Politics·Power & Politics

Jagmeet Singh hopes to change Quebecers' views on religious symbols

Jagmeet Singh says an NDP government wouldn't challenge Quebec's religious symbols law in court — but he hopes his own public identity can change Quebecers' minds about wearing religious symbols.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Sherbrooke, Que., Sunday, September 15, 2019. (The Canadian Press)

Jagmeet Singh says an NDP government wouldn't challenge Quebec's religious symbols law in court — but he hopes his own public identity can change Quebecers' minds about wearing religious symbols.

"I'm a bearded, turbaned man that's going to Quebec and saying, 'I love the French language, I respect the unique identity of Quebec and I want to fight to defend it and I'm proud of who I am,'"  said the NDP Leader. 

"Maybe they can start to say, 'Well, you know, that guy believes in the things that I believe in. Maybe those symbols aren't a problem.'"

The provincial law, known as Bill 21, bars teachers, judges and other public sector workers from wearing religious symbols and clothing at work. Federal party leaders have spoken out against the law — but have not agreed to join any legal challenge of Bill 21.

"I understand that there is a legitimate jurisdictional question here that's a legal question about jurisdiction and what provinces can and can't do," said Singh in an interview with CBC News' Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos.

"There's some work to be done because it's, to me, divisive and troubling that laws that are designed to discriminate [against] someone because of the way they look are supported by people."

Here is Singh's full "Power Lunch" interview with Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos recorded on Sept. 17:

Kapelos: The last Power Lunch I did was with one of your competitors, obviously, Elizabeth May.  I had asked her who her personal hero was and she had responded that was it Jesus Christ and then right away apologized for saying so. And the reason she apologized, she said, is because she doesn't think that Canadian politicians should wear their religion on their sleeve. And that's not a knock on anyone specifically, she was speaking about herself, but I wonder what you think of that statement, the idea that politicians shouldn't wear their religion on their sleeves. 

Singh: I think that you should be who you are and be proud of who you are and put that out there. I'm proud that I'm a Sikh. I'm proud that I've got values that were inspired by my mom, that teach me that we're all one, we're all connected.

Kapelos: How foundational is your religion? I know you talk about some of the tenets of it, but how important is it to your daily life? Do you pray? Do you know what I mean? Like, what is it like?

Singh: Well, I meditate regularly and the goal in meditation is to realize that we're all connected.

Kapelos: Do you believe in God?

Singh: So we believe in a connection between all things and it's a connection that exists between you and I, between all people, between the environment and me and us. And that connection is what we focus in on and what I focus in on.

Quebec's religious symbols law

Kapelos: I know you've already received a lot of questions on Bill 21, speaking of religion. I want to ask you ... there was a poll out of Leger yesterday. I want to get the exact numbers right. It shows that 64 per cent of Quebecers support that secularism law, 38 per cent in the rest of Canada. What do those numbers tell you?

Singh: Well, there's some work to be done because it's to me divisive and troubling that laws that are designed to discriminate [against] someone because of the way they look are supported by people. It means what I've always known — there's a lot of challenges and those challenges mean trying to breaking some of the barriers that exist, and maybe some of the myths or stereotypes that make people think that just because someone looks different, that there is a justification to then treat them differently.

Kapelos: Do you think the support of Bill 21 is rooted in racism?

Singh: I think that ... there is ... It's hard to figure out what the root is. I don't know exactly what it is.

Kapelos: Do you have a gut feeling?

Singh: I'm not really sure exactly where to pinpoint it. I know that in Quebec there is a history with religion and how it had too much influence over society, so there's a lot of resistance to that and there was the revolution, effectively, that said we're not going to have continued a society that is so influenced by the church.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh discusses Bill 21, provincial vetoes for energy projects and possible minority coalitions in this wide-ranging interview with Vassy Kapelos. 16:23

Kapelos: Do you think that that extends to religious symbols, though?

