the Conservatives are hoping to poach trade unionists and more rural ridings that have flipped between orange and blue.
"I don't think it's a problem for the NDP; I think it's a problem for the Liberals," Singh said of the Green target on his back.
"Justin Trudeau said the climate crisis was important, bought a pipeline, continues to exempt the biggest polluters and continues to subsidize the fossil fuel sector," he said, noting Quebecers, who tend to be more environmentally-minded, may see these as failings despite the government court win on the national carbon price.
Boulerice says Quebecers and Canadians view the NDP as the party of fresh ideas amid what he calls Liberal inaction on pharmacare, climate change and other fronts, with the pandemic leaving New Democrats well poised to seize on an era of big government.
"We will let (the) Bloc Québécois and the Conservative party fight for right-wing conservative nationalism, and we will go with solidarity and friendship with First Nations and racialized people," he said.
"Maybe Justin was able to do it seven years ago, but he's not the cool guy anymore. And he disappointed a lot of people. So we'll go after Liberal voters, especially young Liberal voters, and I think that technique is doing very well and will do better during a campaign, because (Singh's) a performer."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2021.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press