Jagmeet Singh and the NDP face daunting odds in bid for Quebec voters
MONTREAL -- Jagmeet Singh likes to point out that he's a fighter.
In an ad aired only in Quebec, the NDP leader can be seen wrapping his turban and then his hands before punching a heavy bag, grappling with an opponent on the floor and briefly sparring at a gym. There are echoes of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's fondness for the ring, but the message from Singh -- the first member of a visible minority to lead a major federal party -- runs much deeper.
"I've known enough injustice to know how to fight, and now, I'm ready to fight for you," he says in French.
With recent polls suggesting his party is sitting fifth in the province, behind the Liberals, Bloc Quebecois, Conservatives and the Greens, it's unclear whether the trained martial artist is battling for victory or political survival.
But on Sunday night, Singh has an opportunity to show his mettle on Quebec's most popular television talk show, "Tout le monde en parle." It was a 2011 appearance on the program that helped endear the late Jack Layton to Quebecers and propel the NDP to a stunning victory in the province.
For Singh, the timing couldn't be better, with the show recorded Thursday, the day after Trudeau's Liberal campaign was rocked by photos showing him in brownface and blackface. He has a chance to build on the message contained in the French-language ad, that like Quebecers, he is accustomed to fighting injustice.
Singh faces daunting challenges in the run-up to the Oct. 21 vote. When the election kicked off Sept. 11, he lacked candidates in many of the province's 78 ridings, with several key incumbents not running.
Quebec recently passed a law that prevents civil servants deemed to be in "positions of authority" from wearing religious symbols on the job. Singh says it takes political courage for someone who couldn't teach elementary school in the province without removing his Sikh turban to persuade voters he should be prime minister.
But in notoriously fickle Quebec, anything can happen, according to one analyst.
"There is a very big volatility in the electorate, and the campaign counts," said Eric Montigny, a political science professor at Universite Laval.
Montigny said campaigns matter more in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada for several reasons.
Quebecers tend to have weaker party attachments than voters elsewhere in Canada, for one, and they tend mostly to follow provincial politics, tuning in federally only during the election campaign. With Quebecers no longer voting solely along sovereigntist-federalist lines, that has meant big swings in voter preference from one term to another in recent elections.
The NDP itself benefited during the 2011 orange wave, when Quebec voters vaulted the Layton-led NDP to its best showing ever, handing the party 59 of the 75 seats then in the province. Things reversed dramatically in 2015, and the NDP held only 14 Quebec seats at dissolution.
A plan Singh presented last weekend in Sherbrooke, Que., promised Quebec more money for immigration and culture, the ability to opt out of federal programs with compensation, more input into environmental and trade deals and a tax on online giants such as Netflix -- long considered a threat to the province's cultural industries.
He even dangled the possibility of integrating Quebec into the Constitution on its own terms.
On the issue of the religious symbols law, Singh has decided to address his personal identity head on, even as he says he won't challenge the law in court.
In the Quebec campaign ad, Singh chose to appear without his turban for the first few seconds, in what he later described to reporters as a gesture of openness.
And at a town hall earlier this month, fielded questions about how he chooses his turban colours (usually it's his wife's choice), and what it means for him to be Sikh (the word means "student," he said by way of opening).
"And I reiterate: we don't have the concept of conversion," he told the Montreal crowd.
While it has been suggested that Singh's poor fortunes in Quebec may be due to his visible religious identity, Montigny isn't sure that's the case. He points out that the NDP has fallen in polls across Canada, not only in Quebec.
A bigger obstacle may be one that Singh cannot change: the last time a federal party led by someone not born in Quebec won a majority of the province's seats was in 1965. Layton, while he represented a Toronto riding, was born in Quebec and retained a strong connection to the province that Singh does not have, despite his excellent French.
Singh's recent blitz of the province was also an attempt to make up for what his party believes is a lack of recognition.
While Trudeau is often greeted by a mob scene of selfie-seekers when he visits Montreal, Singh earlier this year attracted little attention when campaigning for a byelection in Outremont, sometimes taking time to plunk himself down at coffee shop tables and quiz citizens at length about their voting priorities.
Though an outsider, Singh has presented himself as an ally to Quebec. He opposes the secularism law and has little in common with Quebec's right-leaning premier, Francois Legault, but he believes the NDP's progressive values are a fit in the province.
He has cited his support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, commitment to fighting climate change and his desire to expand a Quebec-style model of affordable education and daycare across Canada as examples of common ground, and said he's not afraid of taking on "big polluters, powerful corporations and web giants" -- or, presumably, his unenviable position near the bottom of the polls.
"I'm not someone who backs down from something just because it's hard to do," he told supporters in Sherbrooke.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2019.