Last week, Jagmeet Singh announced his intention to run for the leadership of the New Democratic Party in an electrifying rally in his home riding of Brampton, Ontario. If successful, Singh will become the first racialized leader of a major Canadian political party. Since his announcement, the question that consistently comes up in public and private conversation is whether Singh, a man with brown skin and a turban, could be elected as Prime Minister in Canada. We reminded that Canada is a country which is still overwhelmingly white, Christian, and often grapples with challenges around race and racism.
The first thing that comes to mind when such questions arise is how many times the same questions were asked about the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama, and how bleak his bid for the presidency seemed to many Americans. After all, how could a black man be elected president less than 200 years after the end of slavery? How could someone from a racial group which had a mere 50 years earlier not been allowed to drink from the same fountain as their white co-citizens be elected in a country where white people still formed a strong majority?
However, Barack Obama proved the naysayers wrong in 2008 when he was elected on a wave of hope and optimism. He was able to use his charisma and political acumen to build a coalition of urban liberals, blue collar workers, and racialized minorities. This coalition allowed him to win two terms and end with one of the highest approval ratings in modern presidential history.
The question for Singh is, can he accomplish a similar feat? Can the lawyer and MPP from Brampton match the efforts of the lawyer and junior senator from Chicago? From my perspective, this question can only be answered by determining 1) whether Singh has the charisma and political acumen to build a broad coalition akin to that of Obama, and 2) whether Canada is at least as ready to elect a racialized leader in the same way that the United States did in 2008.
Regarding the question of Singh's personal characteristics and capabilities, the answer is quite clear. Anyone who has had the chance to see Singh speak or has spoken to him cannot deny that he has an undeniable and universal charisma which allows him to ingratiate himself with individuals of any background. I have personally witnessed him laughing and joking with people from rural communities in Northern Ontario as comfortably as he dances with older Iranian ladies at a Persian gala.
This is a man who can relate with and draw people from across Canada's many cultural and geographic divides. He can converse in French as well or better than many of Canada's other federal leaders and has lived in many different parts of Canada. He has the charisma and political intelligence to be able to build a broad Canadian coalition that can rival that of Obama. He has consistently shown that he is sensitive to the needs of the marginalized as well as the concerns of the mainstream. All of these characteristics are essential to the coalition building that any NDP leader needs to end the unfortunate tradition of the party's exclusion from federal government.
The second essential question is whether Canada is ready for the Obama-like-project which Singh is attempting to accomplish. This question is one which is harder to answer definitively - one which goes to the heart of who we are as Canadians.
We as Canadians love to talk about how pluralistic we are, how accepting we are, and how much more progressive we are than our neighbour to the south. However, the reality is often different. From the so-called "Barbaric Cultural Practices Act" to the needless controversy over the Niqab, Canadians have shown that we are not immune from the xenophobia and racism that is plaguing much of the Western world.
However, my contention is that Canada is, at the very least, no worse than the United States, with its history of slavery, racial violence, and institutional racism. There is nothing to suggest that, despite all of our problems with race and racism, we too could not elect a racialized person to the highest office of the land.
Ultimately, only time will definitively tell whether Canada is ready for a non-white Prime Minister. What I do know, however, is that I and many other Canadians have faith in Canada. We believe that, despite all of our problems with race and racism, Canada is ready to vote for someone like Jagmeet Singh, and that, regardless of the outcome of the NDP leadership race, there is no doubt that this is an extremely exciting time to be Canadian.
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