Is Canada ready for Jagmeet Singh to become the country's first NDP prime minister?

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      On Sunday (October 1), the country might learn that the next leader of the federal New Democrats is a turban-wearing Sikh lawyer who's competed in mixed-martial arts.

      Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh appears to be the front runner in a race against three sitting NDP MPs: Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, and Guy Caron.

      If Singh crosses the 50 percent threshold, he'll be the first member of a visible minority to lead a major national party in Canada.

      That has some wondering if Canada is "ready" for a prime minister who proudly dons religious symbols and whose parents immigrated from India.

      I've heard this issue raised not only by white Canadians, but also from Canadian friends of South Asian ancestry.

      In the latter instance, it's sometimes rooted in a belief that there's just too much racism running in the blood of white Canadians to countenance a prime minister who's not one of their own.

      Those feelings are raw and real—and often reflect what Canadians of South Asian origin have endured in their own lives.

      Being brown has come at a huge price in Canada over the past century. It's resulted in lost job opportunities, negative encounters with police, problems with authorities at airports, school-yard taunts, random violence, and simply having your entire being reduced to your skin colour on far too many occasions, even by teachers and employers.

      This is one reason why Singh's candidacy has energized so many nonwhite Canadians.

      It's exhilarating for many of Indian origin to consider the possibility that he could be prime minister. It erases any limits on what they or their children can accomplish in this country.

      But getting back to the initial question—is Canada ready for a brown prime minister?—it reminds me of the hoopla during the 1960 U.S. presidential election about whether America was "ready" for a young Catholic to move into the White House.

      Of course, America was ready. John F. Kennedy won the election.

      Americans also twice elected Barack Obama as their president.

      More recently, Leo Varadkar, the gay son of an Indian immigrants, became Ireland's prime minister after he assumed the leadership of the Fine Gael party.

      It suggests the Irish may be ready.

      In India in 2004, voters delivered a landslide to the Congress party, which was headed by an Italian immigrant, Sonia Gandhi.

      The Indians were ready.

      Gandhi could have become prime minister but decided instead to give the job to a turban-wearing member of the country's Sikh minority, Manmohan Singh.

      Back in 1990, a Peruvian of Japanese ancestry, Alberto Fujimori, was elected president. He defeated the country's most famous writer, Mario Vargas Llosa.

      The Peruvians were ready.

      So of course, Canada is ready for a prime minister who's not white. 

      Are we more racist than Peruvian, Indian, American, or Irish people? I would think not.

      There was barely a ripple when a turban-wearing Sikh became Canada's defence minister and an Indigenous woman became justice minister.

      In fact, this became a point of pride not only within those communities, but across the country.

      White people in my circle of friends and acquaintances took the appointments of Harjit Sajjan and Jody Wilson-Raybould to key cabinet posts as a sign that Canada was growing up.

      Harjit Sajjan's appointment as Canada's defence minister did not create any controversy linked to his heritage or religion.
      Charlie Smith

      Suburban voters determine elections

      The next question is tougher: can Singh become the first NDP prime minister?

      Given the party's lengthy losing streak in federal politics, that's a higher threshold to cross than electing a nonwhite prime minister. But even on this score, it's far from an impossibility.

      Recent federal elections were won by the party that performed best in the suburbs of Canada's large cities.

      Stephen Harper's Conservatives performed exceptionally well in the suburbs everywhere except Montreal in 2006, 2008, and 2011.

      His party even won a majority of seats in the House of Commons in 2011 while losing most of Quebec.

      This proved you don't have to win in Quebec to form the government.

      In 2015, the Trudeau Liberals won a majority because they did supremely well in the suburbs and even in communities farther afield.

      In B.C. the Liberals captured seats in Surrey, North Vancouver, Richmond, Coquitlam, and Delta, as well as in Mission and Kelowna.

      The NDP's Singh is a politician from the suburbs of Toronto and he's probably the NDP's best bet to help the party succeed in the areas on the periphery of English-speaking Canada's big cities.

      He's already proven that he can win in the 905 area code as a provincial politician.