Singh: I think so. I think a lot of folks say that they're their discomfort with religious symbols comes from that history. I think that we can go beyond that.

Kapelos: You have been vocal about your criticism of Bill 21, but you will not go so far as to say that your party, if you form government, would legally intervene. Is it disingenuous to say that you're opposed to that bill and that you'll protect those minority rights, but you won't go so far as to do it in the courts?

Singh: I think it's genuine to say, you know, I'm a bearded, turbaned man that's going to Quebec and saying, 'I love the French language, I respect the unique identity of Quebec and I want to fight to defend it and I'm proud of who I am.' And I'm hoping that that has a powerful impact on Quebecers, [that] they'll see me as someone who's coming in to say, 'I love and support what this place is about.'

Kapelos: I take your point, but why hesitate to go as far as you could and say that this is something I'm so passionate about, I'm willing to intervene?

Singh: I believe in the things, passionately, that Quebecers believe in. I believe in women's rights. I believe in the LGBTQ community's rights. I believe in building a society where no one's left behind. All the things that Quebecers believe in. Maybe they can start to say, 'Well, you know, that guy believes in the things that I believe in ... maybe those symbols aren't a problem.'

Kapelos: I think that makes sense to a lot of people listening. I think that will, but I think there's also a question about, and this is not just for you but for every leader — are you essentially making a political calculation? Are you trading off the degree to which you could protect those minority rights for votes in Quebec because you're worried about those numbers that I just detailed?

Singh: Well, I understand there is ... I understand the jurisdiction and I understand that there is a legitimate jurisdictional question here that's a legal question about jurisdiction and what provinces can and can't do.

Provincial vetoes over energy projects

Kapelos: You also unveiled your platform that was directed towards Quebec and, as someone who's worked in Alberta, one thing stuck out to me and, correct me if my interpretation is wrong, but the idea that Quebec would essentially have a veto over any major infrastructure project that went through its borders ... What message do you think that sends people in Alberta?

Singh: Well, I want to send the message that while Quebec is unique and I'm proud of that — that's something that we've always believed and that deserves a unique position — I would not impose a project on any province and that means there has to be social acceptability, there has to be communities that are on side. The provinces are onside.

Kapelos: And that's any province, not just Quebec?

Singh: It should be. I mean, it should be the fact if we want to move forward with a project, there has to be the buy-in from all the people involved. Indigenous communities have to be onside and it's hard work, but we know that if you don't do that work the project's not going to go ahead anyways. 

Kapelos: What if you're not able to build that consensus? I mean, are you …

Singh: The project won't go forward.

Kapelos: But are you diminishing the power ... should the federal government not be able to deem what it believes is in the national interest?

Singh: I think the national interest has to coincide with making the efforts to have people that are impacted believe in the project, and that's hard work. But that's kind of the beauty of federalism, that it's not something that should be where we're imposing decisions, where we work and provide an advantage, provide investments, show people that this is going to be to their benefit, and if that can be done then it should be a project that goes ahead. 

Kapelos: So would that apply — and I just want to make sure I'm clear — so if any big national infrastructure project, if there's one province you didn't want it to go through its border,  it would not go ahead?

Singh: We wouldn't ... I think the simplest way to put it is we would not impose projects on provinces.

Kapelos: And that veto that you talk about with Quebec would apply to every province?

Singh: The way we frame it is, it's very important, it's not imposing projects and it's respecting provinces.

Kapelos: Okay,  I just want to make sure I'm clear because you're not necessarily directly answering my question. I don't want to frame this wrong …

Singh: I'm giving you the frame, you can just accept my frame.

Kapelos: Well I wish. It's not that easy. I just want to make sure because B.C. has opposition to certain projects as well, right. So if B.C. was not on board, you would not impose anything.

Singh: Exactly. 

Trade 

Kapelos: Let me move on, because I want to ask you about foreign policy as well. Let's talk about what's happening in China. There are two Canadians who have been detained. We see a massive impact because of China's actions on a number of our export industries like canola, pork and beef. What would you do differently than the current prime minister, now Liberal leader ... with China?

