OTTAWA—He’s young, hip and brimming with charisma, a likable rookie with an eye for style and a robust following on social media who wants to be Canada’s next prime minister.
If Jagmeet Singh’s bona fides offer an echo of Justin Trudeau’s at-times-unlikely journey to the top job in Canadian politics, that’s no coincidence. In fact, it’s probably why New Democrat members flocked to make the 38-year-old Singh their new federal leader.
Singh, a turbaned Sikh, made history Sunday when he became the first non-Caucasian leader of a federal political party, a sign, perhaps, of how serious the NDP is about sweeping away its past disappointments and leadership woes and giving Trudeau a real fight.
“He’s got a bit of the ‘I know how to catch attention’ flavour that we have to say is going to help us,” said Craig Scott, one of a number of prominent former NDP MPs who got blown out in the 2015 bloodletting that swept Trudeau’s Liberals into power.
“We have somebody who has literally fought their way, made their own name, has not received their celebrity as a matter of royal endowment. That makes a difference.
“Even if Canadians respond to somebody they grew up with and came to like for that reason, they will make a distinction between somebody who has made their own name and somebody who had their name given to them.”
Uniting the New Democrats—including the 44 current members of the federal caucus—and rebuilding the party’s fundraising moxie are among the top challenges Singh must now confront as he takes over the leadership role from Tom Mulcair.
He will also have to quickly name an interim leader in the House of Commons, since he lacks a federal seat of his own—a situation that poses both a challenge and an opportunity, said Christo Aivalis, a postdoctoral fellow in the history department at the University of Toronto.
It also evokes another comparison with you-know-who.
“Justin Trudeau had a seat in the House of Commons, but he spent relatively little time in the House of Commons compared to Tom Mulcair,” Aivalis said. “In the end, he is prime minister.”
Singh, who has represented a riding near Toronto in the Ontario legislature since 2011, became deputy leader of the party’s provincial wing in 2015, a role he surrendered in May when he decided to seek the federal job.
Prior to entering politics, Singh worked as a criminal defence lawyer—a background that doubtless informed the justice plank of his leadership campaign, which included a push to decriminalize drugs beyond marijuana and a pitch for a federal ban on racial profiling.
He said he knows first-hand what it is like to be racially profiled during arbitrary street checks, a practice known in policing circles as “carding.”
“When I talk about the treatment I received as a result of my identity, being stopped by the police, I faced a little bit of what it is like to be treated unfairly, to face injustice based on the way you look,” Singh said in an interview after Sunday’s victory.
“When I tackle inequality of any form, injustice of any form, I bring that personal experience with me.”
Born in the east Toronto community of Scarborough to Punjabi parents, Singh’s upbringing included stints in St. John’s, N.L., and Windsor, Ont.
He’s also known as a fashion enthusiast—he has graced multiple best-dressed and style-icon lists in Toronto—and for his skills as a mixed martial arts fighter.
But it’s the obvious difference that perhaps carries the most weight: Singh is a practising Sikh with a penchant for brightly coloured turbans—a religious symbol-turned-fashion statement that the new NDP leader wears with equal doses of dashing and defiance.
“There’s no question in my mind Jagmeet is a game changer,” said NDP national director Robert Fox. “He’s a new, fresh, dynamic voice and a new, fresh dynamic face on the Canadian political landscape.”
“I’ve been seeing folk here today in the room and I’ve been seeing folk across the country – young, brown men and young, brown women, people of colour – who for the first time are really pumped about the opportunity to be acknowledged, to be respected, to be supported, to see themselves at the podium and to imagine themselves at the podium.”
Of course, the NDP is hoping Singh will better allow the party to connect with ethnic minorities both in Ontario and elsewhere.
But some observers have suggested Singh could be in for a rough ride in Quebec, where overt displays of religious faith can be considered a political liability.
It remains a significant issue in Quebec, which opted in the 1960s to separate church and state, Bloc Quebecois Leader Martine Ouellet said recently.
“It is not the turban itself,” she noted. “It is what it means.”
The party is acutely aware of the perils of issues of faith in Quebec. In its disastrous 2015 election campaign, NDP momentum hit a brick wall when Mulcair got caught in a debate over the question of whether to allow Muslim face coverings known as niqabs during citizenship ceremonies.
Mulcair had little choice but to support the niqab, an unpopular position in Quebec. It’s hard to imagine Singh doing anything differently. But Singh’s younger, more modern sensibility means he’ll have an advantage against Trudeau that his predecessor could only dream about.
“I don’t think he understands, on the same level, the struggles that people face right now in Canada,” Singh said of Trudeau.
“I also can say that I don’t fully appreciate all the struggles people face. I’ve had a glimpse of the struggles … it gives me a passion and an appreciation he doesn’t have.”