BURNABY, B.C.—A trio of federal byelections on Monday will offer more than just an early glimpse of voters’ dispositions, potentially shaking up the political landscape months before Canadians head to the polls en masse.
Ballots will be cast in Ontario’s York-Simcoe and Quebec’s Outremont ridings, but no race is being watched more closely than the one in Burnaby South, B.C., where New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh is vying for his first seat in Parliament.
Burnaby South is a key test of both Singh’s hold on his left-leaning party and the popularity of Maxime Bernier’s new far-right populist party, focused on immigration and carbon taxes.
“Singh needs to win to consolidate his power as the leader of the party,” explained political scientist David Moscrop, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa.
“There’s already rumblings that if he loses, it will be difficult for him to stay on as leader — and (it) would probably further undermine the NDP’s electoral prospects going into the federal election after an already underwhelming year.”
And with Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada running its first big candidate in Burnaby South — former radio host Laura Lynn Tyler Thompson — the election has seen tense all-candidates debates devolve into audience heckling and allegations of racism and extremism.
“If she can nab even 10 per cent, Bernier will be crowing for months,” Moscrop argued. “This is the perfect time for his party to do well. It’s getting outsized media attention, and they can focus on locking down a smaller segment of the electorate.
“Plus, there’s enough disaffection, not to mention xenophobia, today that could express itself as support.”
Here’s what’s at stake in Burnaby South, what voters are saying their top issues are and why this byelection is being so scrutinized across the country.
Who is running?
Singh, a former Ontario provincial politician and lawyer, is facing off against three rival party hopefuls.
One of those rivals, Thompson of the People’s Party of Canada, has generated considerable controversy by tapping into public anxieties around immigration and refugees.
Also running is another former provincial politician, Richard Lee, with the Liberals. Jay Shin is carrying the flag for the federal Conservative party, mounting concerns over the Liberals’ more than three years in office, expressing particular opposition to certain taxes and drug policies.
There are also two independent candidates running.
What is at stake nationally?
It’s seen as a high-stakes byelection beyond the borders of B.C.’s Lower Mainland mainly because experts say it’s a key test of Singh’s hold on the leadership of his party — which he’s headed since 2017 despite not yet holding a seat in Parliament. Facing the Liberals in Ottawa is seen as essential to his party’s chances, and some have speculated he could face an internal coup if he fails his first ballot-box test.
It also remains to be seen whether Bernier’s right-wing populist party, the People’s Party of Canada, has the kind of broad appeal he claims. Burnaby South is the first chance to test that support in a largely working-class city.
Another dynamic is how well the Liberal brand performs, as the party is currently embroiled in allegations that staffers pressured the former attorney general to stop prosecuting Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a high-profile campaign visit to Lee and faced cheering crowds, but Liberal support has fallen in recent polls across the country, including in B.C.
“Byelections are pretty silly tests of public mood,” Moscrop cautioned, “because they don’t really mimic the conditions of a general election.
“They’re a really strange one-off, or in this case, three. People try to read a lot into them but shouldn’t.”
What is the tone on the campaign trail?
Unusually bitter and divisive for a local riding byelection. Three all-candidates debates in a row have descended into audience members shouting accusations of racism, fascism and extremism against each other and candidates onstage.
The spark has been any conversation about immigration, refugees and people illegally crossing the border into Canada. The subjects have stoked anger at recent Yellow Vests rallies and from the People’s Party of Canada, which alleges all three rival parties are soft on screening people entering the country. The People’s party wants a tighter cap on immigration numbers and more prevention of irregular asylum-seekers.
That’s led to accusations of racism and xenophobia — but some in Burnaby South have cited the murder of a Chinese-Canadian teen, allegedly by a Syrian refugee, as evidence of a public safety risk. Meanwhile, the Liberal and NDP candidates have countered that the actions of one individual should not represent an entire group of people.
The People’s party candidate has accused her Conservative opponent of “smearing” her in a pamphlet delivered to constituents, which included pictures of marijuana leaves and empty syringes and alleged the party supports drugs.
The original Liberal candidate in Burnaby South was forced to resign by the party after the Star unearthed online posts in Chinese pointing out that Singh is South Asian.
What do locals say?
Despite Singh’s future hanging in the balance, when the Star hit the suburban city’s streets to find out what regular voters think, locals appeared more focused on anything but the NDP leader’s prospects in Ottawa.
By far, the most commonly cited issue in this byelection was affordable housing, followed by taxes, jobs, the environment and immigration.
Who are Burnaby’s voters?
Burnaby’s demographics are increasingly young and not white, the 2016 census found. Its average age is three years below B.C.’s average, and 69 per cent of its population identifies as a visible minority, more than triple Canada’s rate. (The Greater Toronto Area, by comparison, was 51 per cent visible minorities.)
Burnaby South is home to a sizable Chinese-Canadian community, followed in number by Caucasians, South Asians and Filipinos.
In fact, 54 per cent of Burnaby South residents say they are immigrants, according to the 2016 census, compared to the Canada-wide figure of 14 per cent. (Immigrants in the Greater Toronto Area make up 46 per cent of the population.)
It’s also a historically working-class riding, with the median income at just $28,183 per year, 18 per cent less than the national average. Burnaby South’s poverty rates are significantly higher than the national average, with 22 per cent of residents being defined by Statistics Canada as low income, compared to 16 per cent nationally.
How can eligible voters cast their ballots?
Polls are open to any eligible Burnaby South resident from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday. Since not all Burnaby residents are eligible — the city contains multiple federal ridings — you can find out if you can vote, and where, on Elections Canada’s website.
Melanie Green is a Vancouver-based reporter covering food, culture and policy. Follow her on Twitter: @mdgmedia
David P. Ball is a Vancouver-based reporter covering democracy and politics. Follow him on Twitter: @davidpball