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It’s not just Quebec: The NDP leadership race and racial dog-whistles

Canadian Politics

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. Photo from Flickr.

In basic terms, the current NDP leadership contest has been a cordial one. Especially among the four remaining candidates, there is a general agreement that a move leftward relative to Layton and Mulcair is needed, and all are proposing major programs and policies meant to fight poverty, promote equality, or both. Nevertheless, one issue that has played a persistent role is that of ethnicity, especially as it concerns Jagmeet Singh. Much of this focus has been on either elements of the Quebec left saying that Singh’s religious garb makes him an unfit leader in their province, or on the viral video of an Islamophobic woman screaming at him during one of his campaign rallies a few weeks ago.

But the issue goes beyond French Canada and the alt-right, and seeps into the discourse about Singh from people within NDP circles. One of the most blatant instances came in a recent article for The Tyee, in which former Manitoba NDP MLA Don Scott suggested that the current federal leadership race’s integrity may be in jeopardy. And while Scott said that this was a general issue with parties that allow ‘instant membership’ holders to participate in a contest, he added the following:

That’s been the experience from past campaigns that have seen influxes of members who disappear after their votes are counted in the leadership, he said. ‘The only people who can really take advantage of this the way it is are the ethnic groups,” Scott said. “It’s a group of people who are orchestrated. Some groups are more open to being manipulated than others.’

Clearly, this is a less-than-subtle shot at Jagmeet Singh’s campaign, which has done well at signing up members, both in raw numbers, but also within locales, and among populations, that the NDP has historically struggled to establish beachheads in. In my view, this claim is troubling, because it seems to imply that a credible candidate for leadership is ‘orchestrating’ and ‘manipulating’ a takeover of the federal NDP via—in the charged words of Jacques Parizeau—“des votes ethniques.”

And while few have made their remarks as openly as Scott, too many NDPers on social media who are opposed to Singh have spoken about him—not as a person with which they disagree on matters of policy, ideology, and tactics—but rather as an outsider or opportunist who won’t be loyal to the party if he loses. To me—whatever your view on Singh or how you rank him—this feels like a silly argument. First, the NDP is a unified party, meaning that if you’re a member of the federal NDP, you are a member of the corresponding provincial NDP. This applies to Jagmeet Singh as it applies to every single NDPer. Additionally, Singh ran for the Federal party in 2011 before he sought a seat with the ONDP. Finally, Singh’s policies don’t strike me as those of a ‘closet Liberal,’ as some have suggested. His plan for an increased capital gains tax, an estate tax, and the decriminalization of all drugs are policies that are unabashedly on the left, more so than any Federal NDP leader in more than a generation.

Really, the issue is that some—though by no means all—elements in the party want to have it both ways. They want the NDP to win power by reaching out to people and places in which we’ve failed countless times before, but they don’t seem to want those new demographics to have any sort of meaningful say in how the party operates, who leads it, which policies it holds, and what the electoral roadmap looks like.

Whether one has ranked Singh at #1 or #4 on their ballot, they have to acknowledge the great work his team has done in signing up thousands of people, many of whom are not stereotypical New Democrats. We have to trust that those people and many others—regardless of the result—can be engaged with a democratic socialist platform based on equality, fairness, and freedom for all Canadians. But if the narrative is that these Singh supporters are seen as little more than ‘ethnic interlopers’ into the party, who could blame them if they don’t feel welcome?

Christo Aivalis is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. His dissertation examined Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and is being published with UBC Press in early 2018. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, This Magazine, Our Times Magazine, Ricochet, and Canadian Dimension. He has also served as a contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV and CBC. His current project is a biography of Canadian labour leader A.R. Mosher.


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