NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pushed back at a man who confronted him at Montreal’s Atwater Market on Wednesday and told him: “Cut your turban off.”
Singh was in Montreal ahead of the TVA French-language debate, which is taking place at 8 p.m. in the city, and following a media availability with reporters earlier in the morning. The NDP leader went for a walk through the open-air market with his wife, Gurkiran Kaur Sidhu, around noon.
Media following the campaign accompanied him, and at one point, Singh approached a white-haired man in the market and said hello.
The man asked how he was doing and, after a brief exchange, leaned in to speak closer to Singh’s ear.
“You know what?” the man said.
“What’s that?” Singh responded.
Singh put one hand on the man’s shoulder and responded: “I think Canadians look like all sorts of people. That’s the beauty of Canada.”
“In Rome, you do as the Romans do,” the man said back.
“This is Canada. You can do whatever you like,” Singh said.
The man then turned away, and Singh and Sidhu walked away.
WATCH: Man tells Singh to ‘cut your turban off’ and look more ‘like a Canadian’
Singh is a practising Sikh and wears a turban as a visible sign of his faith.
He is also the first member of a visible minority to lead one of the major federal parties during an election campaign in which race and identity have emerged as key themes of discussion and debate.
The issue is particularly visceral in Quebec, which earlier this year passed Bill 21.
That legislation banned the wearing of visible religious symbols by civil servants in positions of authority and quickly emerged as a sleeper issue in the federal campaign as both Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer have refused to commit to a court challenge of the bill.
Trudeau and Scheer have both said they would not support such a bill at the federal level: Scheer has argued he will respect Quebec’s authority to legislate the matter while Trudeau has said he isn’t closing the door to a court challenge in the future but won’t pursue one right now.
WATCH: An extended interview with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh
It is currently being challenged in provincial courts by civil rights advocates.
Singh has also promised not to challenge the bill in court but has been a vocal critic of its ban on the wearing of symbols, including turbans, arguing last month that his decision to go into Quebec and speak out against the bill is a way of trying to defy it and highlight what critics call its discriminatory nature.
“My presence is an act of defiance of this bill,” Singh said. “Me going to Quebec and saying that I not only want to be a teacher, I want to be prime minister of this country, is an act of defiance. It is my act to show that this is wrong.”
Singh released a political campaign ad just days after the start of the campaign that showed him without a turban in what he said was an attempt to “show an openness” to Quebec.
“I wanted to show folks in case they were worried. It’s just hair underneath there,” he said when asked about the ad.
“But the openness is that, for me, I want to be an ally for Quebec, and that means letting people know where I stand and who I am.”
His party holds 14 seats in Quebec, but projections are raising serious questions about whether the party will be wiped out in the province.
WATCH: My presence in Quebec ‘is an act of defiance’ against Bill 21, says Singh
The revelation two weeks ago that Trudeau has repeatedly worn blackface and brownface at events up to 2001 also brought the question of how Canada should grapple with ongoing systemic racism and discrimination into the spotlight.
Trudeau was forced to apologize from aboard the Liberal campaign plane and told reporters he didn’t realize brown- and blackface were racist and deeply hurtful.
He said he had also reached out to diverse members of his caucus as well as to community leaders and Singh himself to apologize.
Singh on Tuesday told the Canadian Press that he wouldn’t get into details of what the two party leaders discussed in that conversation, stressing he didn’t want to use it for political means, but said apologies are not enough and broader policy change is required to combat systemic racism and discrimination.
On Monday, a Green Party candidate also admitted he had worn blackface in the past, saying he did not realize it was wrong.