Jagmeet Singh canada

Jagmeet Singh just can't win in Canada when it comes to racism

Jagmeet Singh made history in 2017 when he became the first racialized leader of the NDP and the first leader of colour of a major Canadian political party. It’s the first time in Canadian history a person of colour has ever been in the running to be Prime Minister.

Singh’s platform has been ambitious compared to opponents, from promising to expand medicare to include dental and prescription drug coverage, to solving the drinking water problems on Indigenous reserves within two years.

Even with policies that set him apart from other candidates, Jagmeet Singh’s campaign has been a stark reminder of how ill-equipped Canadians can be when it comes to talking about race. Instead of widening discussions, the burden has instead been placed on Singh to properly respond to or accept racism.

From the start of Singh’s campaign, he was met with racism from within his own party. In September, an exodus of New Brunswick NDP candidates to the Green Party was met with confusion. What could have made 14 NDP candidates suddenly change parties?

Speaking with the CBC, one former candidate, Jonathan Richardson all but confirmed members of the party weren’t sure they had a chance to win in New Brunswick, even with NDP supporters, because of Singh’s race and religion.

In the interview, Richardson expressed that members of the party believed Singh didn’t put in the time to meet with constituents who “may not have had any exposure to people from different cultures.”

In other words, Singh — rather than spending time speaking about his policies the way Justin Trudeau or Andrew Scheer would —was instead expected to make his own supporters comfortable with the fact that he is Sikh.

Some media outlets have also played a part in pushing the narrative that Canadians at large may not be ready for a brown, turbaned politician.

In an article titled “Some voters question whether Canada is ready for a PM with a Turban” CTV News spoke to NDP supporters in rural Ontario, offering them space to discuss their thoughts on the NDP leader's race.

Of Singh’s turban, one supporter said, “If he wanted to take it off, and be normal like us, I would vote right away because I am a (New Democrat) myself.” Once again, the burden was placed on Singh to explain his own practices to those who support his party.

But, rather than using these moments as a way to confront racism, the response from Canadians at large has more or less been to praise Singh for dealing with racism in a way deemed “pitch-perfect” by mostly white commentators.

In a viral moment, Singh was confronted by a supporter in Montreal who quietly told him, “You should cut your turban off, you’ll look like a Canadian,” after leaning in for a handshake.

Singh responded by saying, “I think Canadians look like all sorts of people. That’s the beauty of Canada.”

The man replied, “In Rome, you do as the Romans do,” with Singh ending the conversation by saying, “This is Canada. You can do whatever you like.”

In an article for Maclean’s, Michael Fraiman called Singh’s response a 'master class' in dealing with racism.

While likely written with the best intentions — after all, Singh did put the man in his place — the pressure was placed on Singh to have the best reaction once again. Fraiman focuses on Singh’s response, not the fact that the leader of a political party must be ready to deal with racism from his party’s own supporters.

It’s the requirement of political candidates to manage their image, but what Singh has faced is unique to what we’ve seen historically. He is inherently viewed with suspicion and bewilderment by many, in a way that has nothing to do with anything he can change.

This election could be the most uncertain in decades. Regardless of Singh’s potential future as a leader of the country, it’s clear that some Canadians' unwillingness to support a leader who is racialized has far less to do with him needing to explain himself and more with them not being able to challenge their own racism.

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