How Jagmeet Singh became Canada’s spokesperson for race in the 2019 election


“I’m a Jagmeet Singh New Democrat.”

Matthew Green casually throws out the phrase as if anyone familiar with Canadian politics would immediately understand.

But what the rookie NDP candidate in the working-class riding of Hamilton Centre in Ontario encapsulates is a specific emergence in Canadian politics: a young, energetic activist, grassroots but not necessarily rank-and-file, someone willing to fight corporate and other traditional forms of power.

He’s also someone more representative of Canada’s demographic reality in 2019, a complicated notion in an election littered with racial tensions that the NDP’s leader, Singh, has been expected to spend a disproportionate amount of time wrestling with.

Throughout the campaign, Singh, a practising Sikh, has been put in “a very neat and tidy category as a historical figure” for being the first racialized candidate at the top of the ballot box, Green said.

In some cases, such as his thoughtful response to the images of Justin Trudeau in brownface and blackface, Singh has been able to turn the extra attention to his advantage.

In others, such as the insidious dog-whistle racism of the People’s Party of Canada’s Maxime Bernier, it has been harder to grasp, although he did land a punch on the former Conservative minister during an Oct. 7 televised debate, when he accused Bernier of inciting racial hatred.

The English debate also saw rival leaders awkwardly congratulating Singh for his handling of casual racism, such as when a man told the NDP leader that removing his turban would be “more Canadian” (“I think Canadians look like all sorts of people,” Singh replied to the man, in front of television cameras, at a market in Montreal ahead of a televised French-language debate that evening).

Now, close to the end of a campaign in which none of the leaders, except Singh, has made a concerted effort to reckon with, or even acknowledge, systemic racism, there remains evidence of an underlying, largely unaddressed unease within the electorate, which is split, roughly equally, into those who support high levels of immigration, those who oppose it and those who support it with conditions.

Within this polarization, the NDP, as a progressive party, has tried to sell itself as a viable third option in handling all these issues — neither “Mr. Delay or Mr. Deny” on climate change, as Singh referred to Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, respectively, during the Oct. 7 debate.

Racist violence and politics around the world have primed Canadians to want a spokesperson for racialized people. While Jagmeet Singh may not have voluntarily signed up for it it has become his task at hand to clean up Canada's "racial mess."

The NDP is doing all this with its largest-ever cohort of non-white candidates seeking federal office, with 22 Indigenous people and 20 black people campaigning in this election, many of whom, much like Green, see themselves as part of a fresh wave of New Democrats: blind to race and eager to take on the structural forces that perpetuate inequality.