OTTAWA — The relevance of the NDP in an election year will be put to the test next month in federal byelections called Wednesday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau set Feb. 25 as the date for byelections in the Ontario riding of York-Simcoe, Montreal's Outremont and British Columbia's Burnaby South — where NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is hoping to win a seat in the House of Commons.
The latter two will be important tests for New Democrats, who've been struggling to find their footing since their party was relegated to a distant third in the 2015 general election, reversing the NDP's historic 2011 breakthrough. The NDP has trailed the Liberals and Conservatives badly in both fundraising and opinion polls ever since — a situation that benefits the ruling party and worries the Tories, who want a strong NDP to siphon off Liberal votes.
For Singh, victory in Burnaby South is crucial, giving him an opportunity to raise his profile and shake off internal criticism about his leadership. Defeat could prompt New Democrats to dump Singh and replace him ahead of the Oct. 21 general election.
"The time for timid is over," he said in a news conference outside a Burnaby SkyTrain station. He said he's ready to "fight Ottawa" and push for policies that will make life easier and more affordable.
"I'm determined to make people the priority," he said.
The riding is no cakewalk for Singh, a former Ontario MPP whose political home had been Brampton, northwest of Toronto. Kennedy Stewart, now Vancouver mayor, won Burnaby South for the NDP in 2015 with just over 500 votes more than the Liberal contender. But Singh will benefit somewhat from the Green party's decision not to field a candidate in the byelection, extending so-called "leader's courtesy" to a leader seeking to enter Parliament.
The Liberals, after much internal debate about whether to stand down, are running daycare operator Karen Wang, while the Conservatives are fielding corporate lawyer Jay Shin. Former talk-show host Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson, who has championed opposition to B.C.'s inclusive approach to dealing with gender identity and sexual orientation in schools, is running for the People's Party of Canada.
Singh said he's confident of his prospects but also said he'll lead the NDP into the next general election whether he wins or loses the byelection.
The race in Outremont, left vacant when former NDP leader Tom Mulcair resigned, will also be seen as a test of whether the NDP can hang on what's left of the orange wave that swept Quebec in 2011.
Outremont had been a Liberal stronghold until Mulcair scored an upset in a 2007 byelection, establishing an NDP beachhead in Quebec for the party's breakthrough there four years later. Trudeau's Liberals, who are running well ahead in the polls in Quebec, are gunning to take the seat back.
The Conservatives are expected to easily keep York-Simcoe, left vacant by the resignation of longtime Tory MP Peter Van Loan.
It remains to be seen what impact the fledgling People's Party of Canada might have. Former Tory minister Maxime Bernier split from the Conservatives and created the new party last summer. During the Tories' 2017 leadership contest, Bernier won more support in both Outremont and York-Simcoe than Andrew Scheer, who wound up edging out Bernier on the final ballot.
Bernier hasn't named byelection candidates in either of those ridings but is expected to do so by the end of the week. His party hasn't had time to hold nomination contests so instead Bernier asked leaders in each riding to put forward names and then potential candidates were interviewed before a decision was made.
Bernier has defended Tyler Thompson as his first candidate, after critics questioned how her opposition to the "trans agenda" in schools squares with Bernier's libertarian philosophy.
"Nonsense," he said Tuesday on Twitter. "There is room for everyone who supports our platform and the values of freedom, responsibility, fairness and respect. And this includes Laura-Lynn."
Trudeau has been criticized by both Singh and Scheer for refusing to call the three byelections last fall, at the same time as another eastern Ontario byelection. In December, his office said the prime minister would call the three early in the new year for early February.
"The people of Burnaby South deserve a voice in Ottawa as they face some of the highest housing costs, skyrocketing medical fees, and deep concern for their own future and the future of the environment," Singh said last week. "It's clear Mr. Trudeau isn't acting on the best interest of the people of Burnaby but rather he's focused on the best interest of his own political party."
Wednesday, he said there should be a law requiring a byelection to be called within 45 days of an MP's leaving office.
Similarly, Scheer said last week: "As 2019 begins, Justin Trudeau is once again putting his own partisan interests ahead of Canadians who deserve to have their voices heard in Parliament. Four seats are currently vacant, but Trudeau refuses to commit to calling all four by-elections."
The fourth vacancy is in the B.C. riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith, where New Democrat MP Sheila Malcolmson officially resigned last week to seek a seat in the provincial legislature. Trudeau did not call a byelection for that riding, which could be left without representation until the general election on Oct. 21.
Under changes to elections laws passed last month, the prime minister cannot call a byelection within nine months of the date set for a general election, making Jan. 20 the latest Trudeau could call any further byelections.
Liberal MP Nicola Di Iorio has said he will resign his Montreal seat on Jan. 22 after scarcely appearing in the House of Commons all autumn. Brampton MP Raj Grewal, a former Liberal who's left the party caucus, had also said he'd resign to deal with a gambling addiction but later reversed himself.
—With files from Mia Rabson.