If New Democrats want a leader who will focus on Canada’s business community, the environment and health care, Martin Singh says he’s their man.

The pharmacist from Musquodoboit Harbour, N.S., is pitching himself as the business-friendly candidate in the race to succeed Jack Layton. It’s a curious strategy considering his party’s deep roots and close ties with unions and labour groups.

"People might think it’s not exactly an exact fit for a business person to go with the NDP, but for me, I saw no contradiction there," Singh said in a recent interview.

His pro-business slant does put him at odds with some of his rival candidates, however. Singh says he wants to make it easier to do business in Canada and is proposing more foreign investment, reducing bureaucracy and other measures, while his rival Brian Topp talked this week about raising taxes on high-income earners and corporations, measures that critics say will make it harder to do business here.

Singh said he was drawn to the NDP about 15 years ago, and he's been involved with the party at provincial and federal levels, working on campaigns and attending conventions whenever they occur. He supported Layton in the 2003 leadership convention and said his death in August was a tragic event.

"No candidate is going to be able to fill his shoes. I’m interested in building upon his legacy," Singh said.

He is currently president of the Sackville-Eastern Shore riding association and the NDP’s faith and social justice commission. The first campaign he worked on was Alexa McDonough’s, the party’s former leader and MP for Halifax, where Singh attended Dalhousie University and completed degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering. He gave up his plans to do a PhD in environmental engineering when his father asked him to take over his pharmacy business when he was diagnosed with cancer. Singh then obtained his pharmacy degree at Dalhousie.

He and his brother carried on the family business and expanded it to include more stores in Nova Scotia and one in London, Ont., and they operate six residential care facilities in both provinces. Singh also started an investment company called Amritdhari Investments, geared toward members of the Sikh community.

He was born Martin Hill, raised in a Protestant family and later converted to the Sikh faith. His religion is a significant part of his personal background, but Singh says his focus for his campaign is his business background, and that’s why the first set of policy proposals he’s made are related to doing business in Canada.

National entrepreneurship strategy

Singh outlines his call for a new national strategy to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship on his website, and he says he wants to engage Canadians in a conversation about "the positive value of business, innovation, profit, wealth creation and entrepreneurship."

He says he wants to create an environment where it’s easier for people to invest and become entrepreneurs. His proposals include:

  • Tax incentives for people who invest in a family member’s business.
  • Lowering the cost of consulting programs.
  • Developing youth mentorship programs.
  • Increasing financial literacy.
  • Encouraging more foreign investment.

Singh, who has an MBA degree from St. Mary’s University, says the Conservative government doesn’t have a coherent policy that appeals to Canada’s business community.

"As a result of that, that is what I want to bring forward," he said. "That is what I’m interested in sharing with Canadians and members of the New Democratic Party and it is for that reason that I am running," he said.

'My focus for this campaign is on business, health care and the environment.'—Martin Singh, NDP leadership candidate

Singh so far is up against five other candidates: Topp, the party’s president who stepped down to run, and MPs Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar, Romeo Saganash and Thomas Mulcair.

Topp and Mulcair have both amassed a number of endorsements from the NDP caucus and notable party members and all of the candidates have a higher profile than Singh, but he says he has been getting support from "coast to coast to coast" from people of all backgrounds.

"The diversity of the campaign reflects the diversity of the nation I guess is the best way I can put it," said Singh.

He is taking time off work to campaign full-time for the NDP’s top job and is opening campaign offices on the West Coast, the East Coast and in Central Canada.

In addition to business, talking about health care and the environment will be priorities in the six-month campaign, Singh says.

The married father of three children says he is committed to running for a seat in the House of Commons regardless of whether he wins at the leadership convention in Toronto in March. He doesn’t see his lack of elected experience as a disadvantage.

"Each of the candidates have their own strength that they bring to the race, mine is my business experience," he said. "There’s an opportunity here to have a person who is a businessman run in politics. That’s not just rare for the New Democratic Party, that’s rare across the political spectrum."

'Delighted' to be a member of Canadian Forces reserves

In addition to a businessman with expertise in health care, Singh portrays himself as a patriotic Canadian. He’s a member of the Canadian Forces reserves and says that’s an example of his "very deep commitment to this country."

"I’m absolutely delighted to be in uniform," he said.

He wasn’t faced with any deployments to Afghanistan but said if asked, he "absolutely" would have served his tour of duty.

The NDP, however, wanted Canadian troops out of Afghanistan years before the combat mission came to an end this summer. When Parliament voted in 2006 to extend Canada’s involvement, the NDP voted against it.

Singh was asked whether he thought his commitment to serving in Afghanistan contradicted his party’s policy of wanting troops out of there.

"My focus for this campaign is on business, health care and the environment," he responded. Singh was pressed for an answer but repeated that his focus is on the topics he mentioned, and not on Canada’s military and Afghanistan.

"When these particular issues come up as part of the campaign and the candidates are talking about it as part of the debates and what not then I will engage the topic at that time," he said.

Singh was asked if there are any NDP policies he disagrees with or varies on, and he said his beliefs "are in line with party policy."