Jagmeet Singh’s Punjabi poutine food truck wasn’t supposed to break down, but you could argue it was endearing—or at least funny—that it did.
Prior to making an appearance at the campaign’s first French-language debate on Sept. 2, the New Democratic Party leader hosted an event in Montreal where the plan was to hand out batches of his fusion recipe, which includes onions, garlic, turmeric, and cubed sweet potatoes instead of the traditional fries, gravy, and cheese curds of the famous Québécois dish.
But the bright orange food truck, featuring a comic-like rendering of Singh’s face, lost a tire after hitting a pothole (very Montreal), so people had to wait a few hours for their curried poutine. Singh made light of the situation, joking that people were working “TIRElessly” to get the truck going.
“I hope some of this poutine will fill you, not just your stomach, but fill you up with some optimism,” Singh said when it was finally time to eat. In the end, #punjabipoutine was trending on Twitter and you could chalk the truck troubles up to an authentic moment, the kind that Singh’s brand wants to be known for.
In an interview with VICE World News, Singh described himself as a “defiant optimist.”
“I get that these times are tough, but I keep on pushing for more,” he said.
In a sea of milquetoast candidates and campaigns, Singh stands out for a few reasons.
To start with the obvious, he’s a brown man who often wears bright turbans—the first leader of a major party who is a person of colour. He’s young—at 42, he’s the closest of any federal leader to being a millennial (Conservative leader Erin O’Toole is the next youngest, at 48). He comes across as optimistic—a trait Liberal leader Justin Trudeau took to the bank in 2015, only to be replaced with a much more cynical, scandal-plagued version of himself in later campaigns. He’s also the only one with TikTok (and 700,000 followers); he hosted a Twitch livestream with U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last November; he even launched a line of merch, including T-shirts with his face that some of my friends are eager to grab.
But following two French-language debates, a chaotic English debate, and an extremely short pandemic campaign, Singh is facing an uphill battle in the Sept. 20 election, as the New Democrats appear poised to pick up a few seats but fall well behind the Conservatives and Liberals, who are running neck and neck.
And while the NDP has appeared to make strides in winning over younger voters (sadly, the demographic least likely to turn out to the polls), the support drops off steeply when it comes to men over 65. And the party is not doing well in Quebec, where race and secularism are front and centre.
When speaking to VICE World News in a wide-ranging interview last month, Singh, as he has throughout the 2021 campaign, attempted to play down the specific impact of discrimination against him and his party’s struggles in Quebec.
“Systemic racism is not limited to any one province. It is pernicious and it exists in every province,” he said, noting he was stopped and carded by police in Toronto, Canada’s most diverse city, when he was a young law student.
Despite facing racist heckling on the campaign trail, Singh said he’s equipped to deal with those types of attacks, having been a politician for the past 10 years, and a defence lawyer for the five years before that.
“I’m not worried about me, but I am worried about what it means for a lot of kids that I meet, a lot of young people that I meet, a lot of women that I meet, that face these barriers and they’re worrying, will they be able to succeed in their career? Is there space for them? Do they feel like they belong?” Singh said.
“Part of what I do every day is, those kids that see me on the TV, see me out here trying to become prime minister and fight for them, they feel a little bit less like they don’t belong and they feel a little bit more like maybe, ‘I can do what I want.’ That’s powerful and that gives me a lot of optimism.”
The path to becoming prime minister in Canada is very difficult without support in Quebec, something that has evaded the NDP in the past, save for 2011’s “orange wave,” which saw the party win 59 seats in the province under Jack Layton, the famously optimistic politician who died of cancer shortly after the election. That dropped to 16 seats in 2015 under Tom Mulcair, who condemned the Harper Conservatives’ niqab ban. In 2019, Singh’s first federal election as NDP leader, the party was crushed, reduced to a single seat in Quebec.
“The thing about Quebec that’s really interesting is that it’s a province that shifts,” Singh said. “One year they all went New Democrat; one year they all went Liberal. So they’re a province that’s open to changing. That, to me, presents an opportunity. We can show the people of Quebec how we helped out people.”
Bill 21 weighs heavy
The NDP’s struggles in Quebec have corresponded with the controversy over the province’s Bill 21, which bans public workers in the province from wearing religious symbols, including turbans or hijabs.
The Quebec nationalist party Bloc Québécois won 32 seats in the province in the last election, while campaigning largely on defending Bill 21. The Bloc is keeping that tactic up in 2021, and has targeted Singh directly on the issue.
In the first French debate, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said, “I really, really, really want to hear from Mr. Singh—who really called us racists—that Quebecers are not racists.” Singh was booted from the House of Commons after calling Bloc MP Alain Therrien “racist” in June 2020 for making a fly-swatting motion while refusing to support an NDP motion on systemic racism in the RCMP, Canada’s federal police force.
Fareed Khan, the founder of Canadians United Against Hate, told VICE World News the fact that Singh is a person of colour is “huge.”
“He’s had to surpass the same hurdles and break through the same barriers that other (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) have. So I think he understands the issue better than both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. O’Toole do.”
However, Khan said he would like to see Singh, along with all federal leaders, firmly condemn Quebec’s Bill 21. (Trudeau has said he opposes the law and would consider fighting it in court, pending current court challenges. Singh has spoken out against the substance of the law but in the 2019 election campaign firmly said he would not intervene. O’Toole has also said he won’t intervene.)
