Why Jagmeet Singh is the one to watch

The federal election is less than a week away, and the NDP leader has unexpectedly found himself in the driver’s seat
By Steve Paikin - Published on Oct 15, 2019
[10:38 AM] Sarah Sweet     NDP leader JagmeetSingh takes part in the the federal leaders' French-language debate in Gatineau, Quebec, on October 10.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh takes part in the the federal leaders' French-language debate in Gatineau, Quebec, on October 10. (Chris Wattie/CP)

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Seven years ago, I invited Jagmeet Singh out to lunch. As a guy who’s been watching things unfold at Queen’s Park since the early 1980s, I was curious to learn more about the first New Democrat ever elected to the Ontario legislature from the region of Peel — and the first-ever MPP to wear a turban.

Singh arrived for our get-together looking like a million bucks. He was a 33-year-old, good-looking, immaculately dressed rookie who’d just knocked off a two-term Liberal by more than 2,000 votes. His smile was broad, and I spent the next 90 minutes getting to know more about this historic political figure.

He was certainly friendly enough. Our conversation was very pleasant. But what I found unusual about him was that he didn’t know very much about Ontario politics — in fact, that might be putting it generously. He knew practically nothing about issues that had roiled New Democrats for generations. I dropped a bunch of names of NDP legends from bygone eras, and he gave not even the slightest hint of recognition. In fact, he readily acknowledged, “I really don’t know anything about the province’s political history.”

But, when we were leaving, people wanted to shake Singh’s hand. I quickly (unfairly?) sized him up as a budding political star, but certainly not one who would be up till the wee small hours of the morning poring over policy documents.

Seven years later, I’m not sure Jagmeet Singh has changed one iota. He’s still the guy who dazzles with his presentation, but he’ll never be seen as having a Stephen Harper-like grasp of the policies he’s championing during this election campaign. A passionate defence of those policies? You bet. Did you see him defend the need to spend whatever it takes to ensure clean drinking water on First Nations reserves? His response was fired with moral indignation about the current state of affairs.

But it behooves us all to understand Singh a lot better, since every indication so far suggests that he’s going to be the man of the moment next Monday night after all the votes are counted.

The basics of Singh’s personal story are certainly better known today. Born nearly 41 years ago in Scarborough to immigrant parents from the Punjab region of India, Singh spent his formative years in Newfoundland and Labrador and in Windsor.  He did his undergrad at what was then called the University of Western Ontario, in London, then got his law degree at Osgoode Hall.

A recently released memoir shared deeply distressing and personal details of the sexual abuse he suffered as a child and of his experiences dealing with a father who was an abusive alcoholic, not to mention the racist taunts that were part of his everyday life.

It was two years ago this month that Singh made political history again, by moving from provincial backbencher (okay, he was deputy leader of the Ontario NDP) to federal party leader. No other Ontario politician had done that since George Drew for the provincial and federal Conservatives in the 1940s.

Almost immediately, Singh was widely seen as a disastrous choice. The party sank in the polls. Some Canadians — and many Quebecers, in particular — were uncomfortable with Singh’s custom of wearing his turban in public. Fundraising for the NDP plummeted, and plenty of his MPs announced that they were retiring from politics. Left unsaid was that they were likely quitting before the electorate could throw them out in the next election. There was considerable speculation that the NDP might face a wipeout of historic proportions.

Then Justin Trudeau showed up in pictures and video wearing black/brownface. And that changed everything.

Singh’s background had prepared him for the challenges he’s confronted in this campaign. His initial comments after the Trudeau scandal broke might have been his finest moments in public life. Rather than give the typical outraged, political, point-scoring speech (which Conservative leader Andrew Scheer did), Singh spoke right over Trudeau’s head, directly to people such as himself — those who had suffered similar racist indignities for years. It was heartfelt and moving.

While it didn’t immediately improve his polling numbers, it connected with members of the electorate and political observers. It made people take note.

Then came the English-language leaders’ debate. While there were plenty of criticisms about the overall format and performances of everyone involved, it couldn’t be denied that Singh had had the best night of anyone on that stage.

But, sometimes, the most influential moments in an election campaign happen completely by accident, and Singh was about to experience one of those with a microphone on and cameras rolling. A citizen approached him, insisting he was a supporter, but also urging him to cut his turban off so he’d “look like a Canadian.”

I suspect many of us would have responded with a well-placed profanity or even a smack across the face.

Singh did neither of those things. “I think Canadians look like all sorts of people,” he told the man. “That’s the beauty of Canada.”

His reaction — so utterly generous in the face of such dimwitted ignorance — was a seminal moment in the campaign, and I’m convinced it gave thoughtful, progressive Canadians, who were already having second thoughts about Trudeau, another reason to consider voting NDP.

Truer words were never spoken than when former British prime minister Harold Wilson said: “A week is a lifetime in politics.” So we still have a lifetime before this election is over. But, at the moment, most eyes are on Singh. Three solid debate performances (one in English, two in French) have given his campaign momentum. New Democrats are no longer worrying about being wiped out; instead, they’re considering what role they might play in a second Trudeau government (assuming the current prime minister, even if he doesn’t win the largest number of seats, tries to form a government in a hung parliament).

While pundits have been speculating about what form that support might take (formal coalition? bill-by-bill?), Singh has said only that there are no circumstances under which he’d back a Conservative government. That suggests to me that he’d consider propping up Trudeau, even if the Liberal leader comes second in the seat count. That is a perfectly legal and constitutional thing to do. Canadians elect parliaments; they don’t elect governments.

All of which means, unless public opinion breaks definitively one way or another between now and election night, Singh will play a crucial role. (Mind you, so will Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, who also seems highly disinclined to support the Conservatives.)

And I fully confess I didn’t see any of this coming seven years ago, when I walked away from our lunch thinking to myself, “This guy sure doesn’t know very much.”

Policy wonk? Nope. But definitely one to watch after October 21.

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