Singh: So I think there has been a number of things that were more unclear. We didn't have an ambassador for a long time. I think that was a problem, a bad decision. We need to have consistency. We need to be strong. 

Kapelos: I also watched an interview with you, I think it was with the Financial Post, where you were talking a bit about trade. It was a while ago, when the tensions with Donald Trump were kind of at the height, and you talked about the need for new markets and less reliance on the United States. What do you do with China in that respect, and what other markets would you be looking to grow Canadian exports to?

Singh: Well when we grow our markets, one of the priorities for me is ensuring that we've got fair trade as opposed to free trade. And the reason why I say that is free trade seems to have benefited the wealthiest and the most powerful. But it doesn't seem to benefit working people. And so, what I want to make sure is that when we sign agreements and expand our markets that we're competing with a level playing field. Our Canadian workers are amongst the best in the world and they can compete with anyone, but they can compete only if the labour rights are similar, environmental rights are similar. And if those aren't, it puts our workers at a disadvantage.

Kapelos: Could that ever be possible that China?

Singh: I think it could be very difficult.

Kapelos: Where do you look, then, if you can't look to China?

Singh: Well, there's the whole world.

Kapelos: Well, to be fair so much of our, I mean the bigger the market — we've already got the CETA, TPP. There are a lot of markets that have been opened up. What more can you do to diversify the destination for exports in this country. Where would you be going?

Singh: Well there is, I mean with those agreements, we need to expand more in those areas. So just because we have an agreement we have to build bigger, better ties.

Minority government scenarios

Kapelos: After the Liberals a few weeks ago unearthed this 2005 video of Andrew Scheer talking about his opposition to same-sex marriage, you came out with a very strongly worded statement. I just want to read it. "This is exactly why if Canadians deliver a minority government in October I will not prop up Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives. We can't trust Mr. Scheer or his caucus to champion the fundamental rights of Canadians." People interpreted that in two ways. They first saw that statement and understood what you're saying. But in the same vein, they interpreted it as you saying you're not going to form government. Do you regret making that statement?

Singh: No, not at all. I'm very confident in our team and the fact that we're running to form government. I'm running as prime minister. I'm confident about that.

Kapelos: Why would you say you wouldn't prop up a government?

Singh: So I can't just determine the outcome. And given his comments and given where he stands, given that Canadians are going to choose a government, and whatever they choose, I wanted it to be clear that if folks are wondering, whatever outcome may come, where I stand with respect to those comments being made, I wanted to be absolutely clear that, for me, a woman's right to choose, same-sex marriage, the rights of people is not negotiable for me. And that's why I wanted to make my position clear.

Kapelos: Do you think Mr. Scheer is homophobic?

Singh: I think that he's got a lot of questions to answer. The fact that he didn't show up to a lot of the Pride celebrations that all leaders showed up to, the fact that he's made comments like the ones that you pointed out in the past. He's shown a consistent pattern of behaviour that really raised a lot of questions, not just on that front but on a woman's right to choose, on his position around building a unified Canada versus trying to divide and create wedges. There is a pattern of behaviour that can't be ignored.

Kapelos: He says that he believes in the equality of everyone, that he would never roll back any rights. He points to the fact that he stood up in the House of Commons on behalf of the Conservative Party to support the apology to LGBT people in the public service who had unceremoniously been fired just because of their sexuality. Why isn't that enough for you?

Singh: I look at that and then I look at the whole other pattern of behaviour. So on one hand, he stood up. But on the other hand, he's had a whole series of events repeatedly showing something to the contrary. And that just raises a lot of questions.

Kapelos: So do you have questions, or do you think he's homophobic?

Singh: It raises a lot of questions.

Kapelos: The counterfactual that people drew was that you would support a Liberal minority. Is that true?

