Jagmeet Singh’s Quebec visit reveals both opportunities and dangers

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The Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region is part of Quebec’s heartland. It is almost entirely French speaking, at a rate that exceeds 98 per cent; and well over 90 per cent of its people identify as Roman Catholic.

This is where Jagmeet Singh made his first foray as NDP leader into Quebec outside of Montreal. There will be a federal by-election in the Lac-Saint-Jean riding on Oct. 23, for a seat vacated by Conservative MP Denis Lebel, and so party leaders are all trekking there.

As is his wont, the new NDP leader attracted plenty of media attention on this brief campaign stop — although it was not all applause. Indeed, the headline in Montreal’s Le Devoir sums it up. It says of Singh that he “polarizes voters.”

The paper quotes a number of voters who react negatively to the mere fact Singh wears a very visible turban.

One voter says: “People will vote pure laine here. The turban will not make it.” (The phrase pure laine means literally “pure wool,” but is normally used to describe ethnically ‘pure’ French Canadians.)

Another voter argues that Singh will “never have” his vote because of “the turban on his head.” He continues, “We, in this region, are quite Catholic, and he [Singh] arrives with another religion. For me, that’s hard to accept.” 

That view is far from universal.  Le Devoir quotes a senior citizen who finds Singh dynamic and “super sympathique,” and who makes the argument that a leader such as Singh could help smooth unnamed “difficulties” with Canada’s ethnic communities.

What is most notable is that no voters evoke the favourite touchstone of a good many Quebec politicians, the credo of secularism. Ordinary folks who balk at voting for a party led by Singh say, frankly, he is simply too ‘different’. And they candidly refer to their own Christian identity, not some chimerical notion of secularism.

Fifty-per-cent-plus-one all over again

In English media, Singh got headlines for his answer to the famous 50-per-cent-plus-one question. Asked what he would do if a simple majority of Quebec voters said yes to sovereignty, Singh answered, almost enthusiastically, that he would recognize their “fundamental human right” to “self-determination.”

That position is part of the NDP’s oft-cited Sherbrooke Declaration, which goes back to the early days of Jack Layton’s leadership.  

During the last parliament, the NDP prepared draft legislation based on the the Declaration. As does the Chrétien government’s Clarity Act, the NDP's proposed law requires that any referendum question be crystal clear and unambiguous (which would rule out the muddled and confusing 1995 question), and that the vote be fair and free of fraud. Nonetheless, the Liberals scored big points against New Democrats on this 50-per-cent-plus-one issue during the last campaign.

Justin Trudeau famously pointed a finger at then NDP leader Tom Mulcair and accused him of being willing to “break up the country on the strength of one vote.” Oddly, Mulcair let that attack pass virtually unanswered. He did not turn to Trudeau and ask what the Liberal leader would do in the event of a majority of Quebeckers voting “yes” for independence on a clear question. The NDP leader did not ask Trudeau if he would send in the troops to prevent Quebeckers from exercising their democratic rights.

Over the next two years, Singh will get his own chance to deal with this question.

As a member of an ethnic and religious group that has minority status in India, the current NDP leader is quite intently focused on the notion of a fundamental right to self-determination. He might want to nuance that position with the sort of rhetoric Layton used. Layton used to say his primary goal was to head off any future referendum by assuring there were “winning conditions for a united Canada” in Quebec.

Singh might want to emphasize that, while he respects Quebeckers’ democratic right to make their own choices on sovereignty, his own view is that splitting Canada into two or more pieces would be a tragic mistake.

Many in English Canada had the false impression of Tom Mulcair that he was some kind of crypto-separatist. In truth, the former NDP leader was an ardent federalist, who fought the separatists tooth and nail in two referenda.

Singh does not have a similar problem. He is not from Quebec. But he will still have to navigate this minefield deftly and carefully.

While it makes sense to underscore for Quebeckers that he is committed to the principles of the Sherbrooke Declaration, the new NDP leader will want to make sure he does not come across as a naïve newcomer. Separatists and nationalists might, on good days, be selfless advocates for the basic right of self-determination for all peoples. They are also quite capable of demagoguery and chicanery.

Déjà vu all over again?

Looking back to the 2015 election, NDPers can reason that, in large part, they lost ground when, in Niki Ashton’s words, they allowed the Liberals to “out-left” them. When Mulcair unveiled a balanced budget fiscal plan, Trudeau’s chief adviser, Gerald Butts, is said to have remarked that the NDP had just opened wide a big door for the Liberals. They walked right through it to victory.

That may be true. But in Quebec the question of identity also sidetracked the 2015 NDP campaign. When a niqab-wearing woman won a court case allowing her to swear her citizenship while wearing the veil, the NDP found itself in a political meat-grinder, and saw a good part of its Quebec vote evaporate overnight. That had a snowball effect. It signalled to voters elsewhere in Canada who wanted nothing more than to rid themselves of the Harper Conservatives that the best horse to ride was the Liberal horse.

Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose.

Today, halfway to the 2019 election, the new NDP’s leader dresses in a way that a previous Parti Québecois government deemed would disqualify him for employment as, say, a teacher or police officer. Singh is a skilful communicator and, at the very least, did not stumble in his first visit to heartland Quebec. His next test will be to make an appearance on French language network television. That can go very well or very badly, as it did most recently for Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly.

Last time, some non-Quebec voters worried about the NDP’s seeming willingness to allow Canada to split up on the strength of one vote. It is difficult to say to what extent that highly hypothetical conundrum figured in voters’ choices. What is certain is that the issue gave considerable oxygen to the Liberals’ campaign. It allowed their leader to portray himself as Captain Canada, just as his father had two generations earlier.

Has Singh now handed Liberals the same national unity weapon they used so well last time? We’ll find out soon enough.

The entire issue has about as much relevance as counting angels on pinheads. Sovereignty is barely on the agenda in Quebec these days. Most polls put the Parti Québecois in third place, and, in any case, the PQ’s current leader, Jean-François Lisée, has pledged that if he is elected there will be no referendum for at least one full term.

Perhaps the most effective answer NDPers might have for questions about 50-per-cent-plus-one — or, indeed, the so-called identity issue — is to note that Quebeckers, like all Canadians, must confront very real challenges these days, such as a shrinking middle class and climate change. The current Trudeau government promised major action on both issues, but has, so far, fallen far short.

There comes a time when mature citizens, journalists and politicians alike must put their focus on genuine issues. Hands up all who think what we most need now are metaphysical musings about identity and nightmare fantasies of a sundered nation.

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It's not clear from the context that the person who said “People will vote pure laine here. The turban will not make it” wasn't expressing her own views. She seemed to be backing up her spouse, who said that Singh wearing a turban would open people's eyes. (Pure laine as an expression is rarely used directly; it's usually attributed pejoratively to someone else.) But Le Devoir published a guest article accusing Singh of being influenced by his religion when he opposed mandatory bike helmet legislation in Ontario (I don't know if Singh cited the literature showing that bike helmets don't reduce cycling injuries and do lead to fewer people riding bikes).


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