Ontario NDP candidate Sarah Jama won a provincial byelection Thursday in Hamilton Centre, securing a party stronghold represented for many years by former party leader Andrea Horwath.
Jama had garnered 54 per cent of the vote with nearly all of the polls reporting, beating Liberal Deirdre Pike, Progressive Conservative Peter Wiesner, the Green party’s Lucia Iannantuono and six other candidates.
She said there isn’t a moment to waste at the Ontario legislature.
“The Ontario NDP are in an important fight for improved access to public health care, stronger protections for renters, and the need for more affordable, accessible communities,” she said in a statement. “I’m ready to get to work. Let’s do this.”
NDP Leader Marit Stiles said Hamilton Centre has a long history of hard-working, progressive representation.
“Sarah has been a dedicated, tenacious part of that work for a long time,” she said in a statement. “She’s a leader who understands the power of solidarity to win more for people and build stronger, more caring communities.”
Jama had been widely expected to win, despite being put on the defensive over some of her activism.
She is the executive director and co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario and co-founded the Hamilton Encampment Support Network, among other community involvement. But Jewish organizations criticized some of her associations and remarks.
B’nai Brith charged she was a “radical anti-Israel advocate” and other groups later weighed in, saying they were troubled by some of what they heard from Jama.
She said the criticism centred around what she describes as standing up for Palestinian human rights, and her association with student groups “running Israeli Apartheid week on campus 10 years ago,” which shouldn’t be conflated with anti-Semitism.
“I am against anti-Semitism wholeheartedly,” she said during a debate.
She also took heat online this week for a video circulating of her speaking at a rally, reportedly in 2021. 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.” She also talks about Israel, saying, “the same people will continue to fund the killing of people here, locally and globally.”
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies condemned what they called the “wild conspiratorial accusations.”
The group’s president and CEO Michael Levitt met Wednesday with NDP Leader Marit Stiles, who has stood by her candidate.
“FSWC 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,” the group said in a statement.
Stiles said Wednesday at an unrelated press conference that many politicians have ended up at rallies “where maybe we didn’t use the right choice of words.”
The Hamilton Jewish Federation also said no matter who won, the reports about Jama have caused pain to the Jewish community.
“This impact must be acknowledged and addressed,” group president Howard Eisenberg said in a statement.
“The Federation’s door is open to help deepen understanding of Hamilton’s vibrant and diverse Jewish community, particularly in the context of rising hate in this city.”
Horwath represented Hamilton Centre, as well as a predecessor riding, at the Ontario legislature since 2004 and consistently won with wide margins but stepped down as leader and resigned her seat last year after the party failed to win the provincial election.
Turnout was low during advance voting – which experts say tends to favour incumbent parties – with about five per cent of those eligible casting a ballot, compared to an 11 per cent advance voting turnout in riding in the 2022 general election.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2023.