For the first time, a national Canadian political party has nominated a visible minority as their leader.
The New Democratic Party, a left-wing socialist party with strong union ties, has elected Jagmeet Singh to head the party going into the 2019 federal election. He’ll join the Conservative Party of Canada’s Andrew Scheer in trying to displace incumbent Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party.
Singh is a young, Toronto-based, Sikh, the first sitting Member of Parliament to wear a turban in the House of Commons. He’s worked as a lawyer, offering pro bono legal counsel to community organizations and individuals in need.
After a failed run for a Federal seat, he was elected provincially in 2011 as a member of Ontario’s Legislative Assembly. He was the NDP critic of the Attorney General of Ontario and served as his party’s Deputy House Leader.
A fundraising powerhouse, Singh entered the Federal leadership election for the NDP with a sense of energy and purpose that helped him stand out from his competitors. He’s claimed to have registered 47,000 new party members, though others within the party find this number suspect.
On September 6, a heckler interrupted him during a campaign rally, accusing him of being pro-Sharia law, a strict Islamic religious law. He countered her arguments with claims of love and acceptance and was met with applause. Video of the incident went viral and gave him a huge publicity boost.
Known for his quick wit, sharp suits and colorful turbans, the 38-year-old is noted for his similarities to current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Both are media savvy, photogenic and youthful. They speak of idealism and progressive cultural shifts. When running against his predecessor Stephen Harper, then PM and leader of the CPC, Trudeau was able to position himself as the candidate of change. How he fares against a younger competitor with a more progressive platform remains to be seen.
For all his strengths, though, Singh is still fairly unproven. Whereas Trudeau was similarly inexperienced, he had the support of the entire Liberal Party, as well as a recognizable family name to back him up (his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, had been Prime Minister from 1968-1979 and again from 1980-1984.
Trudeau, campaigning on a platform of reconciliation with the Indigenous population, electoral reform and green energy initiatives has since settled into a more centrist-role, maintaining many policies from the previous government.
Singh, on the other hand, is firmly on the left-side of the political spectrum. He wants to restructure Canada’s tax code, removing loopholes for the rich and promising greater redistribution to the lower-earners. He also seeks to decriminalize all drugs and focus instead on the associated mental health treatment over criminal prosecution.
Whether the country as a whole is willing to follow along remains to be seen.
Federally, the NDP have ‘also-ran’ status. From 1972 to 1974 they helped support a minority Liberal government. They became the fourth-ranked party behind the Bloc Quebecois, a federal party devoted to French nationalism, before they secured status as Official Opposition under the best-ever showing under leader Jack Layton. This same election saw the Liberals suffer a massive loss that had many writing-off the party’s future.
Layton passed away from cancer later that year and was replaced by French MP Tom Mulcair. Mulcair, a more cerebral and less charismatic leader, was unable to carry the party’s momentum as the NDP lost more than half their seats in 2015 when Trudeau displaced Harper as the country’s PM.
As well, the party has stayed committed to their social-democrat roots which will make them unpopular in oil-rich Alberta. The province is currently under Premier Rachel Notley, an NDPer herself who achieved a surprise win over the decades-long dynasty of the Progressive Conservative Party. Her success spoke more to the collapse of the PCP and the further-right Wildrose Alliance fracturing the right vote than to any of her progressive policies. Notley has since had to position herself more centrally than the platform she ran on. That the right have since united may speak to the end of the NDP’s rule come next election doesn’t bode well for the party federally.
But that’s still in the distance. Choosing to forgo a seat in the House of Commons so he can continue to travel the country and rally his base, Singh represents a new chapter in the history of the NDP. With the threat of populism on the right and the broken promises of the ruling Liberals, Singh is well-positioned to capitalize on progressive, socially-minded sentiment. Whether there are enough Canadians sharing his vision to give him their vote remains to be seen.