In Canada, there is an inescapable tendency to use another, more influential country’s politics to interpret one’s own. In the tense lead-up to the federal election on October 21, a few Canadian leaders have tried to appropriate some of America’s far-right revanchist language—so the same must be happening on the progressive end too, right? Does Canada have a Bernie Sanders? How about an AOC?
Not quite—but it does have Jagmeet Singh.
A former criminal defense lawyer and taker of countless selfies, 40-year-old Singh is the leader of Canada’s left-leaning New Democratic Party, and he’s racking up the firsts: He was the first politician to wear a turban in Ontario’s provincial parliament. (Singh is an observant Sikh.) He’s the first person of color to lead a major Canadian political party at the national level. And now—after being tapped for the NDP leadership in 2017—he’s running his first federal election campaign.
That means he’s probably also the first Canadian party leader to have been accused, at his own event, of trying to impose sharia law; the first to be chastised on the street for not looking Canadian enough; and the first whose party members may have begun to defect, in part, because they’re worried their constituents won’t vote for an NDP headed by a man in a turban.
Despite these hurdles, Singh—whose “riding,” or electoral district, is Burnaby South in Greater Vancouver—has been praised in the past few weeks after standing out in the leader debates, in large part because of his relentlessly upbeat messaging. The NDP, a perennial also-ran that lost a lot of ground in the 2015 election, is unlikely to win the election this year either. But the 2019 campaign has been a sort of coming-out party for Singh, following over a year of lukewarm reception as the new NDP leader. And there’s a lot for him to capitalize on: The Liberals, under current prime minister Justin Trudeau, have left their progressive promises unfulfilled. The Conservatives, headed by racism apologist Andrew Scheer, are focused on attacking Trudeau’s record from the right. Singh, the lesser-known quantity, has used the national campaign to shape his own image as the candidate for working Canadians, while the others are busy glad-handing the 1-percent.
Singh is not as seismic or beloved a figure as Bernie or AOC (although he’s happy to align himself with the latter). His own colleagues have criticized him for being inexperienced. Some say he’s too in thrall to luxury to lead the working people’s party. And the entire NDP is dogged by Canada’s faulty electoral system, which could have progressives casting strategic votes for the Liberals instead. Nevertheless, Singh’s profile is rising—and, recently, Canadians gave the NDP a bump in the polls.
The NDP bills itself as Canada’s social democrat party, with an emphasis on pushing for a real living wage, stronger workers’ rights, more Medicare funding, universal child care, and a fully progressive agenda that looks out for visible minorities, LGBTQ communities, and indigenous peoples. It has deep connections to organized labor, and its first leader back in 1961 was the legendary Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas, credited with creating Canada’s universal Medicare system. Douglas is widely considered one of the greatest Canadians of all time, yet the party he founded is perennially in third place, as the centrist Liberals and the right-leaning Conservatives duke it out for the top position.
However, as politics worldwide has become more polarized and more young voters have become interested in the left, Singh’s team is jockeying for advantage. Canadians are feeling squeezed right now: Housing prices skyrocketed in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver over the last decade, while wages lagged significantly behind inflation. Every party running candidates in this election is pitching its plan to help make life more affordable for ordinary, hard-working Canadian. And the NDP is offering to—in classic populist language—“un-rig” a system it says favors the rich.
The party’s platform this year is called “A New Deal for People”: It proposes to spend billions of dollars on dozens of measures, including 500,000 new affordable housing units, a national pharmacare program (prescriptions aren’t covered by Canada’s universal Medicare), affordable child care, clean water for all indigenous communities, and investment in green transit across the country. The NDP—alongside their competitors on the left, the Green Party—are also pushing for a wealth tax, albeit one much milder than those being proposed by Elizabeth Warren and Sanders south of the border, at a mere 1 percent of supersized incomes.
Singh’s success in recent leader debates has NDP supporters hopeful that the party will get back the momentum it was starting to gain in the 2011 election, perhaps the most pivotal in NDP history. That year, the NDP’s then-leader Jack Layton led his party to win 103 seats—a historic best—and become the official opposition to long-entrenched Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. It was the first time the NDP had formed the opposition, and Layton brought it home while battling prostate cancer and a bad hip. (He campaigned wielding a cane.) The media called the NDP’s success the “orange wave,” after its official party color.
But shortly after the election, Layton’s cancer resurged. He took a leave of absence. Less than four months after the orange wave swept the country, he was dead. Without its famous leader, the NDP entered a fallow period. In an attempt to bring the party closer to center, a smooth-talking former Quebec Liberal named Thomas Mulcair was elected party leader in 2012. The Liberals had lost badly in the previous election; maybe, some thought, the NDP could maintain or even grow their newly attained standing by filling that centrist void, talking more about balancing the budget and fostering the private sector than about, say, hiking corporate taxes or cracking down on offshore tax havens.
