Jagmeet Singh, with love and courage

What the new leader of the federal NDP means for people of colour in Canada

Jagmeet Singh, with love and courage

When I first met Jagmeet Singh, I was reluctant. Upon prompting from a close friend, I had half-heartedly agreed to participate in a charity initiative led by Project Ramadan, a non-profit organization that provides food baskets to local families in need. My friend dangled an opportunity to meet Singh, who was expected to drop by the event to show his support, and I agreed out of politeness despite not really caring for the idea.

Though I hadn’t yet voted in any election apart from that of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, I considered myself a skeptic first and a liberal second. I was wary of politicians; everything they said seemed scripted, their every move calculated to secure votes. Jagmeet Singh did not seem like an exception.

At the time, Singh was still campaigning for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party (NDP). To my surprise, he kept his speech at the event short and simple, praising Project Ramadan for the initiative they had undertaken, lamenting the fact that despite federal budgeting, many families still went without food, and vowing to help combat this problem if elected.

Though I wasn’t on his team for the build, Singh approached our group afterwards. He greeted my volunteer group with a smile and a “hello,” and then he repeated the word in several languages. “Have I missed any?” he asked pleasantly. He inquired about what languages we spoke so that he could try his best to converse with us.

Despite my initial hesitation, Singh put me at ease; his actions seemed genuine and honest. Unfortunately, our meeting was too short for me to ask him about his policies in depth, and it slipped from my mind entirely until an incident that took place this fall.

On September 11, during an NDP rally in Brampton, Singh’s speech was interrupted by a racist heckler who accused him of supporting Shariah law and the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead of fighting back, Singh replied to her by telling her that he loved her, supported her, and believed in her rights — even as she continued to yell and invade his personal space.

The video of Singh’s response to the heckler went viral and was covered by national and international media. His “love and courage,” as he put it, was admirable to see — and it was something I wanted to see more of.

On September 30, 2017, I cast my ballot in favour of Singh in the NDP leadership poll. The next day, the federal NDP announced him as its next leader. Singh’s election was met with overwhelmingly positive reactions from visible minority Canadians and from prominent Sikh-Canadian social media personalities like Jus Reign and Babbulicious. There was joy at finally being represented in positions of power, and there hope because his win shows that minorities can overcome the numerous structural barriers set up against them.

To an extent, these reactions included disbelief. Singh’s win marks the first time a visible minority has headed a major Canadian political party at the federal level. Canada has come a long way since the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, in which the Canadian government forced a ship of Indian passengers — most of whom were Sikh — to return to India, despite both India and Canada being British subjects at the time. The Canadian government only fully apologized for this incident last year.

Of course, race relations in Canada still have a long way to go. On Singh’s first day as leader, Susan Bonner, host of CBC’s radio show The World at Six, tweeted a picture of Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, and a fellow Sikh-Canadian, mistaking him for “Canada’s newest federal party leader.” She later clarified that she had meant to write that Navdeep Bains was only talking about the new NDP leader, but the damage had been done. The ‘all people of colour look the same’ rhetoric remains deeply ingrained in North American society.

Later that day, CBC correspondent Terry Milewski asked Singh about his opinion on the Air India bombing of 1985, and how posters of its alleged architect, fellow Sikh Talwinder Singh Parmar, occasionally pop up during celebrations of Vaisakhi, a religious festival in Hinduism and Sikhism. The questions were asked with no provocation by recent events and without any context; it seemed as if Singh was asked to weigh in simply because he is a Sikh and South-Asian.

Muslims and South Asians continue to face pervasive double standards. Instead of just being responsible for themselves, they are taken as representatives of their entire race or religion — and thus they are constantly expected to disavow and condemn any and all religious extremism, violence, and terrorism engineered by ‘Muslims’ or South Asians. The same cannot be said for their white counterparts. We would not ask white people to condemn the actions of George Zimmerman, Dylan Roof, and recent Las Vegas shooter Stephen Craig Paddock simply because they are of the same race.

