The upcoming 2019 federal election marks the first time a racialized party leader is running for office. The Medium sat down with Dr. Randy Besco, a political science professor at UTM, to discuss the public’s response to Jagmeet Singh’s candidacy. Singh is the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the first non-white prime minister candidate in Canada’s history.
According to the NDP’s official website, Singh’s campaign is inspired by his own experiences as a student and a minority with immigrant parents who had to deal with financial difficulties, family responsibilities, and inequality. Before entering politics, Singh practiced law and was a human rights activist. His political career includes serving as a Member of Provincial Parliament for Ontario from 2011 to 2017, representing the Burnaby South riding as a Member of Parliament, and leading the NDP party since October 2017.
Singh often faces discrimination because of his religion, choice to wear a turban, and Indian background. Although social media acts as a major outlet for racist comments targeted at him, people have approached Singh at campaign events and public spaces and openly expressed their disapproval of him numerous times.
Singh has refrained from reacting to such attacks with anger or frustration. On October 2, 2019, CBC News posted a video of his campaign in Montreal where a man told Singh that cutting his turban off would make him “look like a Canadian.” Singh responded by saying, “I think Canadians look like all sorts of people. That’s the beauty of Canada.”
Another incident which went viral on social media occurred in Brampton during a campaign event in September 2017. National Post reported a woman publicly expressing Islamophobic sentiments as she had assumed Singh had links to terrorism. Singh responded by leading the campaign attendees in a chant shouting “love and courage.” He later explained that “growing up as a brown-skin, turbaned, bearded man, I’ve faced things like this before. It’s not a problem. We can deal with it. There’s going to be other obstacles that we’re going to face and we’re going to face them with love and courage.”
“From surveys, especially before the election, there were signs that discrimination was going to be a big thing. There are a lot of people who say they are not going to vote for him because of his race,” says Besco. “Even in the United States, when [Barack] Obama was running in elections, the Republican candidates didn’t say anything bad about him being black. Usually it’s not politicians who say something. You’re not going to see [Liberal party leader] Justin Trudeau or [Conservative party leader] Andrew Scheer saying anything about the fact that Jagmeet Singh is not white. When people say things, it’s regular people on the street or some fringe candidates.”
In comparison to the 2008 United States election where Obama was the first non-white candidate running for president, Besco predicts that though “Obama was the first Black president, Jagmeet Singh is probably not going to be the first non-white prime minister. If [Singh] was running for the Liberals or Conservatives, it would be a bigger deal.”
Moreover, Besco explains that studies have shown that Obama would have won by a larger margin if he was not black. Similarly, Besco believes that while “the NDP are going to win seats…it’s pretty plausible that they would have won more” if Singh did not belong to a minority.
Besco researches how racialized candidates are affected by racialized voters and how identity inspires politics. His research suggests that for local candidates, discrimination tends to be concentrated on the right and weaker on the left. Therefore, Conservative minorities get less votes while NDP and Liberal candidates are not impacted in the same way. Specifically, “Conservative
candidates get about five per cent less [votes] which is not a huge amount but not nothing either. That can change some elections.” However, since local candidates tend to receive less attention than party leaders, and this is the first time a visible minority is running as a federal candidate, researchers are limited in their ability to predict voting patterns.
Despite race being an obvious aspect of this election, Singh chooses to focus his campaign on other issues. Besco agrees with this strategy as he says that “there is some research that suggests when minorities talk a lot about racism, there can be some backlash by people who are made uncomfortable by that talk. It is the same for woman candidates when they campaign on feminism. Sometimes that can actually have negative impacts.”
Regardless of the outcome of the election, Singh has garnered significant attention and will definitely have an impact on other minority groups. Besco cites the role model effect since “when you see someone of your group that’s a successful politician, then you feel like ‘I can do that too.’” For example, after “Hilary Clinton ran [as a US presidential candidate], there was a big upsurge in women running for office.”
Besco wants to observe the effect Singh’s candidacy will have on minority groups that are not Indo-Canadian or Sikh. Will other minorities support him as strongly as Indo-Canadians because of his non-white background? Will Chinese-Canadians or African-Canadians relate to Singh the same way and display the role model effect by becoming more active in politics? While the effect on other minority groups remains to be seen, Singh’s candidacy has already marked a milestone in Canadian history.