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Shachi Kurl
Shachi Kurl

Shachi Kurl

Jagmeet Singh’s challenge: substance over style Add to ...

Shachi Kurl is the executive director at the Angus Reid Institute.

Two years ago, had I described a dapper young politician representing an urban, ethnically mixed riding who could win votes from millennials and those on the left, you’d have thought I was talking about Justin Trudeau. Well, look out, Prime Minister, because Jagmeet Singh just might out-Justin you.

Indeed, the deputy leader of the Ontario NDP has generated more buzz around his candidacy for NDP leadership than his competitors, at a time when the party, scarred by the whipping it received in 2015, is trying to rebuild. And he’s doing it as someone who happens to be an orthodox Sikh. Mr. Trudeau was profiled in Vogue, you say? Well, Mr. Singh was named one of Canada’s most stylish politicians by GQ.

Among New Democrats tasked with picking a new leader, Mr. Singh’s Sikh orthodoxy may well be ho-hum. He’s not even the first to seek the party’s top job: that barrier was broken in 2011 by one Martin Singh, a Nova Scotia pharmacist, whose campaign lacked any real propulsion, but whose son’s fiddle-playing on the convention stage led to one of the sweetest moments of the race.

Analysis: Jagmeet Singh poses unique threat for the Trudeau Liberals

Canadians are by now used to seeing turbaned Sikhs on every party’s bench. Lost to the annals of history is the fact that Gurbax Malhi’s election as the Liberal MP for Brampton-Gore-Malton nearly 25 years ago prompted a rule change on Parliament Hill. Prior to that, it was forbidden to wear “headgear” in the House of Commons.

Nor did Canadians bat an eye when Harjit Sajjan, also an orthodox Sikh, was named Defence Minister, in part because there was more to his story. He had been a soldier and a police officer, so he brought (notwithstanding the Operation Medusa mess) a credibility to the job.

In the same way, some of Jagmeet Singh’s political advantages and liabilities will be equally banal. On the plus side, he’s a bike enthusiast and a human-rights activist, which will stand him in good stead with urban New Democrats. In the minus column, he isn’t well known outside his home province, a problem shared with the rest of the pack.

But let’s not forget for a moment how judgy Canadians can be when it comes to politicians’ appearances. Stephen Harper was fat-shamed over his fondness for root beer. Chrystia Freeland takes heat for often wearing the same dress. And if Tom Mulcair’s beard was a topic for the last federal campaign, it’s certain Mr. Singh’s beard, turban, and kirpan – all tenets of his faith – will be the subject of discussion at the coffee shop, the ice rink, and on talk radio.

He will have to overcome Canadian discomfort with some of that religious symbolism. Angus Reid Institute polling on the subject from April (totally independent of Mr. Singh’s entrance into the race) shows that, while the vast majority have no issue with the wearing of turbans, they object to the display and wearing of the kirpan. Indeed, two-thirds of those polled oppose it, rising to more than three-quarters in Quebec, where the issue wound its way into the courts in a divisive, high-profile case. One can only imagine what Quebeckers, who once returned a large mandate for “le bon Jack” Layton, would make of Mr. Singh. Would they be prepared to embrace “le bon Jagmeet?”

He’s given interviews saying he doesn’t mind Canadians talking about his looks. Well that’s good, because it will be talked of, a lot. The key to overcoming barriers and discomfort will be education, familiarity, and Mr. Singh ensuring his narrative is about more than religion. By education, he will need to tell and tell and tell again why he choses to wear the kirpan and why it’s important to him. Familiarity is just that, getting voters used to him and the way he looks, a task made easier by fashion spreads and appearances on national comedy shows.

I firmly believe Mr. Singh the politician is more than the sum of his religion and appearance. However, his ability to convince Canadians coast to coast to look past the visible symbols of his faith and assess him as a potential prime minister is yet undetermined. Urban, younger voters will be more receptive than older, rural ones. But no demographic is a monolith, and much will depend on Mr. Singh’s own performance as a credible alternative to his federal Liberal counterpart, all while putting the capital “V” in visible minority.

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