Jagmeet Singh and NDP must be aware of challenges posed by Quebec

Jagmeet Singh, the NDP MPP representing Bramalea - Gore -Malton, in June 2013. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

You would be forgiven if you did not know that alongside the Conservative leadership race, the NDP are also in the throes of finding a new leader to take on the Trudeau Liberals in 2019. To be fair to the NDP, their vote for leader takes place in October, so they’ve still got some time to amp up the excitement, while the Conservatives will be choosing their leader in less than three months.

READ MORE: Latest news on Conservative leadership race

Last weekend, the four declared candidates for leader – Peter Julian, Guy Caron, Niki Ashton and Charlie Angus – had their first debate. Like most leadership debates, it was a little mundane. There was a lot of polite consensus on key issues and which direction to take the party, and aside from Guy Caron’s basic income proposal, there isn’t much on the policy side to get excited about yet. In a way, though, it was a nice change of pace from some of the very obvious discord and disconcerting rhetoric coming out of the Conservative race.

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READ MORE: NDP leadership race gains stream with first debate

However, similar to their Conservative cousins in the early days of their own leadership contest, the current NDP candidates are surely all worried about a big name entering the race that would not only generate excitement among the base, but that could have the media savvy to generate a buzz and pull in new voters to the NDP tent.

NDP insiders and casual political watchers alike have zeroed in on one name, time and time again: Jagmeet Singh.

There is good reason for Singh to be considered a formidable contender. He’s young and charismatic, with ample name recognition in Ontario as Deputy Leader for the Ontario NDP. Singh speaks both official languages, in addition to Punjabi, and has an impressive social media following. He was given a lengthy and adoring profile in GQ Magazine and any NDP insider will readily tell you that Singh comes with a ground organization motivated and ready to win.

Being lost in all this, however, is how Singh would fare in Quebec, as he faces an extraordinary uphill battle, and not just because he likely mispronounces poutine as Ontarians are wont to do.

Even if you put aside the fact that as a brown man from Ontario his French skills would be judged on a harsher curve by both the Quebec public and commentariat, it is impossible to ignore the obvious and real tension Quebec voters would have in voting for someone who wears a turban as part of their Sikh faith.

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Quebec prides itself on its secular approach to public life. While there are many valid criticisms in Quebec’s way of secularism, the primary one being that it only seems to apply to minority religions. There is something to be said of Quebec politicians’ reluctance to wade into social conservative issues under the guise of religion. Compare that to many other provinces, including Ontario, who have vocal socially conservative and religious politicians who openly question the scientific fact of evolution or who are ambivalent, at best, to the idea of equal rights for LGBTQ parents.

Quebec can be a bastion for progressive politics. That progressivism, however, does not extend itself to an Indo-Canadian politician who not only identifies as Sikh, but as an ardent adherer of the faith has a full beard and wears a turban.

Debates around Quebecois identity are almost omnipresent in Quebec politics. From the Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s report on reasonable accommodation to the Parti Québécois’ attempt to implement a Charter of Values that would have banned all “ostentatious” religious symbols from the public service, the identity debate is almost always bubbling underneath the surface, irrespective of which party is in power and what the politics du jour are. If the debate isn’t front and centre, then it’s certainly bubbling underneath the surface.

The polling firm CROP along with Radio-Canada, the French language arm of the CBC, released numbers this week that suggest Quebec is well on its way for another major identity showdown and that Singh would have an extremely difficult time shoring up support in a province that led to the “orange wave”, propelling them to Official Opposition status in 2011.

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While we can take comfort in knowing that a majority of Quebecers don’t believe that people in public should be banned from wearing religious symbols such as a kippa or hijab, over 75 per cent believe anyone in a position of authority should not be wearing religious symbols and two-thirds believe that a religious symbols ban should apply to all public sector workers. None of this bodes well for Singh.

It would be a shame for a progressive politician as passionate as Singh to stay on the sidelines because of these numbers. The bigger shame, however, is if Singh went into this leadership race blind to the challenges ahead of him in Quebec.

Supriya Dwivedi is host of The Morning Show on Toronto’s Talk Radio AM640 and a columnist for Global News.

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