Singh’s example should stir the consciences of Quebec
With just six days left before Canada votes, the New Democrats’ Jagmeet Singh has yet to emerge as a main contender to become this country’s next prime minister.
But however he and the party he leads fare when the ballots are counted, it can already be said that Singh has been a forceful and positive presence in this election. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to Quebec and the threatened status of minority groups in that province.
Singh is a member of Parliament, leader of a major party and a politician who has set his sites on becoming Canada’s next prime minister.
But he is also a practising Sikh who is quickly identified by his colourful turbans and bushy beard. This means that despite his impressive credentials, he would not be hired for many public-sector jobs in Quebec unless he removed the turban that is a key symbol of his faith.
Though a lawyer, Singh could not become a Crown prosecutor or a judge in the province as long as he wore his turban. He could not be a member of a provincial commission such as Quebec’s rental board or labour tribunal. Nor could he become a police officer or teacher even if he took the trouble to qualify for such jobs.
The reason, of course, is Quebec’s notorious Bill 21, the secularism law that bans the wearing of religious symbols and clothing by people in positions of authority in much of the province’s public sector.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault not only defends this unwarranted trampling of basic individual liberties in Canada’s second most populous province, he has told the leaders of Canada’s major political parties to butt out of the controversy.
How sad that not one of the major party leaders — not Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, not the Conservatives’ Andrew Scheer, the Green’s Elizabeth May or even Singh — has ignored Legault’s warning and pledged to join the fight against Bill 21 and defend the province’s minority faiths, its Sikhs, Muslims and Jews. Clearly, these leaders fear losing precious Quebec votes on Oct. 21.
But at the very least, Singh has repeatedly addressed the issue of discrimination head-on in Quebec. At the very least, his presence and conduct in this election should stir consciences in Quebec and convince at least some people of goodwill there to question the need for the noxious Bill 21.
In one campaign video, the NDP leader appeared briefly without a turban, his long hair cascading down around his shoulders. In that video Singh frankly discussed his identity as well as his commitment to fight for justice. Later in the campaign, confronted by a man in Montreal who told him to cut off his turban and “look like a Canadian,” Singh responded with grace and restraint.
“I think Canadians look like all sorts of people,” Singh rightly replied. “That’s the beauty of Canada.”
How ironic that Premier Legault described what was said to Singh as racist. Legault’s Bill 21 has made people like Singh second-class citizens in Quebec. The premier is partly to blame when some Quebecers treat Singh that way.
And so whatever happens next Monday, Singh has done this country a service. Not only is he the first member of a visible minority group to lead a major federal party in a general election, he has done this when race and identify have become major campaign issues.
Let’s hope his example inspires greater tolerance not only in Quebec but throughout Canada.