Singh: Well, I would be willing to take anyone's support who wants to work with me to put in place things like proportional representation. Or take anyone's support who would like to put in place things like pharmacare for all, or expanding our housing to truly invest in building half a million new affordable homes.

Kapelos: Do you have a red line? Elizabeth May talked about, if she were to support any party forming a minority government ... they would have to commit to the climate targets that she set out. That's her baseline. Do you have one?

Singh: It's one of those things that we're going to we'll see when we get there. We'll make negotiations and decisions. I mean, right now I want to be very clear I'm running to form government and I'm really confident.

Kapelos: But you haven't ... you have ruled out — and I know that this a hypothetical, I take your point that of course you are running to from government ... you have ruled out supporting a Conservative minority. You have not ruled out anything else.

Singh: I've not ruled out anything else, but I'm running for prime minister.

Leadership

Kapelos: My final question is this: I've been thinking a lot and I know that there is a concern in the NDP around how the media has framed your party in this election. And I take your point on that. I think often of the, I guess, the way in which your party has been talked about for the months in the lead-up and yourself, your own leadership, pointing to the fundraising numbers and polling numbers. And I try to put myself in your shoes and I think, 'What if my ratings were terrible every night and people were talking about it all the time and I knew I was wearing it and my colleagues were jumping ship?' I find it hard on bad days to motivate myself already. How do you deal with that?

Singh: If I can be really honest, I've been through way worse in my life. I really focus about how hard things are for people. And for me, that's easy to do because this isn't — like, my own worries are nothing compared to what people are going through and why I'm fighting for a better future is because I remember what it was like when I couldn't find housing, when I was in university and my parents, we lost our home. I remember what it's like when my dad was struggling to find a place for rehab and we didn't have private insurance. We didn't have any other way, we needed publicly funded spots and, luckily, we were able to find a spot. I know what it's like to not have help when you need it and to get that help made the world of difference for me. And I want to make sure that no one is left behind, that people can get the care that they need.

Quick questions

Kapelos: Your biggest political gaffe?

Singh: Well, I mean, I didn't think it was a big deal, but now I guess it's a big deal when I turned back to ask in a scrum when I chatted with Mr. Caron, I thought it was cute but people did not take it that way.

Kapelos: Who's your political hero?

Singh: I think my hero in general is, like, my mom and dad. And I think about, like, I'm only here because of them. My dad, because of his resilience and how he went through an incredible transformation, went through some really difficult, horrible parts of his life and now is, like, this amazing spiritual and healthy and strong person. And my mom, who is resilient through it all. Those are really my, my heroes. My mom taught me ... she doesn't really fit the definition of a political hero, but she is a hero because my politics all come from her. The fact that she taught me that we're all one and that we're all connected and we've got to fight for each other. 

Kapelos: That was our next question — personal hero. Do you have a political role model?

Singh: I mean, I love what Tommy Douglas did as a New Democrat. I think a lot of us think of how much he overcame to bring in something that at the time was considered radical. I guess we can just look to the states and see how radical the concept of having health care for everyone [is]. It's being argued and fought against and there's all sorts of money being thrown against it. And we built it here, and it was really his vision, with a lot of support from Canadians that built something beautiful. And that's pretty inspirational.

Kapelos: Finish the sentence: Elizabeth May is ...

Singh: A leader of the Green Party.

Kapelos:  If you could pick one job — and I know you're a lawyer, obviously — but if you could pick one job outside of politics what would it be?  

Singh: Well at one point in my life I was really seriously choosing between being a lawyer and trying to become a professional mixed martial artist. It was something I was really passionate about and I didn't go that route because of my family's struggles. But it's kind of a thing in the back of your head ... [you're] always wondering, 'How good could I have been?' I was a pretty good competitor, amateur, but it would've been cool to try that out.

Kapelos: I did not know that. Thank you so much, Mr. Singh. I really appreciate it. Enjoy the rest of your day and good luck in the campaign. 

Singh: Thank you.

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