Jagmeet Singh seeks to break the trend. Last Monday, the two-term member of the Ontario parliament announced his bid to become head of the New Democratic Party (NDP) of Canada, a move which, if successful, would make him the first nonwhite leader of a major Canadian political party and the first Canadian of color to offer himself as a candidate for prime minister.
Singh’s jump to the national stage will make race a variable in Canadian politics to an unprecedented degree. Beyond the standard journalistic tropes about whether the country’s white majority is “ready” to elect such a visible embodiment of Canada’s rapid demographic change, Singh’s status as a symbol of social progress has strong potential to undercut the narrative of the man who has, until now, been content to embody all that’s admirable about liberal Canada — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Even if his name was Smith, Singh would have presented a complicated foe for Trudeau. At 38, he is younger than the youthful PM, and has a public brand equally defined by style, sex appeal and social-media savvy. Just as the two big things everyone knew about Trudeau prior to his political rise were his lovely hair and boxing prowess, Singh’s fun facts include a profile in GQ and a love of mixed martial arts. Ideologically, Singh has positioned himself as an unqualified member of the left at a time when parts of the Trudeau base are starting to grumble about the prime minister’s overabundance of pragmatism on issues ranging from climate change to U.S. President Trump.
Yet it’s impossible to grasp Singh’s disruptive power without appreciating his identity-politics cred in an identity-politics-obsessed age. His campaign launch speech put his status as a champion of the marginalized front and center, describing it as a natural outgrowth of his difficult upbringing as a first-generation Canadian bullied for his “funny-sounding name, brown skin and long hair.” He cited his proudest pet causes in the Ontario legislature — including opposition to auto-insurance redlining and so-called police carding of youth – most of which have a strong minority rights angle.
Conventional analysis sees this sort of stuff as evidence that Singh may be eyeing an NDP resurgence in what were once memorably referred to as Canada’s “very ethnic” districts, where his party’s vote all but collapsed in 2015. But the appeal to liberal whites can’t be understated either.
One of the defining tensions of Trudeau’s appeal has been the awkward fact that a man who presents himself as a champion of Canada’s postmodern future is such an archaic stereotype of traditional privilege. As the wealthy son of Canada’s wealthiest prime minister who worked only lightly prior to politics, Trudeau often makes clear that empathy is a learned skill for him. Despite earnest efforts to always say the right thing, he has had some notable Marie Antoinette moments, as when he vowed to help Native youth find a place to “store their canoes” or shared a tone-deaf anecdote about his powerful father helping his brother skirt a marijuana charge.
Singh’s entry provides the ideological left with a convenient “out” for this discomfort — all the progressive policies of the prime minister but delivered by a more believable champion. The Trudeau counter-offensive isn’t particularly obvious either, given Singh supporters, and presumably Singh himself, will be on guard for hints of racial condescension in the PM’s criticisms. Nervousness will probably ensure the turban-wearing Singh is not asked any particularly tough questions about his apparently devout Sikh faith, though the facts that gay people cannot get married in Sikh temples and the faith preaches against abortion would seem like obvious ins. In 2000, Liberal Party adviser Warren Kinsella famously mocked the creationist beliefs of then-conservative leader Stockwell Day, an evangelical Christian, by waving a toy dinosaur and exclaiming, “ ’The Flintstones’ was not a documentary!” It’s impossible to imagine a contemporary Liberal teasing Singh about reincarnation or haircuts.
Since Canadian politics operates under such a firm, three-party system, the dynamics of Canadian elections often feel like studies in game theory, with visibly zero-sum gains and losses. Thus, even a stronger, Singh-led NDP still brings clear risk: In the 2019 election, he could undoubtedly hurt Trudeau’s Liberals but, lacking any obvious appeal to center-right voters, could also potentially polarize the entire center-left electorate. The Conservative Party could squeeze through the middle, as it arguably has done in past contests where the NDP performed better than usual.
While there may be ample political space on Trudeau’s left, capitalizing on it may come at the cost of left-wing rule altogether. The NDP, as usual, will have to weigh how much progressive good it is willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of the perfect.