The Current

Jagmeet Singh's response to heckler puts spotlight on NDP leadership race, say media experts

Some say Jagmeet Singh's response to a heckler was a defining moment in a leadership race that has the potential to reshape Canada's political landscape.
NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh deals with a heckler at a Brampton, Ont., meet-and-greet. The incident lasted more than four minutes. Singh said, 'We don't want to be intimidated by hate.' (YouTube)

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The race to replace Tom Mulcair as leader of the federal New Democratic Party has been underway for months now.

But it was this moment when candidate Jagmeet Singh deftly handled a heckler at a recent Brampton, Ont., rally  that seems to have finally focused many Canadians' attention on the leadership race.

"We welcome you. We support you," says the NDP leadership candidate, responding to an angry heckler who accused Singh of wanting to impose "Shariah law."

Ottawa bureau chief of HuffPost Canada Althia Raj says Singh handled the confrontation "beautifully."

"Most people probably would have, as their first instinct, want to counter the claims that the woman was making in her rant. You know, for example, stating, 'Well, I'm not a Muslim, I'm a Sikh and what you're saying is factually inaccurate,'" Raj tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"And he didn't do that. Instead he affirmed her and basically reassured the crowd that everything was going to be fine ... He very much presented a 'turn the other cheek' and he embodied his campaign slogan ... love and courage."

Federal NDP leadership candidates Jagmeet Singh, left to right, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Guy Caron. (The Canadian Press)

National Post columnist John Ivison agrees Singh's grace under pressure had a impact on the leadership race.

"People who were unaware about this NDP race must have seen this video. I mean it was 35 million hits or something — which, you know, Justin Trudeau can only dream of those numbers," he remarks.

Ivison compares Singh's viral response at the rally to Prime Minister Trudeau's boxing match against Patrick Brazeau as an example of a transformative moment in politics.

He refers to a study by academic Elise Maiolino that shows how that moment resonated postively.

The study looks at post-fight media coverage and suggests the boxing match transitioned Trudeau's future from "precariously masculine" to "sufficiently masculine."

Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau and Liberal MP Justin Trudeau fought in a charity boxing match for cancer research, March 2012 - what many consider a defining moment in politics for the current prime minister. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Related: Jagmeet Singh heckler video may be his Trudeau boxing match moment

Singh has signed up the most members, says Raj — "47,000 out of the party's 124,000 voting members."

But the polls aren't clearly pointing out the candidate as a frontrunner.

"He sold a lot of memberships in Surrey and Brampton and ethnic communities, and those communities tend to be under polled."

"There is something simultaneously remarkable and also very pedestrian about what Jagmeet Singh is doing in running for leader of the federal NDP," Angus Reid Institute's Shachi Kurl tells Tremonti.

"A generation ago, we saw Canadians bitterly divided over issues such as whether or not turban Sikhs could join the RCMP or join the Legion. Today our defence minister is a turban Sikh."
Angus Reid Institute's Shachi Kurl says NDP candidate Jagmeet Singh has the potential to 'out-Trudeau Justin Trudeau.' (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

But Kurl adds that polls show there is a level of discomfort — "a sense of otherness among a significant number of Canadians" around wearing a religious head covering versus someone who is clean-shaven from a minority group.

Related: Angus Reid on Religious Trends

She suggests that Singh does have the potential to break ground in a very positive way and says as a candidate, he can
"set himself up as someone who could almost out-Trudeau Justin Trudeau."

"He's young. He's urban. He likes to make a thing out of being well-dressed. He could certainly 'out-sock' Justin Trudeau," Kurl jokes.

"And when we consider that the 2015 election was decided basically on where the left of centre vote decided to land, and ultimately landed on Justin Trudeau and the Liberals —  this could be a candidate, if he wins, who has the potential to steal some votes away from young urban Liberal voters."

Listen to the full segment near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese and Halifax network producer Mary-Catherine Macintosh.