Jagmeet Singh is in the running to become the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP).
The result of Sunday’s vote remains uncertain, but 38-year-old Singh is predicted to perform well in the first ballot.
He is currently leading in fundraising, with $245,000 more raised than his closest competitor.
Immediately recognisable in his tailor-made suits and brightly-coloured turbans, Singh has cultivated a public image of a modern, positive politician.
Alongside campaign promises and photos from his “JagMeet and Greet” events, he regularly shares images with his 66,3000 Instagram followers of his trips Canada’s cities on his folding bike.
Supporters believe Singh has the potential to transform the NDP, a party seen as the “conscience of parliament”.
Singh has said he chose to join the party because they were the only political group which had “the courage to fight injustice” – into a serious contender for leadership.
With his youth, media savvy and enthusiasm, Singh might just be the man to challenge current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the 2019 federal election.
The NDP, traditionally the party of labour and social democracy in Canada, announced in April 2016 it would be replacing incumbent leader Tom Mulcair after the party’s poor performance in the 2015 federal election.
Sunday’s vote pits Singh, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Guy Caron against each other.
If the first ballot fails to return a winner, the candidate with the lowest number of votes will be eliminated and another week-long round of voting will begin.
Singh has built a reputation as a progressive force in Canadian politics, choosing “With Love and Courage” as his campaign slogan.
He recently gained internet fame after a video swept social media networks, depicting him putting his slogan into practice when confronted by a racist heckler.
It's the first time that a turban-wearing Sikh has run for the leadership of a Canadian political party. He poses a challenge to the party generally in rethinking how it presents itself to the larger electorate.
The former criminal defence lawyer is redefining the NDP’s public image, as Richard Johnston, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia explained to Al Jazeera:
“It’s the first time that a turban-wearing Sikh has run for the leadership of a Canadian political party. He poses a challenge to the party; generally in rethinking how it presents itself to the larger electorate. Choosing a successor to Mulcair is something of an existential crisis for the party,” he said.
Singh has already enjoyed some success in being the first NDP member to be elected in his municipality at any level of government.
He also served as the deputy leader of the Ontario NDP from 2015 to 2017, a position from which he launched his campaign on May 15.
That announcement came much later than the other candidates’ bids and amid much speculation.
In four months, Singh has reportedly recruited more than 47,000 new members to the NDP, many from areas previously won by the Liberal Party under Trudeau.
“It’s very hard to match Justin Trudeau but it’s not just [him]. Politicians are all having to think through how social media works for creating impressions and defending positions. You have to have some sort of grasp of the stuff. And Jagmeet Singh is more expert than any of his competitors,” Johnston said.
This success has inspired confidence in Singh.
Writing on his official website, he says: “I feel the awesome potential of our movement and our party in my bones. They said the NDP would never sweep Quebec and we did. They said we’d never form a government in Alberta and we have. They say we’ll never form government at the federal level, and we will.”
From bullied child to political hopeful
Born in 1979, in Scarborough, Metropolitan Toronto, Singh is the oldest of four children born to Sikh immigrant parents from India‘s Punjab region. He later moved to Windsor, Ontario aged seven.
Singh frequently speaks about being bullied at school for his “brown skin, long hair and funny-sounding name”. The need to stand up for himself fuelled a lifelong interest in martial arts. Among other sports, Singh has practised taekwondo, Muay Thai boxing and judo.
His first foray into politics came while studying at Osgoode Law School, Ontario, where he campaigned against rising tuition fees. He was called to the bar in 2006, before going on to work as a criminal defence lawyer in the Greater Toronto area.
His years spent defending refugees and immigrants inspired Singh to enter politics in 2011 by running as an MP with the NDP in the Ontario district of Bramalea-Gore-Malton.
“They didn’t have an ally they could turn to in government. These community organisations needed a partner and they encouraged me to make the jump into electoral politics,” Singh wrote on his website.
Singh has pledged to “build an inclusive Canada where everyone can realise their dreams”, but his detractors say his plan is light on details.
His platform touches on electoral reform, reconciliation with indigenous peoples and tackling climate change and inequality.
His platform touches on electoral reform, reconciliation with indigenous peoples and tackling climate change.
He is passionate about scrapping the controversial practice of “carding”, which allows police to stop, question and document individuals when no particular crime has been committed.
Yasir Naqvi, Ontario’s community safety and correctional services minister, said at a press conference that the process is intended as an information-gathering tool, but many believe it targets non-white people.
Carding has already been banned in certain circumstances in Ontario. As of January 1, 2017, police are obliged to inform people they stop that they have a right not to talk to them.
However, critics suggest that Singh may prove too divisive in fiercely secular Quebec, a key electoral region, home to 25 percent of Canada’s population.
“Quebec has a different discourse around ethnicity and multiculturalism and diversity than the rest of the country,” explains Johnston. “He might expand the appeal of the party in the west and in British Columbia, but actually put the nail in the coffin for the party in Quebec.”
Singh approaches this challenge by comparing the difficulties his Punjabi speaking parents faced to the Quebecois’ fight for language equality.
Singh himself learned French, he says, because he believes in the equal value of the language.
“If he wins, there’s a question of how competent is he really? Will he be able to perform on the national level in French? It makes a difference if you go on the campaign trail, find yourself in a debate or if you’re questioned in the house. That might really make a difference to those Quebecois who don’t care too much about the ethnic issue that’s been dogging Singh,” said Johnston.
Singh’s other perceived weakness of being unknown outside of Ontario was solved when a video of him went viral in September.
In the footage, he is confronted by a racist heckler who accuses him of supporting Islamic law, known as Sharia, which is recognised in civil cases in Ontario.
His response was hailed by dozens of media outlets and thousands of social media users.
“Singh shows how to handle a heckler,” said the BBC. “This Canadian politician expertly dealt with racist heckling,” Buzzfeed wrote.
What comes next?
If elected, Singh has suggested he will not run for a seat in the House straight away, but instead will tour the country as former NDP leader and Singh-supporter Jack Layton did.
This decision has been criticised by some, including current federal party leader Thomas Mulcair.
Speaking to the press after the four leadership candidates made their final pitches to their party, Mulcair said: “I think it’s important to have a seat in the House of Commons if we’re leading a political party … It’ll be a heck of a lot better to have [the leader] crossing swords on a daily basis with the prime minister.”
But, as Johnston explains, delaying running for a House seat could be wise.
“There’s a pragmatic element to what he’s saying. There aren’t many seats free, so he’d have to persuade a sitting MP to stand down.
“His declared willingness to stay on the sidelines leaves the position of the MPs intact. It’s a genuine conundrum for him, it would be better if he went into the house but there are practical concerns.”