Singh has faced obvious racism and xenophobia throughout his career, and there is no indication that this will stop with his election. One only has to look to the comments section of any article he is mentioned in to come across racist remarks detailing why he will make a terrible leader, both for the NDP and for Canada.

Nonetheless, his election marks a turning point in Canadian history and a step in the right direction. I am hopeful that, like all the other barriers so far, Singh will overcome this. How? With love and courage.

Zeahaa Rehman is a third-year student at UTM studying Linguistics and Professional Writing.

Back to the drawing board

The New Democratic Party is in need of leadership reform

Back to the drawing board

Students following the ongoing US presidential election have surely been counting themselves lucky lucky to be in Canada — our system of government can seem downright regal in comparison. 

A fundamental difference between our systems is the number of viable parties Canadian voters can choose to support, and the consequent lack of polarization. With so much attention being paid to improving Canada’s electoral system, it’s easy to lose sight of the representative purpose of the parties themselves. The benefit of having more than two major parties is that voters can choose a candidate who represents their opinion more closely. It can be damaging to the entire system when ideologoical diversity is lost. 

If Canada only had two major parties, voters would be made to settle for candidates who barely represent their beliefs. Currently, Canada has three nationally viable parties: the right-wing Conservatives, centrist Liberals, and left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). This should, theoretically, provide voters with options that are roughly reflective of their political opinions. 

Unfortunately, the NDP’s drift — or arguably, lurch — to the centre, evident in the last election, threatens the crucial distinction separating them from the Liberal Party. For the health of Canada’s political climate, the NDP needs to reassert itself as a distinct, principled, progressive party. This challenge cannot be confronted by their current leader, Tom Mulcair.

During last fall’s election period, during which August polls projected that the NDP were poised to win, Mulcair — who had previously considered jobs with both the Liberals and Conservatives — announced that his party would advocate for austerity measures. Given that this stance is generally considered a conservative policy, many considered it a ploy to widen the party’s support among moderate voters.

This strategy backfired. The Liberals outflanked the NDP on the left, and the rest is history. Since then, there have been countless editorials asking why, if the NDP suddenly wants to be centrist, the party even exists as a separate entity from the Liberals. When a party is facing an existential crisis of this magnitude, something is clearly wrong with their strategy.

Because of Mulcair’s austerity gamble, Canadians are left with the misperception that the Liberal Party offers a truly progressive platform. Yet, the NDP remains to the left of the Liberals on almost all major issues — issues many U of T students hold dearly— such as raising corporate tax rates and programs aimed at reducing climate change. 

Tom Mulcair has lost his ability to articulate these positions because of his reputation as a political opportunist. The NDP needs a leader who can energize the left, has true progressive credentials, and will be able to provide a credible alternative to Prime Minister Trudeau. 

There are plenty of candidates who understand the needs of students more than either the Liberal Party or Mulcair currently do. Former Halifax MP Megan Leslie would be an ideal choice: alongside her popularity in Ottawa, she also served as the deputy leader of the party and received widespread acclaim as the opposition’s environmental critic. MPs Nathan Cullen and Niki Ashton are similarly qualified, and will likely compete for the leadership position in Edmonton if it becomes available.

The NDP platform is centred on issues that affect students disprportionately across the country, like economic inequality and climate change, and yet many responded to the sunny ways and anti-austerity of Justin Trudeau. It is unlikely that Tom Mulcair can make a credible case to represent them in 2019.

If the NDP wants to remain relevant, it will have to differentiate itself from the Liberals and demonstrate to Canadians the value of a principled, truly progressive party. The first step in that difficult process is the selection of a leader prepared to confront that challenge. 

If the NDP becomes too similar to the Liberals, it will hurt not only progressives, but the health of our political system. Drifting towards a two-party system harms everyone; we should be invested in the way the NDP grapples with their leadership issue in months to come.

Jack Fraser is a third-year student at Innis College studying international relations.