Even as Jagmeet Singh set out to make the case that his is the only party that will fight for ordinary people and is ready for serious clout, the NDP policy convention took on a chaotic edge because of tensions over the Mideast war.
The NDP sees a political opportunity in how unpopular the governing Liberals have become. The party, at the gathering in Hamilton, wants to demonstrate to voters that the policy wins landed through their supply-and-confidence agreement with the minority government are only the start of what it can deliver for Canadians.
The NDP Leader delivered a keynote speech on Saturday at the party’s first in-person convention in five years, seeking both to motivate New Democrats who share his vision and to sell that vision to Canadians who feel stressed, anxious and forgotten.
In his telling, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t care enough about the cost of living because he can’t fundamentally understand the problem, having lived a life of privilege. And Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, according to Mr. Singh, is merely pretending to be on the side of ordinary people, while using their anger and anxiety as a bellows.
“People get angry when they see how hard it is for them to get by while others are living better than ever. Justin Trudeau wants to ignore your anger. And what Pierre Poilievre wants to do is use your anger to divide our country,” Mr. Singh said.
“But when I talk to people who are angry about the cost of living, it makes me want to work harder for them, and to make Ottawa work for them instead of the rich and powerful.”
While there was a very clear political project for the NDP in the weekend convention, something bigger and darker loomed over the proceedings. Saturday marked one week since Hamas launched a devastating attack on Israeli civilians, reigniting all-out war in Gaza.
Many components of the political left are strongly aligned with the Palestinian cause, so it was inevitable that the issue would flare up on the convention floor.
Earlier in the week, Ontario NDP MPP Sarah Jama had been chastised by her party leader and faced rival parties’ calls to resign over a statement in which she urged, “End all occupation of Palestinian land and end apartheid” while not acknowledging the Hamas atrocities. And Fred Hahn, president of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), praised “the power of resistance” in response to the initial Hamas attack.
When the convention began, Israel didn’t immediately surface in an obvious way, save for a handful of people distributing flyers for a pro-Palestinian rally outside the convention centre doors.
But by Saturday morning, when Mr. Singh spoke just before facing a vote by members on his leadership, tensions that had been simmering beneath the surface burst into view. About a dozen protesters chanting “Free Palestine” and waving Palestinian flags got into the convention centre and made their way up the stairs, before they were stopped just outside the main convention hall.
On stage inside that room, Mr. Singh told delegates that in the past week, he had listened to and absorbed the grief and fear of both Jewish and Palestinian Canadians as thousands of innocent civilians were killed, with more grim news certain to come.
“There can be no justification for the torture, murder and sexual violence committed by Hamas,” Mr. Singh said.
The remark was greeted with a staunch round of applause. After a pause to let the reaction die down, Mr. Singh continued, “And we must call for the immediate end of the killing of innocent civilians in Gaza. The world cannot stand by while the people of Gaza are left to die.”
That statement was met with much louder cheering and a protracted standing ovation, making it obvious where most of the emotional energy of members was directed.
A short time later, four delegates had their credentials revoked for violating the party’s anti-harassment policy in connection with the pro-Palestinian protest. During an afternoon policy debate, one of the four stepped to a microphone to ask a question on an unrelated point, which led to another member angrily protesting that the person was still participating in the proceedings. That, in turn, sparked shouting in the crowd.
In a panel on foreign affairs policy immediately after the uproar, a visibly angry Heather McPherson, the party’s foreign affairs critic, denounced the idea that a delegate who had already been turfed was interrupting.
“They are silencing our ability to speak about foreign affairs issues,” the MP for Edmonton Strathcona shouted, to loud applause from the crowd. “So I’m gonna start. I’m gonna start by saying that the world right now feels incredibly dangerous and scary, that we have members of our own party who found out a week ago that members of their own family had been murdered.”
For a time, it seemed as though the entire convention might boil over. But curiously, when Israel came up again in a substantive way, with an emergency resolution calling on the NDP to “reiterate their condemnation of Hamas terrorist attacks” and “call for an end to Israel’s total siege of Gaza,” tempers had cooled and the debate was orderly, if emotional.
The policy passed, and members rejected one delegate’s proposal to send the resolution back to add wording that Palestinians are living in an apartheid state.
Instead, in that final segment of the day, it was a resolution to give the Liberals a clear ultimatum – move on pharmacare, now, or we pull the plug on keeping your government afloat – that elicited the biggest emotional reaction from the NDP faithful.
Don Davies, MP for Vancouver Kingsway and the party’s health critic, stepped to the microphone to remind everyone of a fact that few in the room were likely to forget: six decades ago, it was Liberal minority governments pushed by the NDP’s Tommy Douglas that got Canada universal medicare.
And now, Mr. Davies said, today’s NDP had forced another Liberal minority government to commit to pharmacare, but “they are weaselling out.”
“We know that we can cover every single Canadian in this country and save billions of dollars by folding pharmaceuticals into our public health care,” Mr. Davies thundered. “And by God, it’s time to do it right now.”
This was something on which the whole room could rapturously agree.