As Jagmeet Singh steps forward, is Canada ready for a non-white federal leader?

Jagmeet Singh's campaign to lead the NDP could be viewed as test of both his own readiness and the readiness of Canadians to get behind a leader who looks like him. Or the prospect of a non-white leader could simply be "long overdue."

NDP leadership candidate would bring new diversity to federal politics

Ontario deputy NDP leader Jagmeet Singh launches his bid for the federal NDP leadership in Brampton, Ont., on Monday, May 15. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Canada enjoys a relatively open political system, but there remain shortcomings in the representation that results.

For instance, not since 1873 has a man with a beard led his party to victory in a federal election. History would thus be made if Jagmeet Singh leads the NDP to forming government after the vote in 2019.

Of course, if Singh becomes leader of the NDP this fall he will have already toppled a far more significant barrier: he would become the first non-white leader of a major federal party in this country's history.

As much as Canada might be celebrated for its diversity, pluralism and successful integration of new citizens and cultures, the national parties have only been led by white men or women (with only a few of the latter).

Singh's campaign could be viewed as test of both his own readiness and the readiness of Canadians to get behind a leader who looks like him.

Or the prospect of a non-white leader could simply be viewed as "long overdue," in the words of Pardeep Singh Nagra, a Sikh activist who fought for inclusion as an amateur boxer in the 1990s.

Sikhs, he notes, have more than a hundred years of history in Canada.

"If we're not ready now, how could we ever be ready?" he asks.

The increasing diversity of Canadian politics

The faces of federal politics have become more diverse in recent years.

Four Sikhs were appointed to cabinet when the Liberals took office in November 2015. And, according to a tally by Erin Tolley, a professor at the University of Toronto, 14 per cent of the MPs elected in 2015 were visible minorities, resulting in the most diverse Parliament in Canadian history.

But those MPs were elected in ridings where visible minorities made up 45 per cent of the population. And a survey conducted by Tolley and Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, who does research in political sciences at Queens University, found that in 54 per cent of ridings there was not a single visible minority among the candidates for the three major parties.

"The strategic placement of visible minority candidates in only the most diverse ridings lulls us into thinking that our politics is inclusive," they wrote in 2015.

Singh says his religion and upbringing has informed a big part of his political perspective 1:05

How Canadians view race and religion

Research suggests race can be a factor for voters, Tolley says, but it is not necessarily decisive: party preference is generally a more important factor.

Other polling suggests Singh could face a unique challenge.

poll published in 2004 found that 30 per cent of respondents were willing to say they would be less likely to vote for a party that was led by a Muslim and eight per cent were less likely to support a party leader who was black. (Granted, 10 per cent were less likely to support a leader from Western Canada)

I had a funny sounding name, brown skin and long hair. I faced a lot of bullying at school and often felt like I didn't belong. I had to learn to stand up for myself- Jagmeet Singh, NDP leadership candidate

Though attitudes toward religious communities can differ from how people feel toward specific members, just 38 per cent said they had a favourable opinion of Sikhism when Angus Reid asked survey respondents earlier this year for their opinion of different religions. That was an improvement from when the question was asked in 2013, but still well below Christianity at 68 per cent and Judaism at 53 per cent.

Asked about specific religious symbols, 77 per cent said they supported the wearing of a turban in public, less than for a crucifix or Star of David. And just 33 per cent were supportive of a kirpan, the small knife that observant Sikhs wear.

There is a belief that Singh's turban and kirpan will be particularly problematic in Quebec, where there are deeply held feelings about religion, secularism and the state.

The "charter of values" proposed by the former Parti Québécois government would have banned public employees from wearing a turban at work. The federal NDP's opposition to the former Conservative government's attempt to ban the veil during the swearing of the citizenship oath has been blamed for the party's losses in Quebec in 2015.

And it is in Quebec that 16 of the NDP's 44 MPs are currently based.

"Are Singh and his team ready to face the painfully predictable questions about his Sikh faith and its impact on his policies or on a possible NDP government?" Karl Belanger, an adviser to Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair, asked in a recent analysis.

Even beyond Quebec, religiosity is rarely addressed in the public square (Stephen Harper's habit of punctuating his speeches with "God bless Canada" being a notable exception).

The need for education and a broader story

"The key to overcoming some of this is education, familiarity, and Singh ensuring his narrative is about more than religion," says Shachi Kurl of Angus Reid. 

He will need to tell and tell and tell again why he chooses to wear the kirpan and why it's important to him- Shachi Kurl, Angus Reid

"By education, he will need to tell and tell and tell again why he chooses to wear the kirpan and why it's important to him. Familiarity is just that, getting voters used to him, in the way he did with his appearance on the Rick Mercer Report some months ago, where the segment addressed religious issues, but also his politics, his reputation as a fashionista etc."

Launching his campaign on Monday, Singh dealt with his distinguishing characteristics by way of an anecdote from his childhood.

"Like many others who stand out, I was picked on," he said. "I had a funny sounding name, brown skin and long hair. I faced a lot of bullying at school and often felt like I didn't belong. I had to learn to stand up for myself."

This segued into an explanation of how he realized that kids from poor homes were also excluded.

Sprinkled throughout his remarks were references to fighting discrimination and division. The word "inclusive" was used half a dozen times.

Racist views will likely be drawn out by Singh's candidacy, spouted on social media and in the comments sections under media stories about him. In an interview with GQ, Singh said he'd been targeted, mistakenly, by anti-Muslim sentiment, as many people do not understand the difference between Muslims and Sikhs. Three years ago, Tim Uppal, a minister in Stephen Harper's cabinet, was the recipient of an ugly comment at a tennis club in riding.

Those voices might be in a relatively small minority. In a country where 19 per cent of residents are visible minorities, Singh might not be met with substantial discomfort. 

But in lieu of precedents, it is hard to know for sure.

An election is not a perfect test

At the same time, neither a leadership context nor a federal election are perfect tests of acceptance.

Singh could flop as a leadership candidate for entirely unrelated reasons. And if Singh becomes leader of the NDP, but the party fails to make gains in 2019, there could be any number of explanations. Never mind questions of race and religion, Canadians have also never had an NDP prime minister. Or maybe Canadians just don't trust people with beards.

Another measure of how ready Canada is for a non-white leader might be whether Singh is followed by others like him, not just Sikhs, but leaders who are Chinese, black and Muslim.

In a country of great diversity, you would expect a diversity of democratic leadership. At least eventually.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.