By Megan Dias
In a landslide victory, Jagmeet Singh has become the new leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party.
Despite predictions that voting could go into multiple rounds and ostensibly drag on until mid-October, Singh won 53.6 per cent of the first-ballot votes on Sunday. He easily beat out his closest rival, Charlie Angus, who garnered only 19.3 per cent.
Singh’s victory is historic.
He is the first person of colour to be elected leader of a major Canadian political party. He is a proud Sikh; he wears a turban, and carries a kirpan — a ceremonial knife. He openly talks about his experiences with racism, and has fought for policies that would combat racism.
As a member of provincial parliament in Ontario, he worked to pass legislation that banned so-called carding — a practice whereby police officers stop individuals “randomly” and ask for their identification and used to disproportionately target people of colour.
One of the best known moments of Singh’s campaign was when a heckler accused him of being “in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood.” He responded to her by leading the audience in a chant of “love and courage.” The video of the encounter went viral — and he was praised for his response by commentators all over the world.
‘Love and courage’
Indeed, “love and courage” seem to have won the day. Singh’s message clearly resonated with NDP members. Even more than that, his campaign has claimed to have signed up 47,000 new members for the party, although this claim has been disputed.
Nonetheless, Singh has his work cut out for him before Canada’s 2019 federal election. It remains to be seen if Singh will be embraced by the rest of Canada in the same way he has been embraced by the NDP. In particular, it’s unclear whether Singh can win over Quebec, and if he can expand the NDP’s base to Canadians who traditionally vote Liberal or Conservative.
The Quebec question looms over the new NDP leader. Quebec has been seen as essential to the party’s success. The 2011 “orange wave” that swept the NDP to their biggest victory was strongest in Quebec.
In reflecting on his legacy, former NDP leader Tom Mulcair noted that he was most proud of his efforts in Quebec. He added that the party’s future in Quebec was the thing he worried most about going forward.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Singh will face significant hurdles in the province. Religious headgear and symbols are frequently at the centre of heated debate in Quebec.
In 2013, the Quebec Charter of Values was proposed. If passed, the bill would have banned the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols for government personnel and mandated that, in order to receive government services, one’s face must be uncovered.
The Charter had the support of roughly 50 per cent of the province. Currently, Bill-62 is being debated in Quebec. The bill would not allow women wearing burkas or niqabs to provide or receive public services.
Martine Ouellet, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, has condemned Singh for not respecting the separation of church and state. She stated that Singh’s “primary values are related to his religion” and has argued that’s a problem for those in public office.
Singh has addressed such concerns frequently during his campaign. Quebecers are more “open-minded and open-hearted” than his critics were giving them credit for, he insisted.
During his victory speech, Singh addressed Quebecers directly. He stated that he knew what it is like to have your culture and language marginalized. He said he learned French “in solidarity” and promised to “be an ally in the defence and promotion of” their language and culture.
Perhaps this promise of kinship will be enough to make gains in Quebec, or at least maintain the current NDP base. But it will definitely continue to be a challenge for Singh as 2019 approaches.
Winning over the rest of Canada
Another major question is whether Singh can expand the NDP’s base, and win over voters who cast their ballots for either Liberals or Conservatives in the last election.
In 2015, Trudeau won over many voters who traditionally voted NDP. And he appealed to and attracted young and new Canadians. Trudeau ran the 2015 campaign as the young, fresh, optimistic candidate, in contrast to former prime minister Stephen Harper and Mulcair.
He was 43 years old and taking on much older and more experienced politicians. He utilized social media and connected with young people better than either of his opponents. He championed diversity better, and more fully too. “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” and “Canada is strong, not in spite of our differences, but because of them” were campaign slogans that resonated.
But much of what Trudeau used to differentiate himself is no longer in play with Singh in the picture. At 45, Trudeau is now the oldest candidate of a competitive Canadian party — both Singh and Andrew Scheer, the new Conservative leader, are 38.
Singh is the new outsider to federal politics, as he’s never held federal office. And given Singh’s history of working on issues related to racial justice on the provincial level, and his personal identity and the challenges he’s faced, he seems much better-suited to be the champion of people of colour and new Canadians.
In 2015, Trudeau’s “sunny ways” won over more traditionally NDP supporters than Conservative supporters. Can Singh’s “love and courage” win them back?
And if Singh does win them back, will that simply serve to split the left, and allow the Conservatives to regain government?
Singh could actually win over voters that the Conservatives will be counting on. The Conservatives’ biggest gains under Harper were in the suburbs, and with new Canadians. The Conservatives lost much of those voters in 2015, but Scheer will try to win them back.
The Conservatives could benefit from Singh if he simply splits the left and steals votes from the Liberals. But he could also make the NDP more competitive in the suburbs, and with new Canadians.
Singh has strong ties to the suburbs of Toronto, and to new Canadians and people of colour. If the Conservatives were planning on courting these voters, Singh’s presence could throw a wrench in their plans. And Singh might be able to expand the NDP’s base beyond its traditional demographics of labour groups, and people in urban areas.
The NDP and all Canadians have much to celebrate today. A country that prides itself on multiculturalism finally has a major political party that is led by a person of colour, and one who has spent his career working to address issues of racial injustice and inequality. This is historic, and is a major step for equality and representation in Canada.
But many questions remain between now and the 2019 election. It’s clear that Singh offers a new direction for his party — and perhaps the country. How Canadians will respond to it remains uncertain.
Megan Dias is Research Assistant, Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia
(The article is republished from The Conversation Canada)