Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh just put a new face on the opposition to Quebec’s religious symbol ban: his own.

In an interview with CBC Radio Montreal’s Daybreak, host Mike Finnerty asked him about the new CAQ government’s promise vigorously enforce a religious symbol ban and fire civil servants (police, teachers, etc.) who wear religious symbols on the job. While most of the public focus has been on Muslim women who wear the hijab, Singh, a Sikh, who wears a turban and kirpan (Ceremonial dagger), would also be affected by this ban if he was a Quebec civil servant:

Singh responded to this the best way possible, Sure, he couldn’t very well have said that wearing a turban is fine for Prime Minister but not a schoolteacher, but it’s still good that he’s taking a solid stand. It’s also quite politically savvy of him to refer to the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms when asked about the Canadian one.

This is way better than the “I don’t like it personally, but you’ve got to respect the courts” message former NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair put out during the last federal election. Sure, the Bloc Québécois was attacking the NDP over their opposition to the Harper Government’s challenge to a court ruling that allowed women to wear a niqab at citizenship ceremonies, but they were doing it viscerally and Mulcair responded with an appeal to respect judicial rulings and an attempt at partial appeasement.

Not sure what he was thinking, really. The staunch bigots were going to return to the Bloc regardless, unless the NDP changed its stance, which wasn’t going to happen. Progressives, on the other hand, were looking for stronger anti-Harper messaging.

Justin Trudeau, our current Prime Minister who won a Majority Government with more than a handful of seats in Quebec, including some former Bloc strongholds that had flipped to the NDP in the 2011 Orange Wave, had this to say on the subject at the time:

“You can dislike the niqab. You can hold it up it is a symbol of oppression. You can try to convince your fellow citizens that it is a choice they ought not to make. This is a free country. Those are your rights. But those who would use the state’s power to restrict women’s religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn. It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear.”

That was bold. That was principled. That’s what someone not politically timid and completely controlled by advisers who favour the safe choice says.

Too bad he turned out to also be a total shill for Big Oil, which, incidentally, was the other part of the Bloc’s attack on the NDP in 2015 (Muclair was kinda wishy washy on pipelines). The Bloc actually released an ad with an oil pipleline dripping crude that turned into a niqab.

Eco-left and hard right in the same ad. Only in Quebec, I guess.

This is a strange place politically. We embrace leftist ideals and inclusiveness on many issues, but then go and elect a reactionary provincial government that promises a form of exclusion that even Trump hasn’t tried.

I think Singh gets this. That’s why he made a point of mentioning his support of LGBTQ and women’s rights and that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer wants to head in the other direction along with his opposition to the religious symbol ban.

Singh, and everyone else, knows that the Bloc is imploding, this time with no outside help. He wants to make it clear to Bloc supporters jumping ship that voting Conservative means supporting a bunch of things that they may not be ready to get behind. They can’t greenwash or pinkwash their bigotry this time.

What’s most interesting, though, is how Singh is attempting to redefine the ban on religious symbols as anti-secular. During the interview (not during the clip above), he said:

There’s no way to say that you’re not supporting one identity or other, because there are certain identities that don’t require a kippa. But there are other identities that have headgear. I think it’s a hard argument to make, that one is more neutral than the other, because there’s always a certain tradition that may not have headgear and one that may or may not have a certain way of dress. I think that the point should be that we we have a society that is secular through the values that we promote — that sets freedom and access to justice for all. That there’s no barriers based on who you are. Those are the ways that we ensure that it is a secular society.

He’s right. Secularism means no state religion, not the state banning individuals, including those working for the state, from wearing the garments of their religion on the job while at the same time keeping a symbol of one religion on display in the National Assembly.

Singh is also reminding Quebecers that Muslim women who wear hijabs aren’t the only ones targeted by this ban. Sikhs who wear turbans like him and Jews who wear kippahs are also in the crosshairs, if not in the spotlight.

Will this bold strategy work? Honestly, who knows. Quebec politics are always a gamble.

Sure, a recent poll showed that nearly two thirds of Quebecers are in favour of a religious symbol ban, but that poll doesn’t show how many of them consider it an important enough issue to base their vote on. Maybe the CAQ won in spite of their bigotry, not because of it.

One thing is clear, though: trying to play it safe by appeasing the hard right while running as a left alternative is a recipe for disaster, especially in Quebec. When Mulcair tried it, he effectively turned Trudeau into the principled, inclusive opposition to the Bloc and, in the eyes of the rest of Canada, Harper. At least Singh won’t make that mistake.

Whether this stance translates into a better Quebec performance for the NDP has yet to be seen. Regardless, Jagmeet Singh speaking out against the religious symbol ban and redefining what it means is what the federal NDP needs.

