Jagmeet Singh tries not to pick sides on the Alberta and B.C. pipeline fight

With B.C. and Alberta feuding over the Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, the new federal NDP leader faces a party unity challenge

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh talks to Paul Wells at the Maclean's Live event at Ottawa's National Arts Centre on February 8, 2018

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh talks to Paul Wells at the Maclean’s Live event at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on February 8, 2018 (Photo by Brian Gable)

Jagmeet Singh on Tuesday did his best not to wade into the fight between Canada’s two existing NDP governments, even as he tried to make clear how he would lead one at the federal level.

British Columbia and Alberta are feuding over the proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, and over the past week premiers John Horgan and Rachel Notley have been taking turns to aim barbs and trade restrictions at each other’s provinces. The B.C. government announced last week that it would not allow increases in the amount of bitumen being shipped through its territory as it examines the effect of potential coastal spills. The move is being seen as a clear attempt to hamper the Trans Mountain project.

Speaking to Paul Wells in his first major national appearance at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on Tuesday, Singh tried to divert attention away from the disagreement between the two provincial NDP leaders and towards his federal opponent. “My fight isn’t with either of these premiers, who are phenomenal. And we need them both in power,” he said. “My fight is with the prime minister who promised to overhaul our environmental assessment process.”


Singh, still relatively unknown outside his home province of Ontario, has been travelling the country to meet voters. “People feel okay about the government, in fairness, but they do feel stuck in their lives,” he said, citing student debt, housing affordability and precarious work as particular problems he has been hearing about. Inequality is the common thread, he suggested. “Wealth is being generated, but it’s being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands,” he said. “We need to make sure that we develop an inclusive economy.”

RELATED: In B.C. and Alberta’s pipeline fight, only one side is unified

Party unity was one theme of the discussion on Tuesday, with the NDP holding its convention in Ottawa next week. With six MPs, including party Parliamentary Leader and former leadership rival Guy Caron, in attendance, Singh said “it’s important to start putting out our values.”

At the Edmonton convention in 2016, proponents of the Leap Manifesto, a set of environmentally-focused proposals for overhauling the economy, succeeded in passing a motion to have the party review the policy at the riding level. Singh said he didn’t have insight into how that has played out specifically. He suggested there is an alignment on values, boiling it down to protecting the environment and creating sustainable work.

WATCH: Jagmeet Singh on the Leap manifesto

Wells pointed to recent reports that some of the manifesto’s evangelists are bringing organizers for leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Democratic primary runner-up Bernie Sanders to Ottawa to speak alongside the party convention.

READ: Avi Lewis on the ‘ideological battle’ over the Leap Manifesto

Discussion and debate are important, Singh said, but there’s a shared set of interests among progressives.  “Sometimes folks focus on the minute differences,” he said. “But there’s so much in common in terms of people that want to care for another [and] of our neighbour [and] this place we call home, our planet.”

Under Singh, the NDP have not fared well in byelections, and the party’s poll numbers have seen no noticeable bump. The Edmonton convention also orchestrated the ouster of predecessor Tom Mulcair, despite him having lead the NDP to its second-best electoral result ever the previous year.  The euphoria of the Orange Wave in 2011 had raised expectations, Wells suggested. “Jack Layton definitely elevated the bar,” Singh acknowledged. But he focused on Layton’s ability to “connect everyday people,” a trait Singh often identifies as being amongst his own strengths. “He was someone that took the stories that people told him and brought those to the spotlight, and gave them the attention they deserved,” Singh said. “That’s what we need to hold as the standard.”

It would also help Singh to be able to point to successful examples of NDP governments. Both Notley and Horgan are doing what they promised voters, Singh insisted, citing the former’s opposition to cuts to education and healthcare and focus on the economy, and the latter’s commitment to environmental protection.

WATCH: Jagmeet Singh on fossil fuels in Canada

Horgan, whose party govern to an agreement with the Greens, promised during last year’s election campaign to use “every tool in the toolbox” to halt the project. Alberta counterpart Notley, whose 2015 win put the party in power in the province for the first time, has suspended wine imports from B.C. in response.

RELATED: The NDP’s great pipeline divide

Singh took a position against the Trans Mountain expansion during the federal NDP leadership campaign. Notley later called his stance on the issue “absolutely wrong,” and said she was not going to concern herself with “what people who are not in government are doing in other parts of the country, in hypothetical conversations, over which they have no agency.”

But on Tuesday, Singh was clear to praise her policies. “If we want to achieve our goals as a nation in terms of reducing emissions and tackling climate change, we can’t do that without a premier like [Notley] in Alberta,” he said.