Following his party’s rout in Quebec, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh made a promise to the people of la belle province.
The NDP isn’t going to abandon Quebec, Singh pledged in French on election night on October 21 in Burnaby.
Before the dissolution of the last parliament, the NDP had 15 seats in Quebec. It will return to Ottawa with only one.
Singh was born in Canada to immigrant parents from India. He wears a turban and a kirpan as symbol of his Sikh religion.
During the campaign, a man told him at a Montreal market to cut his turban so he can “look like a Canadian”.
Was that scene a harbinger of the coming downtown of the NDP’s political fortune in Quebec?
Earlier in the year, the province passed a law banning the display of religious symbols among public servants.
When asked during the campaign about the legislation, Singh said that an NDP government will not challenge that Quebec law.
Singh also released a campaign without him wearing a turban as a sign of his “openness” to Quebec.
The Georgia Straight sought comments on whether Singh’s ethnicity and the fact that he wears symbols of his Sikh faith could explain in part why the NDP suffered losses in Quebec.
“Does race and identity play a role in politics?” asked Raj Hundal, a former Vancouver park commissioner who is South Asian heritage.
“Absolutely,” Hundal answered his own question in a phone interview. “Race and identity play a role throughout every election at the municipal level, at the provincial level, and at the federal level. And I think it’s important to recognize that.”
Would the NDP’s record in Quebec have been different if the party had a leader that didn’t wear a turban?
“I don’t know the answer to that question to be very frank with you,” responded Hundal, a New Democrat since he was a teen.
Still, Hundal noted that the issue around race and religious symbols may have been a “factor in explaining the results from election day”.
“I think it did have an impact to play or a role to play in the election,” Hundal said.
Hundal noted that religious symbols are a “very divisive issue within the province of Quebec”, a province, which he said is also known for its “progressive” stand on many issues.
In a separate phone interview, Mario Canseco of the Vancouver polling company Research Co. said that it’s difficult to measure how much of factor did Singh’s race and faith symbols play in the NDP’s debacle in Quebec.
“I don’t think we’re going to find a lot of people who will openly say that they didn’t vote for them because of that particular matter,” Canseco said.
According to Canseco, it’s a “complicated matter”.
“It would be too easy to say, ‘We’ll, you know, this is just the way in which the people of Quebec feel about things, and they were never going to vote for a person with a turban’,” he said. “I think there’s more to it than that.”
Hundal and Canseco share the same view that Singh may have needed more time to connect with the people of Quebec.
“I wish the debates happened much earlier in the campaign,” Hundal said. “I wish the campaign was going on for a longer time because I think the longer the campaign would have run, I think the more people would have resonated with the New Democrats.”
For Canseco, it was about Singh establishing a connection with Quebec.
“There’s definitely a difficulty in the way in which you’re connecting, because you’re not from there, not necessarily because of the ethnicity or the race,” Canseco said. “It’s more about, you know, ‘this isn’t somebody who we’ve known’.”
Canseco said that that it was different for the late NDP leader Jack Layton, who was born in Montreal, and Layton’s successor, Tom Mulcair, who was raised in Quebec, and spent a longer time in the House of Commons compared to Singh.
Singh, a Toronto-area politician, got a seat in the House in February this year in a by-election in Burnaby South. The election campaign began in September.
“Whereas you look at Layton, you look at Mulcair, they were politicians who have more experience around the area, and who were able to connect in a very different level,” Canseco said. “I think that’s definitely part of it. I don’t think its necessarily because of, you know, ethnicity or race.
“I think it’s more that Quebeckers didn’t get a chance to look at him in the same way that they looked at Tom Mulcair, who was…every night in the House of Commons speaking to the government in French and English,” Canseco continued.