* Featured image Creative Commons via OFL Communications Department

That was quick. A lot quicker than most expected. On Sunday Jagmeet Singh won with over 53% on the first ballot to become the new leader of the Federal NDP.

He’ll be taking on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and that guy the Conservatives picked, Andy something I think (yes I know it’s Andrew Scheer, but did you without Googling it?), in 2019. It looks like we don’t have to wait two years for the media frenzy to start, though.

In the past few days, Singh has already generated quite a bit of coverage to say the least. There have been mainstream pieces focused primarily on his style and how this is really problematic for Trudeau, plus the obligatory right-wing attacks and commentary from those who supported other candidates for NDP Leader.

Full Disclosure: At the start of the leadership race, I had planned to cover and comment on it from the sidelines, that changed after I interviewed Niki Ashton. I was so impressed with her I decided to volunteer for her campaign and therefore stop writing about the contest on this site (my personal Facebook was another story). Now that the race is over, game on.

While Singh was not my first choice, he did win our reader poll quite handsomely. Speaking of handsome and charismatic, as I’m sure many will continue to do, I realize that having a style that can rival or even beat that of our selfie PM is an important step up for the NDP, but what about policy and the message Jagmeet is bringing to the table?

Image and Policy

Singh does have some propositions that strike me as quite progressive. Most unique to him, he wants to decriminalize possession of all drugs, period, and treat addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice one. That’s a far cry from Tom Mulcair waffling on decriminalizing just pot and better than Justin Trudeau touting weed legalization while not overturning any convictions that happen before the legal status of the leaf changes, something Singh touched on in his first media scrum.

He also wants to decriminalize sex work and is a proponent of free post-secondary education. So far, so good.

Jagmeet is strong on social, racial and economic justice. For Singh, though, some of the NDP’s core issues are much more than talking points. He can (and did during his victory speech) offer personal stories of growing up with economic uncertainty and being pulled over countless times because of how he looked and the colour of his skin.

While he may not have been as strong against pipelines as some of his opponents, he did voice his opposition to Kinder-Morgan and Energy East in an interview with The Financial Post of all places.

All the NDP leadership candidates on stage following Singh’s victory (image: CPAC)

He wasn’t the only leadership candidate espousing progressive values in this race and wasn’t the furthest to the left, either. But it seems that this fact wasn’t lost on Singh. Before bringing his fellow candidates up on stage, he praised Ashton for her progressive stance and stopped just short of admitting she moved the discourse to the left, a sentiment he reiterated in his campaign’s email blast to NDP members on Monday:

“Niki has pushed the boundaries as a woman running for Prime Minister. Her courage to be unapologetically progressive and to engage a new generation has placed free tuition, climate change, gender justice, and unstable work on the federal stage. Thank you, Niki!”

He also thanked Charlie Angus for putting Native issues front and centre and Guy Caron for his “deep policy knowledge on (economic) inequality” before naming Caron his House Leader (Singh, an Ontario MPP doesn’t currently have a seat in the House of Commons) a few days later. It looks like he’s ready to listen, take what people liked about his now former opponents and integrate them with his own ideas.

He’s in it to win and become Prime Minister of Canada and if his subsequent actions match his current rhetoric, he just might, or at least lead the NDP back to Official Opposition status. This is a step up from Tom “My Way or the Highway” Mulcair.

This means that it’s up to all of us who supported other candidates to hold Jagmeet to his word and even guide him a little more to the left on some issues. He seems open to it.

There is a lot to like about Jagmeet Singh, but of course there are concerns as well.

The ‘Burbs, the Party Base and the Hangers On

Everyone knows that Singh brought a whole bunch of new members to the party, which is great. Many of them live in suburban ridings and could possibly add to the party base which would also be good.

If his plan is to mobilize them in hopes of swinging a few traditionally Liberal or Conservative seats to the New Democrats by changing the voting base without changing his national presentation, then great, good idea. If, however, he also plans to suck up to current Liberal and Conservative voters in those ridings by altering his image and message like Mulcair did, it won’t work and will turn off supporters elsewhere.

The NDP isn’t the party of middle class suburban continuity, it’s the party of big city and rural working class change. That’s what fuels and inspires the party base, the people who, really, can make or break an election.

The independent left-wing group Courage listed some of what progressives can celebrate in a Singh victory but also stuff to be vigilant about. The part that piqued my interest was the revelation that some people involved with the NDP’s move to the right under Mulcair were in the orbit of Singh’s candidacy.

Turning over a new leaf doesn’t just mean changing the face, it means institutional change behind the scenes as well. If Jagmeet truly wants to bring the party together and push a left-wing alternative to Trudeau, he should not only reach out to his opponents but the people who supported them, worked for them and volunteered for them as well (no, not talking about myself here, happily going back to journalism).

It’s not just what I hope for, it’s also good politics.

