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Federal Politics

Please Advise! Dr. Steve and the Jagmeet Singh Victory

Or how one ugly viral moment defined a leadership campaign.

Steve Burgess 2 Oct

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

[Editor’s note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a PhD in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

Jagmeet Singh has won a first-ballot victory in the NDP leadership race. What were the factors that led to his surprising win?


New Democrat

Dear ND,

Here’s a tricky political question: after someone storms the podium at your campaign rally and showers you with ignorant religious bigotry, is it inappropriate to send a thank you note? Perhaps a muffin basket or roses, some nice white ones maybe? And I suppose a cabinet position would be completely out of the question?

All the same, it’s traditional to reward the people who helped you win a campaign, and arguably no one did more to boost new NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s fortunes than Jennifer Bush, the woman who launched herself at him last month — Sept. 11 to be exact — in Brampton, Ont., accusing him of having a secret Muslim agenda.

Singh’s reaction was calm and reasonable as he spoke to the crowd about the need for love and acceptance — yes, even acceptance of people so clueless they can’t manage to navigate their own religious bigotry. (See, I’m not as good at it as he is.)

Video of the incident went viral and soon Singh was the only NDP leadership candidate on CNN. People around the world who probably think NDP stands for Non-Dairy Pudding and might not be able to point to Canada on a map saw video of the exchange. More importantly Singh became the only NDP candidate getting any quality time on the evening news in Canada. His profile soared. The NDP had a new turbaned Jack Layton.

That day in Brampton, Bush, a member of an anti-Islamic group, shouted that Singh, a Sikh, wanted to bring in Islamic Sharia law. Bush later denied that she thought Singh was a Muslim — apparently she thought he was a non-Muslim who just really likes Muslim stuff. I suppose it would be wrong to reward someone so thoroughly confused with a cabinet post. Maybe they could just give her a plastic sword and a canoe and tell her invisible Muslims are attacking Niagara Falls.

In his acceptance speech on Sunday Singh spoke of being stopped by police solely because of his skin colour and manner of dress, a moving and unprecedented moment for a national leader. He followed by saying that when he becomes PM no one will be stopped by police for their skin colour ever again, which frankly is akin to guaranteeing that no child will ever be disappointed on Christmas morning and the 2018 Stanley Cup parade will proceed to the intersection of Yonge and Bloor.

Luckily for Singh, people will forgive him for the youthful rhetorical overreach. By contrast when Justin Trudeau promised electoral reform people actually thought it was possible.

One viral video does not a campaign make. Party races are about having the organization to sign up members, and once he gained attention Singh had to seal the deal with a reasonable, party-friendly platform including tax hikes for the wealthy. But to suggest that his status as Canada’s newly minted political saint was not a major factor would be equivalent to suggesting that Justin Trudeau would be prime minister today even if he was a dead ringer for his dad Mortimer Trudeau, a short, balding bus driver from Sudbury.

As it is the 38-year-old Singh becomes the second youngest of the major party leaders, about four months older than Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. If you exclude Elizabeth May, Trudeau is now the oldest. The race toward charismatic youth in Canadian politics is becoming intense — even now political talent scouts are scouring the nation’s playgrounds and elementary schools. If Justin Bieber wants to launch a political career he’d better jump in now before he ages out.

Singh’s victory is an important moment in Canadian politics. But if international precedent holds it may soon seem as though somebody just blew a magic douchebag whistle to call every troll and slug out from beneath every bridge and rock. People who couldn’t name one of the NDP leadership candidates at gunpoint will now declare that Singh didn’t deserve to defeat any of them. More crucially the country will likely be treated to another demonstration of the political dynamics of Quebec, that distinct society where attacking religious liberty has somehow been transmuted into fighting for freedom. It’s not an argument that is unknown in the rest of the country, but only in Quebec is it treated with such respect.

In the meantime we all have a chance to pause and say thank you to Jennifer Bush. Let’s take this opportunity to remind her that she played a key role in making Jagmeet Singh the leader of a major Canadian political party, and that as a result all Canadian NHL players will be forced to start every game by taking a knee and shouting “Allahu Akbar.”

Don’t worry, she’ll buy it.  [Tyee]

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