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Jagmeet Singh stood apart from rivals at first debate: prof

NDP, Green and Conservative leaders square off beside Trudeau's empty podium
Singh mic
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh moved to Burnaby in November 2018, in anticipation of the upcoming byelection.

NDP Leader and Burnaby South MP Jagmeet Singh was able to contrast his vision for Canada against those of Green Leader Elizabeth May and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer during the first debate of the 2019 federal election, according to political scientist Stewart Prest.  

But perhaps the biggest contrast of the night was between the three leaders standing behind podiums and the empty podium reserved for Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who chose not to attend. 

The debate, moderated by Maclean’s writer Paul Wells and jointly hosted by the magazine and Citytv, saw the three major-party opposition leaders square off on four issues: the economy, Indigenous issues, energy and the environment and foreign policy. 

According to Prest, Singh was able to paint key contrasts between himself and his two rivals on stage. 

Singh committed to upholding the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which requires governments to obtain “free, prior and informed consent” from Indigenous nations affected by potential resource projects. 

Scheer criticized the provision, saying it would allow for “tremendous uncertainty” in Canada’s economy. 


“If there are Indigenous communities who want a project to proceed, they would be vetoed if there were some (communities) that were opposed,” the Conservative leader said. “There are many laudable goals within this piece of legislation, many things that a Conservative government will support, that I will support as prime minister. But we cannot create a system in this country where one group of individuals, one Indigenous community, can hold hostage large projects that employ so many Indignenous Canadians.”

Scheer used outdated language by saying First Nations could hold a project “hostage,” Prest said. 

The exchange demonstrated a “sharp divide between the NDP position and the Conservative position,” he said. 

May also criticized Scheer for his stance on UNDRIP, saying she was “appalled” at his choice of language. 

It wasn’t the only time the Green and New Democrat leaders were singing a similar tune. Both touted their pharmacare proposals, bold climate change action and affordable housing platforms.    

But, Prest said, as the two fight for third place in the polls, Singh successfully demonstrated how he and his party are different from that of May and the Greens.

“There's a couple of points that we disagree on,” Singh told May. “When it comes down to it, the Green Party and New Democrats share a lot in common, except for the following four points: When it comes down to it, we have a solid position, unlike the Greens, on a woman's right to choose. We have a solid position when it comes down to national unity. We have a belief that we can't leave workers behind. And we strongly believe that we should not be putting Mr. Scheer in  the prime minister's seat, unlike Ms. May and the Green Party, who believe that's the right choice.”

May called Singh’s claims “absurd.”

Later in the debate, May addressed Singh’s claim she would prop up a Conservative government in a minority Parliament, saying she would only support a government that commits to stringent greenhouse-gas emissions reductions. 

Prest said the most significant contrast between the NDP and Greens may be a matter of familiarity and perceived reliability.

“The Green Party has this perennial problem that we don't really know what a Green economic plan looks like ... Voters know more what to expect from an NDP government,” he said. 

At the end of the day, the biggest story from the debate will likely be Trudeau’s absence, Prest said.

“It does suggest there's a little – cowardice is a strong word but there's an unwillingness to meet any and all comers and that's also a departure from previous versions of Trudeau,” he said.