Sorry, Justin. You’re not the fresh young face in town any more. You were hot, for a while. But Jagmeet Singh is hotter. You may have a huge Haida tattoo on your shoulder. But Jagmeet (also known as Jimmy) has a fuchsia turban on his head. You may know how to throw a punch. But he knows Brazilian jiu-jitsu. A few months ago, hardly anyone in Canada knew his name. Now, an entire political party is swooning at his feet, begging him to lead them from the obscurity that seems to be their semi-permanent lot in life. Half your voters could be next.
Mr. Singh’s appeal transcends his party. His turbans are a brilliant (if unintentional) branding device. They make him stand out in a crowd. They mark him as exotic. Yet as soon as he opens his mouth, it’s clear that he is as much a son of Canada as anyone in the room – not the wimpy, white-bread Canada of our past, but the dashing, muscular Canada we long to be. He’s no trust-fund kid, like you-know-who. He’s a self-made guy from the suburbs. He has the posture of a warrior – brash, worldly, fearless and also supermanly. Not a beta male, as Justin sometimes tends to be. He’s an alpha, with a full luxuriant beard and a serious kirpan to match. Not so long ago, those accessories were a bug. Now they’re a feature.
How did Canada come so far, so fast? Only yesterday, it seems, we were arguing over whether RCMP officers should be allowed to wear turbans instead of Mountie hats, and whether Sikh boys could wear their ceremonial daggers. It was only 11 years ago when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that kirpans were okay in school. Now that debate seems as quaint as the one over gay marriage. Not long ago, there was an unwritten but widely understood rule that people who wore turbans were not allowed to be bank presidents – vice-presidents, maybe, but no more. Today, nobody would blink twice. That’s how change happens – glacially, then all at once.
A lot of people are excited about Mr. Singh for the same reasons they were excited about Barack Obama. Liking him makes us feel better about ourselves. He makes us feel hopeful that we really do live in a fairly just society. He also signals a generational and cultural shift that seems truly hopeful. Until now, Mr. Trudeau had that market all sewn up. But as time goes on, Mr. Trudeau is destined to disappoint more and more progressives – on climate change, on Indigenous relations and on other issues that are largely insoluble. A lot of them might fall for the New Democrats under Mr. Singh.
Meanwhile, Andrew Scheer, the Conservative Party leader, can scarcely believe his luck. The more Mr. Singh divides the voters on the left, the better his shot at power will be.
I have no idea if Mr. Singh can deliver on any of this. He has no experience in federal politics at all. He is deeply distrusted in Quebec, where his position on the niqab and religious freedom is pretty much a deal-breaker. (You may recall what happened to former NDP leader Tom Mulcair, who was crushed by it.) Don’t ask him detailed policy questions either. He’s said to be light on economic policy, and probably needs to bone up on a bunch of other subjects a prospective national leader needs to be on top of. But that’s a challenge for another day. The NDP didn’t pick him for his experience or his policy smarts. They picked him for his relatability, and his story.
“[Being] a brown-skinned, long-haired boy with a funny sounding first name was kind of rough for a kid like me,” he said in a recent interview. It was especially tough in blue-collar Windsor, Ont., which hasn’t always taken kindly to foreigners and immigrants. Sometimes the other kids would knock him around. “Facing that unfairness was part of the reason why I care so much about social justice, about fighting for equity, for equality,” he explained. You can almost see a million new Canadians nodding in agreement. “I pushed myself harder than my friends. I knew that I would have to overachieve to prove my worth.”
When Mr. Singh grew up, he’d never seen anyone who looks like him be elected. Now he’s that guy. And he didn’t have to cut his hair to do it. For that reason alone, Canadian politics will never be the same. Now, if only we could get him into an MMA match with Justin. That would be heaven.