It also gave a political heir named Justin Trudeau—a man who has recently admitted he can’t remember how many times he’s worn blackface—enough space to swoop in and become the progressive face of the 2015 election. The Liberals ended up winning a majority number of seats in the legislature, and Trudeau became prime minister. Meanwhile, the orange wave slowed to a trickle: the NDP won just 44 seats, less than half of what it won last time, and lost its official opposition status. In 2016, party delegates handed Mulcair a harsh fate when they voted at the national NDP convention to hold another leadership race a year down the road.
Canadians had clearly identified with Jack Layton’s happy-warrior style: He was a proven community organizer who looked like your friend’s dad but also someone who’d be fun to have a beer with at the local bar. Mulcair was a much less charismatic, more moderate campaigner with a professorial style that played well in Parliament, as he questioned and criticized Harper’s Conservatives on seemingly every policy. But his approach left voters cold.
Jagmeet Singh looks and sounds nothing like Layton or Mulcair. Born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario, he’s the oldest son of Punjabi immigrants. He talks with a millennial cadence (“I’m pumped!”) and is probably the only person in Canadian politics getting attention for being a snappy dresser and biking around Toronto. Singh, a provincial lawmaker in Ontario when Mulcair got turfed in 2016, emerged as a possible breath of fresh air. Young people identify with him. He seems fluent in fashion and pop culture. He speaks openly about having been bullied by classmates and sexually abused as a child. Plus, he has an unmistakably progressive track record at the grassroots level, including giving pro bono legal counsel to marginalized youth and organizing through the Sikh Activist Network.
When Singh was elected NDP leader in 2017, commentators on the left welcomed a new dawn for the ailing party.
But what followed wasn’t pretty. Singh didn’t seem to be growing into the job. He made widely mocked gaffes on big issues, from China to gun ownership. Singh had inherited a party that was struggling financially, and the new leader didn’t deliver much on fundraising. The NDP ended 2018 deeply in debt.
His own party began to second-guess him, giving him a hard time at a meeting last September for not cleaning up the party’s finances. After Singh ousted a Saskatchewan MP who was accused of sexual harassment, party vets in that province penned a letter accusing him of denying the MP due process. Singh has also had to deal with a number of prominent NDP lawmakers deciding, one after the other, to not run in this year’s election. In the Maritime province of New Brunswick this fall, both provincial and federal members of the NPD switched to the Green Party—and one cited Singh’s race as a reason, claiming that it jeopardized the NDP’s chances. (That same person is now suing the NDP, and Singh, for painting him as a racist.)
This year’s federal campaign has exposed Canada’s intolerant underside: Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has repeatedly criticized Trudeau’s “soft” border policies, even dredging up the specter of MS-13—the Central American gang that Trump loves to talk about—as a reason to further secure the US–Canada border. Even further to the right is the People’s Party of Canada, led by former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier: he has vowed to stop “mass immigration” to Canada, so as to save it from multiculturalism and “the cult of diversity.”
Singh—who has spoken about the discrimination he experienced growing up—has also faced widely reported racism since deciding to enter federal politics. And, ironically, it has sometimes given him an opportunity to shine. During his 2017 bid for the party leadership, a woman crashed one of his gatherings in Ontario to accuse Singh of being “in bed” with sharia law and the Muslim Brotherhood. “We don’t want to be intimidated by hate, we don’t want hatred to ruin a positive event,” Singh replied. “So let’s show people how to treat someone with love: We welcome you. We love you, we support you.” More recently, Singh gave a moving response when Trudeau’s brown- and blackface scandal broke. When approached by a French-Canadian man who told him to “cut” his turban to “look more like a Canadian,” Singh dispatched him with grace.
Still, some have criticized Singh for not standing up enough for progressive causes since entering federal politics; recently, prominent activist and journalist Desmond Cole said he felt let down by Singh not speaking up about police brutality since becoming NDP leader. And although Singh has carved out a prominent spot for himself in Canada’s political imagination during this campaign, his party has virtually no chance of beating the Liberals or Conservatives. If the Conservatives win the most seats and the NDP forms a coalition with the Liberals to counter them—a possibility about which both Singh and Trudeau have been noncommittal—then Singh may stay in the spotlight a little longer.
Singh’s message has just begun to resonate with Canadians, and he’ll have to build on recent success by learning how to command respect from those within his party. Meanwhile, he’s stuck trying to talk Canadians out of voting strategically—which, in this election, means not voting for the NDP. “I feel like this idea of strategic voting has not allowed people to dream big,” Singh said last weekend. “I want people to dream big.”