“I know he’s backed into a corner, but if he could come forth and propose that all three leaders need to stand together on this one issue,” Khan said. “That would be a huge, huge statement to say to the Quebec government and to any other government in Canada, ‘No, you know, we are not going to be silent when governments legally sanction hate and racism and bigotry in this country.’”
Singh calls out Trudeau on race
Canadians United Against Hate graded the NDP’s platform a B (as opposed to a C+ for the Liberals) when it comes to anti-racist policies. The NDP’s platform includes a ban on racial profiling, a review of use-of-force in the RCMP, and more resources for mental health and wellness checks.
Khan said Trudeau has been slow to take action on race issues, most recently in the aftermath of the London massacre in which a white man allegedly ran down and killed four members of a Muslim family in London, Ontario.
It’s a criticism Singh raised too while talking to VICE World News.
“I keep thinking about two years ago, (Trudeau) took a knee at a Black Lives Matter protest. I’m like, ‘Who are you taking a knee against? You’re the prime minister of this country. Just go out and make a change,’” Singh said.
Amanda Bittner, a political science professor at Memorial University, said race is “100 percent” a factor when it comes to how people perceive party leaders.
“For the most part, our ideal politician is a white man... because that’s kind of what’s embedded in our minds and because that’s what we’ve seen for so long,” she said.
“Singh probably couldn’t have been the party leader 50 years ago. That would have been unheard of because contextually, Canadians did not support racialized party leaders.”
Bittner says Singh’s role as NDP leader is normalizing having a person of colour in that role, “but that doesn’t mean that we all accept it all the time.”
McGrane said the NDP can look to pick up seats in urban areas with lots of young people and diverse populations, including major Canadian cities.
He said on election day, Conservative numbers will probably be higher than what the polls say because “more old people vote” and don’t necessarily respond to polls.
“Every study you’ve ever seen of Canadian voting shows that... people (who) are older vote religiously. People (who) are younger vote selectively depending on the election, if something excites them or not.”
Getting out the youth vote
In sharp contrast to the 2020 U.S. election, which featured two white men in their mid- to late-70s, the three major federal leaders are all under 50. Singh, the freshest face among the trio, appears to be connecting with youth better than Trudeau and O’Toole.
“He is the personification of what millennial Canada is. He’s a Sikh who doesn’t turn away from his religion… That’s like a millennial thing in some ways. It’s like, ‘Here I am. I’m non-binary, I’m Sikh, I’m Muslim, I’m just going to be myself in public,’” said David McGrane, a professor of political science at the University of Saskatchewan. (McGrane ran for the provincial NDP in 2020.) “That lends an authenticity to him for young people that I don’t think the other leaders have. O’Toole and Trudeau seem kind of plastic—very classical politicians.”
According to a Sept. 6 Angus Reid poll, the NDP was the most popular party among 18-34 year olds with 34 percent, followed by the Conservatives (27 percent), and the Liberals (23 percent). Other polls have dubbed Singh most likeable, most trustworthy, and most competent of all three leaders. But overall, the NDP has been consistently polling around 20 percent, keeping them firmly in its traditional spot as Canada’s third-place party. The party also faces the usual late-campaign issue of Liberal efforts to pull progressive voters away from the NDP to prevent vote-splitting leading to a Conservative government.
This time around, the issue that matters most to millennials is cost of living (and climate at a distant second), according to an Abacus Data poll. The NDP has promised to build 500,000 more units of affordable housing, incentivize the development of more through tax breaks, and forgive up to $20,000 in student loans.
Trudeau’s $10-a-day child care deals will certainly appeal to millennials with kids, but in a recent interview with VICE World News, Singh pushed back on the idea the Liberal leader is progressive.
“First off with child care, the Liberals have been promising it for almost 30 years... So it’s not really much of a celebration to say, yeah, we promised it and hold on, 30 years later, we’ll deliver it. It’s pretty cynical. When they first started promising it, those kids grew up and had kids and now still need it,” he said. (The Liberals, to their credit, have signed pledges for $10-a-day child care with eight provinces, with the Conservative-led governments of Alberta and Ontario being notable holdouts.)
Singh, whose party held the balance of power in a minority government since 2019, also criticized the Liberals for voting against NDP motions on imposing a 1 percent wealth tax, creating universal pharmacare, and ending for-profit long-term care homes.
With only two weeks to go before the election, the NDP is promoting its social media blitz, largely aimed at younger voters, including an Animal Crossing appearance and a SnapChat feature, among other digital initiatives. While such plays may not move the yardstick too far nationally, there is hope among NDP strategists that they could be a difference-maker in really tight races.
While millennials (generally defined as people born between 1980 and 1996) now make up the largest voting bloc in Canada—and many of them are responsible for helping Trudeau win in 2015—younger voters tend to be less likely to show up to the polls, especially for a pandemic election that many, including Singh, felt was unnecessary.
“If only people under the age of 35 voted, he’d be the next prime minister for sure,” said McGrane.
“People over the age of 50… they come out to vote automatically; it doesn’t take a lot of work, hence why the Conservatives usually do so well in elections in Canada,” McGrane said. “People that are younger vote selectively depending on the election, if something excites them or not.” Time will tell if Singh’s popularity does the trick, but time is running short.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.