National Column: Quebec is no great hurdle to Singh’s leadership bid

by Chantal Hebert

A betting person might wager that Jagmeet Singh – unless he stumbles badly and quickly out of the gate – could soon be the candidate to beat in the battle for Thomas Mulcair’s succession.

With solid roots in the Ontario NDP – whose deputy leader he was until this week – and in multicultural Canada, Singh has the elements of a potential leadership juggernaut at his disposal.

The Sikh community is one of the most politically engaged in the country and Ontario offers the largest provincial pool of potential NDP supporters.

Singh has no federal experience, but that did not prevent Alexa McDonough, who had spent all her years in the Nova Scotia arena before moving on to Parliament Hill, and Jack Layton, who cut his teeth at Toronto City Hall, from winning the leadership.

On a week when France has sworn in a 39-year old president, it is hard to make a case that, Singh, 38, is too young for the job of third party leader in the House of Commons.

He does not have much of a profile outside of Ontario and NDP circles. But then none of the four MPs who are already in the running is a national household name either. On that score, suffice it to say that there may have been more words written about Singh’s leadership prospects before and since his entry in the NDP race than the sum of the characters expanded on all the other candidates.

As opposed to the Liberals and the Conservatives, the New Democrats do not weight their leadership votes on a riding-per-riding basis. Under the party’s winner-takes-all one-member-one-vote formula, it is easier to secure the leadership with little or no support from some regions, especially if one enjoys a lot of backing in Ontario and British Columbia. Those two provinces have tended to tower above the others on the NDP membership rolls.

This is a roundabout way to say that Singh would not need to win Quebec or even to do particularly well in that province to score a decisive leadership victory next fall. In the last election, the party was routed in Ontario and wiped off the map of Atlantic Canada. In the circumstances, more than a few New Democrats might rank recouping the lost ground in those regions above other considerations.

With two leaders from Quebec – Justin Trudeau and the Bloc QuÈbÈcois’ Martine Ouellet – and possibly a third if Maxime Bernier wins the upcoming Conservative vote, competition among native sons and daughters will be fierce in 2019. Whoever succeeds Mulcair will not have as large a footprint in Quebec. The party will have an uphill battle on its hands in the province under any leadership scenario.

Still, it took half-a-century for the NDP to establish a presence in Quebec. No one wants to see Jack Layton’s parting gift to his party squandered.

All of which has many New Democrats – starting with the party’s 16 Quebec MPs – quietly wondering how Quebec, given its strong pro-secular bent, would take to a turban-wearing Sikh NDP leader. It was not so long ago that the Parti Quebecois was campaigning on a promise to impose a secular dress code on all public servants.

Based on the niqab episode of the 2015 election, there are those who would readily answer that going into the 2019 campaign in Quebec under a leader whose religious identity is a distinguishing feature could be a recipe for disaster.

But that may amount to selling Quebecers short.

Yes, the NDP took a hit in Quebec over the niqab issue but it was the scores of lapsed Liberal supporters who returned home that really pulled the rug from under Mulcair. Trudeau almost tripled the party’s vote – mostly at the expense of the New Democrats.

Quebec’s secularism debate has so far been a family discussion that has for the most part involved politicians who do not actually belong to a visible religious minority.

Singh’s French would put to shame some of the former Conservative ministers who have spent the past year calling on their party to overlook their glaring deficiencies in the other official language.

No one should presume that an NDP leader who can otherwise connect in French with Quebecers would automatically lose the party’s audience in the province on grounds of religious diversity.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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