Sadiya Ansari is a writer and a professor of journalism at Centennial College based in Toronto.
After Justin Trudeau’s brownface/blackface scandal erupted, there was one election candidate to whom Canadians turned to make sense of it: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. His sincere response was praised as “prime ministerial,” while others predicted his party would benefit from Mr. Trudeau’s missteps.
A few days later, Mr. Singh headed to Quebec, where his party is polling well below its level of national support. There, he put on a highwire act, gently opposing Bill 21, which bars public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols – such as the turban he wears – at work, while assuring Quebeckers he wouldn’t support legal challenges to it. He also made the point that he shares “the same values of Quebeckers … I’m for abortion, for same-sex marriage.”
Assuring voters he supports progressive policies that his party has long backed is not something an NDP leader typically has had to do. But for Mr. Singh, the first non-white federal political party leader, his comments reveal an awareness that his identity looms large in his public persona. As a leader who wears a turban, he shows why Bill 21 matters, but that same symbol of religiosity means he also has to prove repeatedly how progressive he is. In other words, Mr. Singh’s religion and race has proven to be a double-edged sword.
International media were first introduced to Mr. Singh two years ago, when he shut down an anti-Muslim tirade from a woman named Jennifer Bush while campaigning for party leadership. “When is your sharia going to end?” yelled Ms. Bush, who is part of a group that wants mass deportation of Muslims from Canada.
Mr. Singh maintained his composure, resisting the urge to have her escorted out immediately. Instead, he began to chant “love and courage,” echoing the late NDP leader Jack Layton’s parting message of tolerance. The video went viral, and a month later, Mr. Singh won the NDP leadership race.
While it’s a laudable accomplishment, in the Canadian public’s perception, his presence on the political stage has been lacking. In this election campaign, he’s not doing very well. This is partly his party’s fault – earlier muddled policy positions crafted by a largely inexperienced team, a long line of notable members leaving the party and trouble fundraising haven’t done him any favours. It’s hard to pinpoint one reason but race is certainly a factor.
It’s difficult to dissect how much discomfort with his race is the cause for his unpopularity. But what this campaign is revealing is how difficult it is for Canadians to acknowledge how deep racism runs in this country.
While Mr. Singh has made a point of discussing issues of race and belonging, he can sound like a multiculturalism mascot at times with platitudes such as his hope to “bring people together.” He hasn’t been tackling systemic issues of racism during the campaign and, like all his counterparts, hasn’t taken a clear opportunity to meaningfully oppose a law that literally robs those who wear religious symbols of their livelihood. But the reality is, while Mr. Singh’s messaging sounds jingoistic, repetitive and superficial, he is simply responding to the shallow understanding of race some Canadians have exhibited.
Part of that is reflected in how Mr. Singh has been covered in the media, including stories obsessing over his religious garb with embarrassing headlines such as "Some voters question whether Canada is ready for a PM with a turban.” The recent CTV story featured a number of people at a rally uncomfortable with his turban including NDP supporter Marcel Betty.
“If he would take it off, and be normal like us, I would vote right away because I am a [New Democrat] myself.”
It’s clear who the “us” is in “normal like us." This view may not reflect the opinions of all Canadians, but to some degree, the lack of support for Mr. Singh does expose the shortcomings of Canadian multiculturalism – we love to talk about diversity, but non-white people haven’t been permitted to be truly woven into the country’s social fabric.
True “integration” is often not about newcomers accepting “Canadian culture.” It’s when people of colour are included in statements such as “normal like us.” Race won’t stop being an issue just because good-natured white people insist they don’t “see colour,” but rather when race doesn’t affect people’s chances at employment, their ability to secure housing and their ability to be free from police harassment. The end point of progress is when race actually doesn’t matter. But as the reaction to Mr. Singh’s campaign has revealed, over and over again, clearly we aren’t there yet.
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