By Aymen Sherwani, January
Party leaders in Canadian federal politics can have more influence over the general public than the actual reputation of the party itself, as is the case for the current New Democratic Party leader, Jagmeet Singh. Since the party’s emergence in 1961, the NDP have held the position of the Official Opposition only once, under the charisma of the late Jack Layton in 2011. Does Singh have the potential to change the party’s trajectory?
In Alberta, the line between provincial and federal parties and politics blurs. After four years of a provincial NDP government, many Albertans are wary of the party’s federal equivalent. Still, one can be optimistic about the difference Singh has the capacity to make.
As the first non-white leader of any federal party in Canada, Singh went viral in September 2017 for his response to a racist heckler who confronted him with accusations of being “in bed with Sharia and the Muslim Brotherhood” due to the fact that he is a brown-skinned man who wears a turban. Singh, a follower of Sikhism, later commented on his response.
“Many people have commented that I could have just said I’m not Muslim. In fact, many have clarified that I’m actually Sikh,” he said. “While I’m proud of who I am, I purposely didn’t go down that road because it suggests their hate would be okay if I was Muslim.”
While Singh is not a Muslim, the xenophobic tirade projected at him by a white woman represents a Canada that is still unable to differentiate between Muslims, Sikhs and terrorists. It represents a Canada that is still uncomfortable with seeing anyone other than a white man leading the nation. Many South Asian immigrants — myself included — have had this rhetoric aimed at them in a post-9/11 world, regardless of their professions. Thus, many of us are more inclined to vote for NDP representatives in hopes of seeing Singh in office, regardless of individual candidates’ policies.
These sentiments are shared among students on campus. Shaina Roshan, a biological sciences student at the University of Calgary, expresses that the reason she supports the NDP is because “Jagmeet is the ‘Canadian Obama.’
“No one believed in [Obama] at first either because he wasn’t white and [they] thought his platform was too idealistic. But because enough people believed that he was their man, he won,” she said. “Jagmeet represents the hidden side of Canada which isn’t represented in our predominantly white government and that side is the one filled with hard-working immigrants and people of colour that have made Canada what it is today.”
While there may be surface-level similarities between the two leaders, Singh’s policy platform brings with it skepticism, especially from dissatisfied Albertans who feel NDP changes have done more harm than benefit to them. To many Albertans, reviewing Singh’s economic platform seems like a repeat of the policy reforms they have had to live with for four years under a provincial NDP government.
When looking at the actual platform Singh brings forward, the leader of the NDP has been a strong advocate of raising minimum wage to $15 an hour at a federal level, which has already been in effect in Alberta since late 2018. Singh says he wants his efforts to aid the “millions of Canadians that are living in poverty” through such a minimum wage increase, but fails to acknowledge that the low-income people living in Alberta, many of whom are students, are the ones who are most affected by inflation that can result from wages increases.
When Alberta’s corporate tax was increased from 10–12 per cent in 2016 under the NDP, businesses were less inclined to invest in Alberta over British Columbia and Ontario as unemployment rates skyrocketed. However, Jagmeet Singh plans to follow suit at a federal level. For many Albertans, the NDP has not acted in their economic interests. Though the provincial and federal NDP parties do see certain issues differently, such as pipelines, many Albertans don’t want to make the same mistake when voting for the party they think can bring the most positive change at the federal level.
So while support for Singh may be growing in provinces like Ontario and B.C., where NDP policies are relatively feasible, the problem is that Alberta simply does not trust the NDP anymore. Whether Singh’s individual influence as a non-white candidate with a focus on of altruism can sway voters remains to be seen.
Aymen Sherwami is a second-year business (accounting) major at the University of Calgary. She writes a column for the Gauntlet about issues that are affecting students called “Get It Together, People”