By Davina Bhandar, SFU
On Sunday October 1, 2017, Jagmeet Singh won an incredible victory in the federal NDP leadership race. The hugely successful campaign ran on the slogan #Love and Courage. Support was drawn from many sectors of the established NDP, as well as, galvanizing a new membership to the party. Being the first racialised and religious minority to lead a federal party in Canada cannot be underestimated. But in the slew of social media and news coverage of his victory, it is also necessary to keep our own assumptions about how we discuss race, racism and religious intolerance in check.
It is true that it was only one hundred years ago that people who looked very much like Jagmeet Singh were barred from entering Canada, a country which had in place a “white Canada” only policy. People who wore turbans and kirpans were understood to be the “undesirables” in Canada. These would-be immigrants were not considered “assimilable” to Canadian society. It was not until 1947 that people who looked like Jagmeet Singh could even vote in Canada. The distinction between then and now is that we have laws in place to prevent overt discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and religion. And yet, even with these laws in place the overarching narrative of Singh’s victory is one of surprise, incredulity and self-congratulations.
The Canadian identity that celebrates multicultural diversity, is very pleased by having a vital, enthusiastic, and magnanimous figure such as Jagmeet Singh to lead a federal party. As the presence of white supremacy and anti-immigrant groups are appearing once again on the streets of Canada, the idea of Jagmeet Singh’s victory is seen as a courageous push back. But when the media hopes to shine attention on the fact that this victory is so exceptional because of Singh’s identity as a racialised and religious minority, or that his victory can only be chalked up to his “community’s “ overwhelming support, the racialised candidate is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. It is a pyrrhic victory at best.
What does it mean to have an obviously religious candidate, such as Jagmeet Singh, lead a federal political party, and potentially become the Prime Minister of Canada? Let us think about this question. His Sikh appearance should not disarm Canadians any more than a politician who is seen to enter a church of worship or wear a cross. The idea that his exceptional appearance should cause alarm, brings us back to the moment in time when the view of a man wearing a turban in Canada was deemed unassimilable. Manmohan Singh was also a Prime Minister, while wearing a turban, of one of the world’s largest secular democratic states, the Government of India. So why is this question a guiding question being raised in the Canadian media?
Does Jagmeet Singh’s victory rock the Canadian political establishment? No, absolutely not. Singh’s victory was supported by a multitude of actors from various political stripes. He is not a grass movement activist candidate. He is not a socialist, but neither does the NDP stand to represent what might be imagined as socialism. He is ultimately a liberal candidate who stand for very liberal, social democratic values of social justice, human rights and fairness. Will social rights and eradicating economic disparity be at the top of his agenda? It remains to be seen how the politics will play out.
For further commentary (by Davina Bhandar) on Jagmeet Singh and the NDP: