Jagmeet Singh’s win opens doors for Canada’s minorities

Analysts argue NDP’s new charismatic leader has a long road ahead if he wants his party to win back seats in parliament.

Jagmeet Singh
Singh is the first person of colour to lead a major political party in Canada [File: Reuters]

Montreal, Canada – When Mita Naidu learned that Jagmeet Singh was elected as the new leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP), her first thought was a simple, yet powerful, one: “There’s hope for my children.”

Naidu, who is of South Asian descent, also realised just how proud her father, who passed away last year, would have been to see his lifelong dream of a “multicultural Canada with equal opportunity for everyone” finally becoming a reality.

“I felt empowered for my children, and I felt hopeful about my father’s dreams for the country,” she told Al Jazeera by phone from Vancouver, where she lives with her children, aged 10 and 14.

“There’s a sense of connection for people of colour. Now there’s hope that perhaps an Aboriginal woman will one day have the potential to lead our country. He’s opened those doors,” she said.

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On Sunday, the NDP announced that Singh had earned 53.6 percent of the vote in a months-long leadership race and was officially the party’s new federal leader.

It was a resounding vote of confidence for the 38-year-old provincial politician from Ontario. His closest challenger for the party’s top spot garnered only 19.3 percent of 65,782 total votes cast.

A devout Sikh, Singh wears a turban and carries a kirpan, a religious dagger.

He is the first person of colour to lead a federal party in Canadian history and the World Sikh Organization of Canada hailed his victory as “a historical milestone” for Sikh-Canadians. 

“Just a generation earlier, many in our community could not have imagined a time where someone wearing the Sikh articles of faith would be so warmly accepted,” the organisation said in a statement after the vote. 

For Naidu, who said her mother has worn a sari all her life, sometimes incurring racist remarks or ignorant stares, Singh’s unapologetic show of his culture and heritage did not go unnoticed. 

“He represents the struggle of people of colour and what they’ve had to endure in this country, and how much time it’s taken for people, immigrant communities, to really reach the top levels of the system,” Naidu said.

But as the dust settles on the leadership contest, political analysts say the charismatic politician has a long road ahead if he wants the leftist NDP to win back seats in the House of Commons.

Singh will have to articulate what sets the NDP apart from its political rivals, especially Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party, said Emmanuelle Richez, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Windsor in southern Ontario.

“When he accepted the leadership, [Singh] already started differentiating himself from Justin Trudeau,” Richez told Al Jazeera.

Analysts say Singh faces several challenges before he could lead his party to a more parliamentary victory [File: Reuters] 
Analysts say Singh faces several challenges before he could lead his party to a more parliamentary victory [File: Reuters] 

“I think that’s where he can make the most points because we know that Justin Trudeau campaigned to the left of the NDP in [the last federal elections in] 2015 … Singh will need to emphasise the fact that [he] hasn’t respected some of his promises.” 

‘A clean slate’

During his campaign for party leader, Singh focused on four key policy areas: fighting climate change, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, electoral reform and inequality.

His policies “were ideologically driven,” and as Singh becomes more familiar with the federal political system, Richez said she expects him to “be able to put meat on the bone”.

He will need to appeal to voters outside the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), she added.

Singh was an elected member of the Ontario provincial legislature for Brampton, a large, multicultural suburb of Toronto, and the GTA is where he got most of his support in the NDP leadership contest.

“Workers’ rights are an important part of his platform, but Singh really embodies the new left in Canada, which is much more urban, young, environmentalist and diversified,” Richez said.

Allan Tupper, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, pointed to Singh’s little experience at the federal level.

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“There’s a clean slate, so it’s up to him to sort of paint the picture,” Tupper said.

Singh has said he would lead the party from outside parliament at first, opting to travel across the country to meet Canadians and share the NDP’s platform.

But according to Tupper, he “doesn’t have a lot of time to get his act together” before the next federal election in October 2019.

“He’s got to read the electorate beyond his party base, and he has to continue to appeal to the base … That’s the dance.” 

Can Singh win in Quebec?

A social-democratic party with strong ties to organised labour and a focus on defending workers’ rights, the NDP has long occupied the third spot in Canadian federal politics, falling behind the centrist Liberal Party and the right-wing Conservatives.

But that changed in 2011 when a so-called “Orange Wave” propelled the party into official opposition status.

The NDP scooped up a historic 103 seats, including 59 out of 75 total seats in Quebec, where its success surprised almost everyone and decimated the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois party. 

During the last election, though, many of those seats went to the Liberal Party, which courted NDP voters and marketed itself as the progressive choice after nearly a decade of conservative rule.

The NDP won 44 seats in 2015, but it had a disappointing showing in several regions, including Quebec, urban centres in Ontario, and Atlantic Canada. In the Maritimes, for example, on Canada’s east coast, the Liberals won every electoral district.

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According to recent CBC polling data, the NDP was pulling in 15.2 percent support among Canadian voters on September 26, compared to 33.5 percent for the Conservative Party, and 39.1 percent for the Liberals.

Critics have questioned whether Singh can win in Quebec, where a contentious debate over religious symbols in the public sphere has raged for years.

While Ontario may have more parliamentary seats up for grabs, Quebec has often been a kingmaker of sorts in federal elections.

Political parties often tailor their speeches to appeal to Quebec voters and a leader’s ability to speak French has historically been a major sticking point.

“For Jagmeet Singh, it’s going to be an extremely arduous and extremely difficult task” in the French-speaking province, said Andre Lamoureux, a professor in the political science department at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal (UQAM).

Lamoureux said both Singh’s own religious symbols and the positions he has taken on issues of religious accommodation – including supporting the right of Muslim women to wear a full-face covering (niqab) during Canadian citizenship ceremonies, a right that is backed by a federal court decision – could cause friction.

National political columnist Chantal Hebert recently argued in the Toronto Star, however, that the idea that Singh will drive voters in Quebec away from the NDP because he is a practicing Sikh was “at best untested and – potentially – dead wrong”.

According to Lamoureux, Singh will have to take “an original position that’s his and that will attract and successfully rally” workers, women, young people and Quebeckers all at once in order to find success.

The NDP will also have to find a way to challenge both the Liberals and Conservatives for votes.

“It’s therefore on two fronts that he has to fight,” Lamoureux said. “It’s quite a challenge.”

Source: Al Jazeera