We need to talk about Jagmeet Singh and the racism he faces

Controversy over the NDP leader’s turban reflects badly on many so-called progressives across Canada
Photo: Wayne Polk
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If the recent defection of some New Democrats to the Greens in New Brunswick are any indication, Jagmeet Singh continues to face racism both within and outside his party. It’s high time this was discussed more directly and openly.

Singh is the first turbaned Sikh to lead any major political party in Canada. He made history after being elected as NDP leader in 2017. Earlier this year, Singh was elected as Member of Parliament for Burnaby South. The critics who doubted his ability to win have already been proven wrong twice.

Just days before the official federal election campaign was set to begin, a number of New Democrats defected to the Greens in New Brunswick. The Greens got caught inflating the number of defectors, so the story was actually somewhat overblown. But the pernicious circumstances of these NDP defections deserve close scrutiny. One of those who left for the Greens, Jonathan Richardson, was the NDP’s executive member for Atlantic Canada. He dropped a bombshell by saying some potential NDP candidates were hesitant to run because they thought voters in New Brunswick wouldn’t choose a party whose leader wears a turban.

This incident suggests bigotry is a factor in why Singh has failed to recruit enough candidates, and cannot be ignored as a factor in why the party is also in a poor financial situation and why Singh lags behind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in popularity. Trudeau, having been in power, has baggage and has lost popularity because of issues like the SNC-Lavalin scandal and his betrayal on electoral reform. Singh’s controversies pale in comparison.

If Tommy Douglas could deliver inspiring leadership while carrying his religious beliefs on his sleeve, why can’t Singh be allowed to do the same?

All in all, this suggests that Singh is facing heat because of his appearance and religious background. It is pertinent to mention that Singh has already faced racial hostilities in his personal life and in politics. In the age of Trump, such hostilities have become sharper and are only likely to grow. We can’t ignore this when reflecting on the poor poll numbers for Singh and the NDP.

What is more disturbing, however, is that such racial attitudes also prevail within progressive circles too. Leave aside the challenge coming from right-wing groups; racism within the NDP is unacceptable. If the Greens’ apparent embrace of people who have expressed discomfort with Singh’s turban is unseemly, the NDP also needs to identify bigots or people soft on bigotry within their ranks. Without such an accounting, the party’s bragging about social justice rings hollow.

For those who have a selective memory and tendency to forget their own history, the CCF, the old avatar of the NDP, was led by the late Tommy Douglas, a practicing Christian and a Baptist minister. If Tommy Douglas could deliver inspiring leadership while carrying his religious beliefs on his sleeve, why can’t Singh be allowed to do the same?

What really matters is what is in Jagmeet Singh’s head, not what is on his head.

If you have doubts about Singh’s faith, then do some research to educate yourself about the progressive values of Sikhism, which are based on justice and equality. Any NDP members or supporters belittling or writing off Singh because of his faith are applying a double standard or glossing over the real history of their own political movement.

Singh is the duly-elected leader of a mainstream Canadian party that has a broad mandate to serve the interests of all Canadians, so any anxiety over his religious belief is purely unfounded. In fact, Singh is not being unthinkingly supported by every Canadian Sikh as some tend to believe. The Sikh community is politically wise and diverse, and many members would like to either re-elect Trudeau or see Scheer as our next prime minister.

The saddest part of the whole story is that many Sikhs have also internalized racism, with some critical about the style of Singh's turban, which reflects the traditional conical style. So what? There are many different ways of tying a turban and it is the question of personal choice. It should be left to Singh alone to decide which style he prefers.

What really matters is what is in Jagmeet Singh’s head, not what is on his head. His track record and performance clearly show that he has a lot of sense. He is an intelligent man who has ideas and a vision for a just society. One can agree or disagree with his ideology, but to see him as less than any other leader is wrong.

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