Singh’s stand re­minds NDP of its op­ti­mism

The Sun Times (Owen Sound) - - OPINION - write.robin@baranyai.ca ROBIN BARANYAI

We’re wit­ness­ing a new kind of “or­ange crush.” Cana­di­ans are crush­ing hard on fed­eral NDP lead­er­ship can­di­date Jag­meet Singh, af­ter his re­sponse to a heck­ler be­came a vi­ral sen­sa­tion.

News or­ga­ni­za­tion Bramp­ton Fo­cus was live-stream­ing a Jag meet-and­greet event on Sept. 6 when a rant­ing pro­tester ac­cused Singh of pro­mot­ing sharia law and the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood. Singh af­firmed her right to speak, and called on his sup­port­ers to show “love and courage” in the face of ha­tred.

And with that, Singh’s op­ti­mistic cam­paign slo­gan found its foot­ing on a na­tional stage. Twit­ter users gushed about “true lead­er­ship.” The sen­ti­ment was am­pli­fied by Singh’s re­fusal to de­flect Is­lam­o­pho­bia by coun­ter­ing he is Sikh.

“It’s im­por­tant that we stand united against all forms of hate,” he sub­se­quently stated.

The con­fronta­tion was em­blem­atic of a sim­mer­ing un­der­belly of racial and re­li­gious ten­sions in this coun­try, but also the spirit of Cana­di­ans who re­ject in­tol­er­ance.

Prior to the out­burst, one would be hard pressed to say the race to choose the next leader of the New Demo­cratic Party had com­manded Cana­di­ans’ at­ten­tion. Sud­denly, a can­di­date has cap­tured the zeit­geist ex­pressed in Jack Lay­ton’s fi­nal mes­sage to Cana­di­ans: “Love is bet­ter than anger. Hope is bet­ter than fear. Op­ti­mism is bet­ter than de­spair.”

Lay­ton, too, re­sponded to a per­sonal at­tack (over a mas­sage) with in­tegrity. In­stead of de­rail­ing the party’s mo­men­tum in the 2011 elec­tion, the ap­pear­ance of a smear cam­paign helped turn public sen­ti­ment in its favour. Que­bec, es­pe­cially, em­braced “un bon Jack,” re­ward­ing the NDP with 59 of its 75 seats.

Un­like Singh’s pre­de­ces­sors, how­ever, the bulk of his sup­port is not likely to come from Que­bec.

An An­gus Reid poll re­leased this sum­mer found only 36 per cent of Que­bec re­spon­dents would con­sider vot­ing for a party led by a per­son who wears a re­li­gious head cov­er­ing, 20 points be­low the na­tional av­er­age.

It’s not that Que­beck­ers aren’t pro­gres­sive. The same poll shows they’re sig­nif­i­cantly more open than other re­gions to a gay or les­bian can­di­date. But on­go­ing fric­tion over re­li­gious ac­com­mo­da­tion has rubbed vot­ers raw.

Out­side la belle prov­ince, there are few ob­sta­cles to Singh’s mo­men­tum. At 38, he is young, en­er­getic and fa­mously stylish. He has vastly out­paced his ri­vals in both fundrais­ing and me­dia cov­er­age, and has the po­ten­tial to de­liver sub­ur­ban vot­ers from the 905 area code.

For his sup­port­ers, Singh’s re­li­gious iden­tity is clearly not a li­a­bil­ity. If any­thing, it adds to his so­cial jus­tice bona fides.

He of­ten re­lates how be­ing bul­lied as a youth opened his eyes to the plight of the marginal­ized.

In Que­bec, how­ever, many feel the key to so­cial har­mony is not a matter of em­brac­ing re­li­gious di­ver­sity, but check­ing it at the door when you show up for work, par­tic­u­larly in the public sec­tor.

All four NDP can­di­dates are strong voices for so­cial, en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic jus­tice. Dur­ing the fi­nal lead­er­ship de­bate last Sun­day, Singh, Guy Caron, Niki Ash­ton and Char­lie An­gus ar­tic­u­lated the sub­tle dif­fer­ences in their plat­forms on in­come in­equal­ity, cli­mate ac­tion and health care.

An­gus de­liv­ered the most poignant ob­ser­va­tion. “Lead­er­ship is not about the leader,” he said. “It’s about giv­ing peo­ple a rea­son to be­lieve in get­ting ac­tive in pol­i­tics.”

Noth­ing en­er­gizes vot­ers quite like op­ti­mism in the face of ad­ver­sity. In “love and courage,” a newly in­vig­o­rated NDP mem­ber­ship is likely to hear echoes of “love, hope and op­ti­mism” and “yes we can.” We’ll see if the crush trans­forms into a long-term re­la­tion­ship.

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