TORONTO — A downtown Hamilton riding held for many years by former Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath is expected to remain in the party's hands after a byelection Thursday, despite their candidate being put on the defensive over some of her activism.
Sarah Jama, the candidate for the NDP in Hamilton Centre, is the executive director and co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, co-founded the Hamilton Encampment Support Network, is a founding board member of the Hamilton Transit Riders' Union and was previously a senior program co-ordinator at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.
But some of her work — which she describes as standing up for Palestinian human rights — caught the attention of B'nai Brith, a Jewish organization. The group issued a statement during the campaign labelling Jama as a "radical anti-Israel advocate."
The association charged that Jama has been "associated with" groups that have targeted Israel and supports "anti-Semitic causes."
Jama did not directly provide comment to The Canadian Press on her positions – her team cancelled a scheduled interview the same day the Toronto Star reported on the controversy.
But in a local debate Jama participated in with Liberal candidate Deirdre Pike and Green candidate Lucia Iannantuono — the Progressive Conservative candidate did not attend — she was asked by Pike to address the allegations.
"Nothing has been called out in terms of things that I've said," Jama said.
"Things that have been called out online (are) me standing up for Palestinian human rights, and that cannot be conflated with anti-Semitism. And you know, I think I'm not the only one at this table with messy history around anti racism ... These things are all up for interpretation, right, and again, I will reiterate that I am against anti-Semitism wholeheartedly."
Jama said some of the criticism centres around her association with student groups "running Israeli Apartheid week on campus 10 years ago."
Jama also took heat online this week for a video circulating of her speaking at a rally. In it, she accuses the Hamilton police of targeting Palestinian organizers, saying, "over and over and over again, the Hamilton Police protect Nazism in our city."
NDP Leader Marit Stiles said Wednesday she has seen that clip and that Jama speaks passionately about issues such as policing and human rights.
"Sarah is speaking up on behalf of a lot of her constituents every day, and is known to be a strong advocate against violence and racism," Stiles said at an unrelated press conference.
"We've all ended up at rallies and stuff where maybe we didn't use the right choice of words."
Stiles said last week that Jama is a well-known human rights advocate who has always stood up against hate, anti-Semitism and racism.
For all the oxygen the issue is receiving online and in political circles, one expert said it's unlikely to move the needle much in Thursday's vote.
"I don't think it seems to be resonating much beyond highly partisan individuals," said Adrienne Davidson, an assistant professor of political science at McMaster University.
"It doesn't seem to have made its way into community conversations in a large sort of way. So it doesn't seem, to me, to be shifting things tremendously."
It's likely the issue would get more traction in a general election, when more voters tend to pay attention. During advance voting, about five per cent of those eligible cast a ballot, compared to an 11 per cent advance voting turnout in riding in the 2022 general election, Elections Ontario said.
Low turnout usually favours the incumbent party, Davidson said.
"It's a pretty orange riding, and generally speaking, the downtown ridings of Hamilton generally quite staunchly support the provincial NDP."
Horwath resigned from the Hamilton Centre seat, and as party leader, following last June's provincial election that saw the NDP's seat count decrease. She went on to run successfully as mayor of Hamilton.
Pike, the Liberal candidate in this week's byelection, said she sees this race as more open than in 2018, when she ran against Horwath in the provincial election.
"This is such a different time than 2018, in terms of, people are not beholden, I'd say, to their affection for Andrea as a longtime representative and therefore, they're free to choose and that gives them time to listen to me to if they don't have a clue who I am," she said.
Pike, who has worked for decades in social justice, including advocating for a basic income system, said homelessness is one of the top issues in the riding. The former Liberal government introduced a basic income pilot project in three communities — one of them Hamilton — that Premier Doug Ford cancelled in 2018. The Liberals urged the project's reinstatement during the 2022 election.
Income security is the starting point to address homelessness, Pike said.
"Housing is obviously a key answer, but I think we have to go back one step to income ... when you think about moving people from a street corner, or the bottom of the escarpment, or under a railway track into an apartment or anything like that," she said.
The Progressive Conservative candidate is Hamilton Police Sgt. Peter Wiesner. The party did not make him available for an interview.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2023.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press