Image: Jagmeet Singh/Twitter
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. Credit: mage: Jagmeet Singh/Twitter / Twitter

Jagmeet Singh has been getting a lot of good reviews since the official start of the election campaign. 

The commentariat generally liked his message discipline in the first debate, which did not include Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, and since then mainstream media have been covering his series of policy announcements with a measure of respect. 

While the Liberal and Conservative leaders took a break on the weekend, Singh — and Green Leader Elizabeth May — kept campaigning, and got some favourable coverage for targeted policy announcements.

On one day, Singh focused on precarious workers and he explained how two signature NDP policies would make a big difference to them. 

One is the relatively small pledge to cap Canada’s outrageously high cell phone bills. 

The other is the massive commitment to bring in what the NDP calls head-to-toe health coverage. Under that rubric, the NDP leader focused on pharmacare, saying that Canadians who need drugs, especially those in lower income brackets, should not have to pay with their credit cards; they should be able to use their health cards. 

That same weekend, Singh also talked climate change, or, at least, climate change mitigation, in Gatineau, Quebec, which suffered a tornado last year and catastrophic flooding this past spring. Singh committed to doubling federal funds to build infrastructure strong enough to withstand the new threats engendered by climate change. 

Journalists, and even some pundits, took note of all of that, but they were most impressed by Singh’s reaction to the blackface and brownface revelations about Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. 

Many have noted and shared video of Singh’s initial and very personal response. 

Perhaps even more interesting was an open-to-the-media encounter Singh held with a diverse group of young leaders in Toronto last weekend. On this occasion, Singh played moderator and give them the space to express themselves

The NDP leader reiterated that, for him, the most important aspect of this scandal is not what it says about Trudeau or the current campaign. It is not about a political gotcha moment, or how sincerely a party leader apologizes, or even about what the opinion polls might say. It is about the impact of these public revelations on the many people who have experienced bullying or bigotry or exclusion because of their colour or identity. 

One young leader at that Toronto event told Singh that, in his mind, “Black people are trained to forgive” and he was tired of being nice and understanding and turning the other cheek.

A young Black woman said: “When you do an apology it is more, like, saying you made a ‘mistake.’ But when you do it three times it is not a mistake, it is a choice.” 

Another echoed those sentiments when she said it was hard for her to understand how somebody could do something like that so many times, adding that the way the media was defining the issue indicated to her that people of colour were “not being taken seriously.” She concluded by saying “our race is not a character.”

One of the most telling responses came from another young woman who said that while she admired Singh’s resort to “love and courage” to deal with the many challenges he has faced, she felt anger at the Trudeau images. 

“I am tired of hearing that Canada is not ready for a PM who wears a turban,” she told the NDP leader, “but we can have one who wears one as a joke!”

The event showed a side of the NDP leader politicians rarely put on display: how to be a good listener.

To cap the weekend, on Sunday the NDP leader made an appearance on the wildly popular CBC French network television show “Tout le monde en parle,” an obligatory rite of passage for leaders who want to raise their profile in Quebec.  

The show, which is hosted by Guy A. Lepage and his sidekick Dany Turcotte, blends variety, entertainment and serious stuff such as politics. The audience surrounds the hosts and guests, and politicians have to share the stage with actors, singers, comedians and athletes. 

Jagmeet Singh was relaxed and happy in this setting. At one point, when talking about the NDP plan to impose a tax on the wealthiest Canadians, he paused to smile and say “sorry Guy” and got a big laugh.

The show described Singh as “l’anti statu quo,” the “anti-status quo,” and characterized him as the first racialized leader of a major party in Canada.  

Lepage got things rolling by bringing up Singh’s turban right away. What do you say to voters who won’t vote for a leader who wears visible religious garb, he asked.  

Singh talked about the social democratic values he shares with most Quebecers. He expressed his solidarity with Quebec and its distinct culture. He said he fell in love with the French language when he was 11 or 12 and living in a predominantly anglophone part of the country. 

One the subject of Quebec’s Law 21, Singh did not hide his abhorrence for it, but did promise that he would not advocate for the federal government to take Quebec to court on this issue. Trying to thread the needle in this way has been a difficult exercise for the NDP. It does not seem to have satisfied the many francophones who support a law banning religious symbols for many public servants. At the same time the NDP annoys many others, especially Quebec non-francophones who want federal politicians to confront the Quebec government more forcefully. 

When the conversation turned to the environment, Singh declared his unequivocal opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline-twinning project, and went further to say he would never impose a pipeline on Quebec, in effect giving the province a veto power over such projects. The NDP leader seemed to be making new policy here. The next day he said, officially, that an NDP government would not force a mega-project, such as a pipeline, on any province. 

Lepage wanted to know how the country’s finances could afford such notionally expensive NDP promises as universal access to prescription drugs and dental care. Here Singh got some help from another guest on the show, former Montreal city politician Luc Ferrandez, who was, for many years, a leading figure in the progressive municipal party Projet Montréal, which now governs the city.  

Ferrandez jumped in to talk about the steep cost of Conservative and Liberal subsidies to the oil and gas industries and their current promises to cut taxes, in large measure for higher income earners. He pointed out, further, that the Harper government’s ill-advised cut to the GST cost the Canadian treasury billions of dollars that could have been put to good use. 

Lepage smiled and wanted to know if Singh and Ferrandez had consulted each other before the show. 

For his part, Singh talked about the Liberal government’s tolerance of tax havens of the sort revealed by the Panama papers which result in billions in lost revenue for Canada. The papers identified a number of well-known Liberal supporters, including a one-time leading fundraiser, as beneficiaries of these tax haven schemes. That fact alone should make voters suspicious of the Liberals’ sincerity when they say will do something about these monstrously unfair arrangements.  

The interview could not avoid the most recent revelations about Trudeau’s dress-up predilections. Singh repeated his earlier position that his main concern was with the impact of the story on members of visible minority communities, not the Liberal leader’s behaviour or apology. He did agree with Dany Turcotte that the current Liberal leader seems to have a bizarre fixation with dressing up in costumes. 

The NDP leader did well. He was relaxed and affable, and the audience seemed to be with him. 

Singh’s French is good, but he does make some of the usual anglophone mistakes. English speakers are often bewitched by the fact that each and every French noun has a gender, either masculine or feminine, and that the notional rules for assignment of word gender do not always apply. 

The French word for federalism for instance — fédéralisme — is masculine, even though it ends with an e, which usually indicates feminine. Singh booted that one, and got his verb tenses and agreements wrong from time to time. His hosts and the audience did not flinch at those small missteps. And Singh has definitely fully mastered the French political and policy lexicon. 

When the NDP leader talked about “échapattoires fiscales” (tax loopholes) and “paradis fiscaux” (tax havens) he was fluent and natural and comfortable. He made it sound like he had been using such jargon all his life.

There is still a lot of campaign to go, and much can happen between now and October 21. Many notionally progressive voters will still be bewitched by the idea of so-called strategic voting. 

For now, there is good news both for Canada’s traditional party of the left and for the progressive side of the political spectrum in general. The dark and dour media narrative about the NDP has changed dramatically, and much for the better.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Jagmeet Singh/Twitter


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...