EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.
The Ontario NDP’s Sarah Jama will soon bring her fight to the halls of power at Queen’s Park.
The activist and executive director of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario won a resounding victory in Thursday’s byelection to replace her party’s former leader, Andrea Horwath.
The byelection win showed the NDP has a strong hold on the riding that has voted NDP at both the provincial and federal levels for almost two decades. It sent Horwath to Queen’s Park for 17 years, even as Hamilton’s other ridings shifted among other parties.
At the outset of the election, a political strategist told The Trillium that anything short of victory would be catastrophic for the party’s leader, Marit Stiles. “If she lost it, it would be a massive embarrassment of epic proportions,” said Karl Baldauf, a vice president with McMillan Vantage.
Matthew Green, the riding’s NDP MP, put it this way: Hamilton Centre is a “class stronghold” where the values of the unionized steel-working jobs of the ‘80s and ‘90s live on among non-unionized service-sector workers and white-collar gentrifiers moving in from Toronto.
“They're moving into a working-class city, and they're doing it to maintain working-class values,” he said.
READ MORE: Hamilton byelection pits protester against cop
Jama comes from the party’s activist tradition.
Two years ago, she gave an impassioned speech about “abolishing” the systems that support violence against Muslim and disabled people.
“It's not about getting the right people into positions of power, because the systems themselves are corrupt,” said Jama at a rally in support of Palestinians at Toronto City Hall in May of 2021.
That speech led the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) to issue a press release about it the day before the election, saying the group had met with leader Stiles and “proposed a constructive road forward and stressed the importance of tackling Jew-hatred head-on, offering antisemitism education to the Ontario NDP in the aftermath of this latest controversy.”
In a video clip of the speech circulating online, Jama appears to draw parallels between local police and the state of Israel, blaming both for killing disabled people and Muslim people. In a convoluted way, she criticizes “liberal-minded people” who support and fund those systems, and she seems to call Israel “illegitimate.”
The FSWC also highlighted a since-deleted Tweet in which she said she withdrew from giving a keynote speech from a disability organization because the CEO was “defending the Israeli occupation.”
“You can’t defend the occupation and care about disability justice. Israel is disabling and killing entire families,” she tweeted.
Earlier this month, B’nai Brith Canada had called on the NDP to withdraw the candidacy of the “radical activist” over her support of the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement.
Jama apologized in a statement to the FSWC for her “poor choice of words,” which she said had been “harmful.”
“This was never my intention, but I recognize the impact,” she said.
Throughout, Stiles has stood by Jama as a candidate, saying her candidate would stand with the Jewish community against antisemitism as an MPP.
"Sarah Jama has been unequivocal in her condemnation of antisemitism, but her choice of words in the video circulating online have caused real concern for members of the Jewish community. I want to acknowledge that harm, especially in a climate of rising antisemitism,” said Stiles in response to FSWC's concern.
The Progressive Conservative candidate was Peter Wiesner, supervising sergeant of the Crisis Response Branch of the Hamilton Police Service, a specialized unit that combines officers, paramedics, and mental health workers.
The Liberal candidate, Deirdre Pike, ran for the party in 2018 and worked for the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton for 20 years.
Lucia Iannantuono, the Green candidate, works as a hardware designer at a biotech startup.