Disclosure: I voted for Guy Caron to lead the NDP in the recent leadership contest.
This week marks an important moment in Canadian political history. As far as I know Jagmeet Singh is the first non-white leader of a federal party, and among the first in the country. The British Columbia NDP and Quebec Solidaire have had non-white leaders prior to this selection.
There can be no doubt Singh represents a radical departure from Tom Mulcair. Mulcair represented competent, prosecutorial, experienced leadership. Trudeau bested Mulcair and the NDP by seizing the mantle of "change". New Democrats have decidedly selected the most Trudeau-like option among the leadership candidates on offer. Few challenge the narrative that Singh is a young, handsome, stylish man. He is also intelligent and has an impressive resume, but lacks experience in government and has none at all at the federal level. However, he has displayed a certain 'mass' appeal.
Singh certainly appealed to a group of supporters: urban progressives, young people, Torontonians, and suburbanites - especially Punjabi and Sikh voters. During the campaign there can be little denial that he received substantial endorsements from members of the party representing different constituencies.
Let's put aside how Singh won. Instead let's consider how this impacts the party's fortunes going forward.
The NDP is at a crossroads. For all the handwringing about 2015 it was the second best result in the party's history at 44 seats. It was a drop from the over 100 in 2011, but still significant for a party that spent the preceding decade plus in the political wilderness. The question comes now if the NDP will be relegated back to third party status, or, rise to Official Opposition or government.
Samara's research, if memory serves, says that the leader determines people's votes more often than the local candidate so he will impact support for the NDP across the country in some way. That impact, of course, is unlikely to be uniform. Most assume, I think fairly, that Singh could lead to a surge of support for the NDP in suburban areas, particularly with large South Asian populations. That is not to say all brown-skinned voters will support Singh, but the prospect of the first Indo-Canadian Prime Minister will certainly engage some voters. Seats in Brampton, Mississauga, Halton, Surrey, Edmonton, etc. could flip to the NDP in 2019.
But Singh's race is a double-edged sword, I am sad to say. I fear his skin and religion will turn off voters elsewhere in the country. We cannot pretend, especially since 2015, that racial prejudice is dead. In Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, and their environs race may help more than it hurts, but it could easily cut in places like Southwestern Ontario, the north of the provinces, etc. This needn't explicitly be about bigotry, it could merely be voters feeling less able to connect with Singh given cultural differences. I don't mean to cast aspersions on my fellow Canadians, but comfort with a non-white, turbaned Sikh is in question.
Then there is Quebec. While I'm certain the racial dynamic is also at play, more important may be secularism. Ujjal Dosanjh, former BC Premier and MP, and many elected Sikhs tone down their religiosity. Though, to be fair, many, such as Navdeep Bains, are turbaned Sikhs. Singh decidedly does not tone down his faith. His very nature could repel the soft-nationalist voters that the NDP won over during the last few elections that created the larger seat totals in 2011 and 2015.
An NDP with strength in cities and suburbs is a radical departure from the past political calculus. Weakness in rural areas and northern areas may offer fresh opportunities to the Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc. Perhaps even the Green could find an advantage on Vancouver Island.
As one of the most important political leaders in Canada Jagmeet Singh is both a reflection of Canada and Canada will in kind respond to him. The fortunes of the NDP and our politics rides on his shoulders as he shapes the new NDP.