Written by Dan Bilefsky
The head of one of Canada’s major political parties tells a story about how at age 8, he decided to cover his head in line with Sikh custom and be called Jagmeet rather than “Jimmy” — a move that attracted the abuse of schoolyard bullies. It also makes Jagmeet Singh, who leads Canada’s left-leaning New Democratic Party, stand out among candidates trying to unseat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada’s national elections in October.
Canada prides itself on multiculturalism, liberal values and openness to immigration. But Singh’s candidacy is historic: He is the first nonwhite contender to lead a major national political party and compete for the country’s top political job.
“Just the idea of somebody like him who wears a turban leading a major national political party is a breakthrough in Canada,” said Brittany Andrew-Amofah, a leading Toronto-based policy analyst who is on the board of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.
The prospects of him becoming prime minister are another matter though. His party has often been the third largest in Canada’s federal Parliament, but has never formed the government, and most political analysts say that is unlikely to change.
Polls show Trudeau’s Liberals and the opposition Conservatives neck-in-neck, and Singh’s party trailing far behind. Still, he could end up as a surprise kingmaker if, as some predict, neither of the main two political parties emerge with a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
“The NDP’s influence isn’t when they hold more seats, but when they hold the balance of power,” said Barry Kay, a political-science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.
So far, Singh’s strategy has been to move his party further to the left to differentiate itself from Trudeau’s center-left Liberals. That, theoretically, could attract voters disenchanted with Trudeau, who spent much of this year battling accusations that he tried to pressure his former justice minister to settle a corporate criminal case against SNC Lavalin.
The New Democratic Party platform includes ambitious promises on fighting climate change, improving public transit and expanding public health care that are largely more expansive variations on themes in the Liberals’ platform.
But Singh has been struggling to resonate with voters after several gaffes, including stumbles over questions about foreign policy that have raised doubts about whether he is prepared to lead a national party — or a country.
Some analysts say Singh faces his toughest challenge in Quebec, which recently passed a bill banning public sector teachers, police officers and judges from wearing religious symbols — including a turban — while at work.
Quebec along with another major province, Ontario, account for about two-thirds of the votes in Canadian elections.
“Quebec is not ready for a prime minister with a turban,” said Gérard Bouchard, an eminent historian and sociologist with the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi, noting that the historic repression of the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec had translated into a visceral distaste for religion.
Singh, though, believes his progressive policies can overcome that.
“The bill doesn’t speak to the Quebec that I know or the people who believe in the shared values I have,” he said in a phone interview from Ottawa.
Also, efforts by Singh to tap into left-wing populism like Bernie Sanders in the United States or Jeremy Corbyn in Britain are fraught, analysts say, since Canada does not have a strong populist far right to rail against.
“Singh’s challenge is that Justin Trudeau is not Donald Trump,” said Jean-François Daoust, an expert in public opinion at McGill University. “Trudeau is a progressive who liberalized marijuana and wears cute socks.”
Singh does share some of Trudeau’s sartorial swagger and charisma. He is an avid urban biker, and has been called the “Incredibly Well-Dressed Rising Star in Canadian Politics” by GQ Magazine. And his personal triumphs over adversity may help set him apart from Trudeau, the son of a former prime minister.
Singh sketched out his biography, including the anecdote about when he decided to cover his head and use his Indian name, in his recent memoir, “Love & Courage.” A pre-campaign effort to explain his personal struggles, the book won plaudits, including from Trudeau, for its searing honesty.
Born in suburban Toronto to Punjabi immigrant parents, Singh has often talked of how he was bullied as a child.
“It’s hard to love yourself when you’ve been told your whole life that there is something wrong with you,” he said in the telephone interview, “when you are called dirty because of your skin color.”
In his memoir, he recounts that after he learned Taekwondo at age 10 to help build self-esteem, he was sexually abused by a coach.
When his father, a doctor, struggled with alcoholism and debt, he added, he became a “surrogate dad” for his younger brother.
Later he earned an undergraduate degree in biology and went to law school. He practiced as a criminal lawyer before entering politics.
Singh’s rise on the national stage also underscores how Sikhs have emerged as a political force in Canada.
Although Canada has only about 500,000 Sikhs, accounting for a little more than 1% of all Canadians, there are four Sikhs in Trudeau’s Cabinet and 18 Sikh members of Parliament out of 338 seats, according to the World Sikh Organization.
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