Jagmeet Singh was clearly upset, Wednesday night, when he talked to reporters about the photograph of Justin Trudeau wearing brownface back in 2001.
In the past, “I fought back when I faced racism, I fought back with my fists,” he told reporters, his voice husky with emotion. “But there’s a lot of people who weren’t able to do that.
"… The kids that see this image, the people that see this image are going think about all the times in their life that they were made fun of, that they were hurt, that they were hit, that they were insulted, that they were made to feel less because of who they are.”
Mr. Singh’s sincerity is beyond question. But though it will seem cynical, the revelation Justin Trudeau repeatedly wore blackface and brownface while dressing up in costumes when he was younger is almost certain to boost the fortunes of the NDP in this election campaign, not least because Mr. Singh is the first person of colour to lead a national political party in Canada.
In his autobiography, Mr. Singh wrote about the physical and emotional abuse he suffered as a young man growing up brown and wearing a turban. Fighting back against that racism defined him and led him to enter public life. Now the question of race and skin colour and privilege is front and centre in this campaign.
Two weeks ago, pundits were holding a deathwatch over the NDP. Since winning the leadership in 2017, Mr. Singh had stumbled, tripped and tumbled from one bungle to another. His advisers lacked experience, fundraising was dire and the party has been having trouble recruiting a full slate of candidates for the election.
But Mr. Singh performed well at last week’s leaders’ debate, at one point leaving Green Leader Elizabeth May sputtering with indignation but unable to launch a rebuttal. He has offered substantive policy proposals, including a national dental-care plan to be paid for by higher taxes on upper-income earners.
Many progressive voters were already troubled by the performance of Mr. Trudeau – the self-proclaimed environmentalist who bought an oil pipeline; the self-proclaimed feminist whose treatment of Jody Wilson-Raybould led her to resign from cabinet, with Jane Philpott joining in solidarity.
Now they’ve discovered that a leader committed to diversity repeatedly wore blackface and brownface. Given Ms. May’s lacklustre performance thus far, the NDP is best positioned to profit from progressives who can no longer stomach the Liberal leader.
Unfortunately for the NDP, more votes may not translate into more seats. Most or all of the 14 NDP-held seats in Quebec will be lost – in part because of the discomfort many voters in that intensely secular province feel toward public figures who wear visible religious symbols such as a turban.
Visible minority voters may be especially offended by the racist acts Mr. Trudeau committed in the past. This could particularly affect the Liberals in the suburban ridings that surround large cities, where those voters make up a majority or significant minority of the population. But such ridings traditionally have been a desert for New Democrats.
That doesn’t mean this scandal won’t help the NDP cause, however. Mr. Singh’s visibility is bound to increase, along with support for his party, and that’s never a bad thing. There are tight three-way races in B.C.'s Lower Mainland that could now trend NDP.
Most important, the Liberals were tied with the Conservatives in the polls before this story broke. A minority government after the Oct. 21 election appeared to be in the cards then.
Assuming the Greens continue to perform poorly and the Bloc Québécois do not surge in Quebec, the NDP could hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament, offering Mr. Singh a chance to write at least part of the throne speech for the party that earns his support.
What would that throne speech have to include? A national pharmacare program? Dental care for low-income families? A switch in the voting system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation?
Much will happen in the weeks ahead. But Jagmeet Singh is going to feature more prominently in those weeks than many of us expected.
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