Oh Yeah, Racism

Jagmeet Singh was born in Scarborough, Ontario, a location that screams Canadiana about as loudly as Tim Hortons. When he speaks, he sounds like, well, someone from Ontario. When he speaks French he sounds like someone from Ontario who has put in the time and effort to learn the language out of respect for those Francophones listening to him.

That, of course, won’t stop the racists from having a serious problem with him because his skin colour is different from theirs. It also won’t stop the closet racists from using the fact that he wears a turban and a Kirpan (ceremonial Sikh dagger) to bring up some coded bigoted language about secularism and religious symbols while clutching their crosses.

The racist pushback started even before Singh won leadership. First there was the truly ignorant heckler at a Brampton event who started screaming about Sharia Law of all things. Jagmeet’s extremely chill response to this garnered him media attention globally and even caught the attention of US progressive outlet The Young Turks.

Then Quebec MP Pierre Nantel said that Singh wearing a turban was “inconsistent” with what voters in Quebec looked for in a leader. Honestly, Nantel sounds so much like a Bloc candidate that he should just join them and stop pretending he’s progressive.

Now, since the vote, the CBC’s Terry Milewski interviewed Singh and tweeted that Jagmeet refused to condemn Sikhs who held up posters of Talwinder Parmar, whom some suspect was involved in the Air India bombing. Never mind for a second that Milewski is infamous for his Samosa Politics series targeting the Sikh community, is the first question someone asks Justin Trudeau typically whether or not he condemns the Quebec mosque shooter or the FLQ?

Of course not. We assume correctly that Trudeau does condemn acts of terrorism. Why don’t we extend the same assumption to Singh?

I truly hope that the racists in Canada are as small and electorally insignificant a group as I think they are and that the only reason they seem louder is corporate media bolstering. I hope Canada and especially Quebec doesn’t prove me wrong.

Gonna Stay On Board

I became a card-carrying NDP member shortly before the Orange Wave and volunteered during that campaign. After Tom Mulcair took over, I remained an NDP voter but let my membership lapse. I knew that my input was not sought, though I offered plenty of it in posts on this site.

I re-joined the party specifically to vote for Niki. She didn’t win, but I’m not going to jump ship again, at least not right now.

Jagmeet is not Tom. Mulcair’s victory felt as though the most I could do was offer advice from the sidelines and hope for the best. Singh, on the other hand, seems like someone who wants to do what it takes to win and if he is convinced that keeping the NDP on a leftward trajectory will do that, then those hoping for a true progressive political change should all help him do that.

At the very least he’s a better choice for PM than Justin Trudeau.

Now that we know who the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada is (Andrew Scheer), there is one more podium to fill next to Justin Trudeau on the debate stage when Canadians go to the polls in a few years: that of the Federal NDP Leader.

The leadership debates and campaigns are in full swing. While we won’t know who won until late October of this year, we’re giving our readers a chance to weigh in with a new site poll.

If new candidates enter the race or current ones drop out, we’ll update the choices. You can only vote for one option, but you can also change your vote right up until the poll expires on October 29th, so if you’re undecided, please feel free to say so knowing you can change your vote when you do make up your mind.

The winner of our poll gets the official endorsement of FTB readers and a post written on behalf of them. Since this is over four months of voting and we have other polls that will run in that time, it’s possible this poll may disappear from the site sidebar, but it will always be available in this post.

Here it is:

Who do you want to see as the next leader of the Federal NDP?
  • Jagmeet Singh 70%, 1639 votes
    1639 votes 70%
    1639 votes - 70% of all votes
  • Niki Ashton 18%, 409 votes
    409 votes 18%
    409 votes - 18% of all votes
  • Charlie Angus 4%, 99 votes
    99 votes 4%
    99 votes - 4% of all votes
  • Guy Caron 2%, 52 votes
    52 votes 2%
    52 votes - 2% of all votes
  • Peter Julian 1%, 33 votes
    33 votes 1%
    33 votes - 1% of all votes
  • I support another party 1%, 30 votes
    30 votes 1%
    30 votes - 1% of all votes
  • I'm not Canadian but thanks for asking 1%, 29 votes
    29 votes 1%
    29 votes - 1% of all votes
  • Not Sure Yet (you can change your vote before the poll expires) 1%, 20 votes
    20 votes 1%
    20 votes - 1% of all votes
  • Bring back Tom 1%, 13 votes
    13 votes 1%
    13 votes - 1% of all votes
  • I support the NDP but don't like any of the current choices. Someone else, please. 1%, 12 votes
    12 votes 1%
    12 votes - 1% of all votes
Total Votes: 2336
June 16, 2017 - October 29, 2017
Voting is closed

Of course, if you want to vote in the actual leadership race, you need to first become a member of the NDP