Advocacy and educational organizations are applauding NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh for his “grace” and “poise” in replying to a man in Montreal who suggested he should “cut off” his turban so that he would “look like a Canadian.”
But those same groups argued that Singh doesn’t have a choice to react any differently in that kind of situation, given he’s the leader of a federal political party campaigning to be prime minister of Canada.
“I don’t think that he had any other option but to take the high road,” said Balpreet Singh, legal counsel and spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.
Jagmeet Singh is a practicing Sikh and wears a turban as a sign of his faith.
The interaction in question happened while the NDP leader was out walking around Montreal’s Atwater Market early on Wednesday afternoon. A man walked up to and leaned in close to Singh — who was wearing a live microphone — before uttering the comments in a low voice.
In response, Singh replied: “I think Canadians look like all sorts of people. That’s the beauty of Canada.”
“I thought Jagmeet Singh handled it with a lot of class and I thought he showed a lot of grace. But it’s just unfortunate that we still have to deal with situations like this today.”
In the hours after the incident, many people took to social media to denounce the man’s comments and praise the NDP politician’s measured response.
It wouldn’t be fair to expect every person of colour or all religious minorities who found themselves in a similar situation to react the same way, argued Neethan Shan, executive director of the Toronto-based Urban Alliance on Race Relations.
But Jagmeet Singh doesn’t have “the luxury” to respond in another manner, even if he has the right to get emotional or angry, he said.
“Structural racism does not allow someone like him at that level to get angry,” Shan said in an interview. “Then the story flips onto him and his inability to be calm.”
While he didn’t raise his voice or lose his temper, Shan pointed out that Singh still told the man he didn’t agree with his statement.
“What he did was calling out, in a way,” Shan said.
“He didn’t accept the comment, he challenged the comment … And that’s important. He didn’t take it.”
There’s no “right way” to react when targeted by intolerant statements and people’s reactions will vary when they’re “caught off guard,” said Sarah Abou-Bakr, Quebec advocacy coordinator at the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
Even though she thought what Jagmeet Singh was told is “horrible,” Abou-Bakr suggested the man’s demeanor could have influenced the NDP leader’s non-aggressive response.
Singh told reporters in Toronto on Thursday that he thought the man was “trying to be friendly,” but argued comments like that are still “hurtful” even if the person saying them doesn’t intend to be “mean.”
What the NDP leader was subjected to on Wednesday reflects an experience that “a lot of Sikhs have gone through themselves,” Balpreet Singh said.
“I think this is probably an education moment for the rest of Canada that this sort of thinking and these experiences still happen in 2019.”
Abou-Bakr, who was born and raised in Montreal, said she’s been asked to remove her hijab.
“Sometimes we’re not as fortunate to have people politely asking us to take off our religious symbols. Sometimes you have people just trying to tear it off or people just yelling at us,” she said.
Abou-Bakr’s organization is among those who are challenging Bill 21 in Quebec, a popular secularism law passed earlier this year that bans civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols.
The fact that Wednesday’s incident occurred in Quebec is “all the more significant” given the enforcement of that law, Balpreet Singh said.
“We’ve heard from members of the Sikh community that Bill 21 has made things worse for members of the Sikh community in Quebec and that people feel empowered to say and do racist things and I think this may be an example of that,” he said.
“I really do hope that incidents like this lead to a bigger discussion about intolerance in Canada and I hope that the national leaders talk about what can be done to check this tide of intolerance.”
Quebec Premier François Legault on Thursday said it was “racist” for the man to tell Jagmeet Singh to cut his turban off.
On Thursday, Singh said he wants to “send a clear message to Canadians who are told to change who they are just to fit in or to get ahead.”
“I want people to be who they are, to believe in yourself, to love yourself and to celebrate who you are because everyone should belong and I want to build a world where everyone belongs.”
The events of the 2019 election campaign so far, which have included news that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wore brown- and blackface makeup in the past, have forced Jagmeet Singh to be “kind of the spokesperson for people of colour whenever the issue of racism has come up,” Balpreet Singh said.
“I think Jagmeet Singh has found himself not just as the leader of the NDP but as a representative of racialized Canadians and that must be an incredible burden.”
“But I think he’s done a great job of it,” he said.