      Under Singh, the NDP could fare exceptionally well in places like Brampton and Surrey, as well as in Edmonton and possibly parts of Montreal.

      Even mid-size B.C. cities like Kamloops or Prince George could offer up seats to the NDP under his leadership.

      Jagmeet Singh's willingness to take unpopular positions have created an aura about him as a politician unafraid to take risks.
      Ontario NDP

      How would Singh do in different provinces?

      The NDP has also proven in the past that its progressive values can connect with voters on Vancouver Island in B.C., as well as in many areas of Quebec.

      Under certain circumstances, the NDP can win seats in Nova Scotia.

      Manitoba voters might also be inclined to lean NDP, given the rapidly falling approval rating of the Progressive Conservative premier, Brian Pallister.

      Singh spent part of his childhood in St. John's in Newfoundland and Labrador, so he might even help his party win a seat or two in that province.

      The federal Conservatives' biggest problem is that they're out of touch with the country ideologically.

      Their policies are often too mean-spirited and, frankly, too Hayekian to connect with a large segment of the population.

      Many women, in particular, will have trouble with new Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. He's a textbook patriarchal right winger who enjoys the backing of anti-abortion groups.

      Singh, on the other hand, is pro-LGBT rights and comes from a family with an impressive history of standing up to tyranny.

      For many progressive voters, there will be only one option to Trudeau, and that option will likely be Singh.

      Justin Trudeau (with Jody Wilson-Raybould) is not without political liabilities.

      Trudeau has political weaknesses

      Though Trudeau looks like he's in a good position today, cracks are beginning to show.

      He can come across as an insincere speaker—something of an old-time politician—and Canada doesn't seem to be benefiting from his cozy friendship with Donald Trump.

      Moreover, Trudeau has a bit of his father's arrogance, coupled with a sometimes grating obsession with his personal image.

      Here in B.C., Christy Clark lost power after being dubbed Premier Photo Op. Trudeau could be tagged with a similar nickname.

      Singh, on the other hand, appears more authentic than Trudeau, particularly when he's decrying human-rights abuses abroad and in Canada.

      Singh's call to decriminalize all drugs immediately, his criticism of Israeli excesses in Gaza, and his defence of Rohingyas in Myanmar create an impression that he's willing to speak out on what he believes in, regardless of the political cost.

      This is a very appealing quality in a country governed by a prime minister who calculates the political consequences of almost everything, whether it's the Kinder Morgan pipeline or if Netflix should be allowed to play by different rules.

      Can Singh withstand inevitable attacks?

      If Singh starts posing a threat to the Liberal and the Conservatives, he can expect to be subjected to a smear campaign. That's the norm in Canadian politics.

      Canadians will learn how his provincial constituency office was used to organize bus trips to take people to a federal political rally. In the general scheme of things, this is pretty small potatoes.

      He's also going to be characterized as someone who's sympathetic to the creation of an independent Sikh homeland that would be carved out of India.

      This will be designed to divide Indo Canadians and perhaps keep some of them inside the Liberal tent.

      If Singh doesn't define himself, the opposition will do it in ways that can hurt politically.

      That's the biggest risk that any new federal leader faces. In this regard, he would be no different than Stockwell Day, Michael Ignatieff, or, dare I say, Andrew Scheer.

      It wouldn't be about Singh's race or his turban or his religion.

      It would be about whether he can stand up to the attack dogs in the other parties.

      Singh can also be expected to be portrayed as a politician who's far too left wing for the country. Right-wing talk-show hosts like Charles Adler will call him a Castro-loving pinko who will destroy the Canadian economy. These types of insults come with the job.

      Day was ridiculed for his creationist beliefs. Ignatieff was mocked as someone who was "just visiting" Canada. Scheer is being portrayed as the candidate who wants to keep women in the kitchen.

      Given Singh's history as a mixed-martial artist and as a verbal combatant in the courts, he won't be afraid to take the blows and defend himself.

      On the whole, I like his odds.

      So yes, Canada is ready for a brown prime minister. And yes, there is a chance that he could become Canada's first NDP prime minister by appealing to young voters who are sick of the bullshit they see coming from other party leaders.