Jagmeet Singh's challenge: Can a turban-wearing Sikh win in Quebec?

By traditional means of measure, NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh is outpacing his competitors. But will his turban prevent him from being elected in La Belle Province?

NDP members in Quebec wonder whether front-runner in party's leadership race is electable

Former Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh launched his bid for the federal NDP leadership in mid-May and was quickly touted as the front-runner. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

By most traditional measures, federal NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh is outpacing his competitors.

Newly released fundraising data from Elections Canada show he received 60 per cent of all contributions in the second quarter of 2017, despite the fact that he only joined the race in May.

He's also earned more endorsements from sitting MPs than his rivals, Niki Ashton, Charlie Angus and Guy Caron.

Still, the Ontario MPP — who stepped down as his party's deputy leader when he joined the federal race last May — has a problem in Quebec. 

In his public appearances, he wears a bevy of brightly coloured turbans; he's a practising Sikh.

A recent Angus Reid poll found that only 36 per cent of Quebecers would consider voting for a party led by a man wearing a religious head-covering. That's 20 percentage points below the average across Canada as a whole.

Electable in Quebec?

Singh's outwardly religious appearance is leading some NDP insiders to chatter both publicly and privately about his electability in Quebec.

The province has been a hub for federal New Democrats since the 2011 orange wave swept 59 of the province's 75 seats. Quebec voters were less kind in 2015: Of the 44 seats currently held by the NDP, only 16 are in Quebec.

The party would like to win those lost seats back. And if it ever hopes to form government, Quebec matters.

"While it's correct to say that there is an openness [in Quebec], and that truly intolerant people won't vote NDP anyway, we still risk losing a part of our support — Quebec electors who have very strong feelings about the importance of secularism," said Alain Giguère, a former New Democrat MP and a long-time party member.

Look past the turban, says Quebec MP

But secularism — the separation of church and state — is not at risk if Singh is elected as NDP leader, counters Hélène Laverdière.

The sole Quebec MP so far to publicly support Singh, she encourages people to see past the turban and listen to his message.

Laverdière, who represents the Montreal riding of Laurier–Sainte-Marie, knows about overcoming difficult odds after beating former Bloc Québecois leader Gilles Duceppe for her seat — not once, but twice.

"[Singh] has a bold, positive vision. That's something I adhere to, that calls to me," she told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

She believes Quebecers will support Singh's proposed policy ideas.

"I think he has very strong policies, including fortified ideas against climate change," Laverdière said.

Charm offensive in Quebec

In a new promotional video, Singh takes direct aim at the hearts and minds of Quebecers. Viewers can watch him opening a drawer, inserting a Roch Voisine cassette in a boom box, then beginning to tie his turban.

In French, he says, "In my youth, they told my parents they didn't speak the right language. That they should be ashamed to speak it. At the same time, I learned Quebecers faced similar pressures.

"I quickly understood the parallels between the two realities, and it touched me deeply. In solidarity, I learned how to speak French."

NDP candidates will be in Montreal on Aug. 27 for their second-last public debate. Party members will begin voting for their new leader on Sept. 18.


Kate McKenna is a journalist with CBC News.

With files from Cecilia MacArthur and CBC Montreal's Daybreak