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Jagmeet Singh’s victory: race, class, and criticism

Alia Karim and Kevin Brice-Lall

October 16, 2017

Jagmeet Singh is the new leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party—an undeniable victory for racialized and young grassroots organizers in his campaign, and a victory for his supporters across the country. Singh is the first person of colour to lead a major Canadian political party by winning 35,266 votes out of total 65,782 cast by NDP members. For everyone who's ever been on the receiving end of a racist slur or experienced systematic discrimination against brown-skinned people, the fact that a Punjabi man is now a major Canadian political leader is extremely important. The fact that Singh gained support of the NDP party brass is significant too, although to what extent the party’s centrists will be calling the policy shots, and how Singh will handle this, will be crucial in the coming months.

Already in the comment sections of countless Canadian news sites and Youtube channels a deluge of racist comments have reared their ugly heads. Embarrassingly, Susan Bonner, host of CBC radio's The World at Six, tweeted, "Canada's newest federal party leader scrums in Ottawa..." with a photo of Minister Navdeep Bains instead of Jagmeet Singh. But in the current charged atmosphere of racism and Islamophobia led by right-wing movements, we have to take into account the effect that Singh’s status as a visible minority is going to have for those struggling to overcome racism, and the impact on the Canadian mainstream politics.

Singh’s candidacy stirred up racist sentiment in Canadian media commentary media, as was made painfully clear by The Tyee in a recent article where former NDP MLA in Manitoba, Don Scott, lamented about the “anti-democratic” nature of instant memberships. He commented: “The only people who can really take advantage of this the way it is are the ethnic groups,” Scott said. “It’s a group of people who are orchestrated. Some groups are more open to being manipulated than others.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by Terry Milewski, on Power & Politics on CBC, who immediately asked Jagmeet Singh if he believed that Talwinder Singh Parmar, who Milewski referred to as the architect of the Air India bombings (1985) and Canada’s worst mass murderer, should be held up as a martyr. The cringe-worthy interview revealed the media’s attempts to tarnish Singh based on affiliation with his religious beliefs. Milewski’s questions were ludicrous and uninsightful considering that Singh was a young child during the time of the bombings. Milewski even tweeted after the interview was over to draw attention to Singh’s response to the question on Air India bomber martyr posters. It’s clear that the media, and broader Canadian political commentators, are targeting Singh because of his appearance and religion, and we need to challenge such racist assumptions.

Race and class
In the course of struggle, race and class can appear as unrelated concepts but they often co-exist as a dance. Trinidadian Marxist CLR James described this dance as the “race question”. He explained: "The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental."

We can’t ignore the race question because the ruling class creates and deepens racial constructions to further exploit certain groups of workers and to further oppress their communities. For example, when food service workers (members of Unite Here Local 75) at York University, went on strike for a $15/hour minimum wage and a fair contract they laid bare the racism of management who used racial divisions to try to prevent workers from organizing together for better working conditions. When the working class recognizes these false constructions of race and they decide to struggle together for shared goals they can begin to overcome racism. As Alia Karim recently wrote:

“Unite Here Local 75’s strike bridged the connection between the demand for respect, in this case taking a strong stance against anti-black racism and Islamophobia, and higher wages and better work benefits.. Their strike victory is a huge win for racialized workers in low-wage industries and shows the potential to overcome racist divisions through a shared fightback that brings workers and their communities together.”

The experience of food service workers to demand respect in their workplace shows the continued importance of challenging racism through social movements and in the workplace. While we mustn’t rely on the election of racialized people to advance struggles against racism and Islamophobia, electoral politics can play a highly influential role in inspiring racialized activists to lead movements for true liberation against oppression. Hundreds of young racialized organizers have been attracted to mainstream politics via Jagmeet Singh’s campaign, and they have been front and centre on stage in Singh’s public speeches. For young people who have been called “terrorists” for their appearance, who have been accused of “invading” towns like Brampton, and who have been racially profiled and carded, seeing Singh in a mainstream political role with social-democratic ideology has raised the confidence of these activists.

Jagmeet Singh is not the first to run in Canadian electoral politics, although he is the first to lead a major political party on a federal level. Punjabi Sikhs are and have been politically active in electoral politics for decades. Hardial Bains, born into a communist family in the Punjab, founded The Communist Party of Canada (Marxist–Leninist) in 1970 in Vancouver. Gurbax Singh Malhi, elected in 1993 as NDP MP for Bramalea-Gore-Malton, was the first ever turbaned politician to be elected anywhere in the Western world. In addition, Raj Pannu led the Alberta NDP in the early 2000's and Ujjal Dosanjh was the first South Asian premier in the country in 2000, elected by the provincial NDP in B.C. These politicians, like Jagmeet Singh, have been targeted for being outspoken Sikhs, such as Dosanjh who was attacked in a parking lot by an assailant wielding an iron bar in February 1985, targeted for his criticisms of the ‘extremism’ arising from the Air India bombing.

Racism against Punjabi Sikhs is still rampant in Canada. Last year posters were spotted on the University of Alberta campus, reading: “Fu*k Your Turban”, and, “If you’re so obsessed with your third-world culture, go the fu*k back to where you came from!” In addition, as Vancouver activist Harsha Walia explained , for the past two decades Punjabi gangs have been deemed by the Canadian government as the third largest "criminal organization" in the country. The International Sikh Youth Federation was also placed on Canada's terrorist list, while successive Canadian governments have continued to support the neoliberal Hindutva Indian state. In response, Jagmeet Singh passed a vital motion in the Ontario legislature condemning 1984 as a genocide against Sikhs, for which he was been denied a visa by the Indian state. The role of the Indian state’s involvement with his campaign was discussed by Gurpreet Singh who wrote, “During his campaign those owing allegiance to the Indian establishment frequently tried to brand him as Sikh separatist and discouraged people within the South Asian community from donating money to his campaign or voting for him”.

Singh’s tenure in politics so far hasn’t gone without controversy--the latest being his support of Wab Kinew’s bid for leadership in Manitoba while Kinew undergoes allegations of domestic abuse). He has repeatedly danced around direct questions about his support for the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and eventually borrowed his opponent’s platforms to issue a set of criteria for any pipeline approvals. We have been particularly frustrated with Singh’s vague position on Palestinian liberation. But we believe that Singh running as a racialized leader in the 2019 federal election will be important because it will, as it has already, expose the racism remaining in the Canadian left that we must continuously work to defeat. And, if Singh rises to the occasion and presents a more left-leaning platform than he has demonstrated so far, this will further raise the confidence and activism of progressive racialized activists that we must take seriously. This will not be decided by NDP policy discussions but by movements outside the NDP, including NDP activists, which contain the pressure and potential for change.

We should keep in mind, however, that Singh has been centre-leaning enough to gain strong support of most of the NDP party brass, including Thomas Mulcair's former principal secretary, Karl Bélanger. The party brass played a crucial role in Singh’s bid for NDP leadership, and it has hindered the support of NDP members who want the party to be outright left (and thus voted for Niki Ashton). Additionally, like all of the leadership candidates, Singh did not challenge Mulcair’s centrist agenda (particularly his call for a balanced budget which further sunk the NDP in the last federal election), and went along with the Ontario NDP’s flat and uninspiring 2014 election campaign, an election they called but failed to gain any more seats. Even in NDP leadership debates Singh didn’t speak out to criticize these disastrous campaigns and it seems likely he could go along with a “Liberal-lite” agenda propagated by the party.

For these reasons, we must be aware of Singh’s limitations that he has already shown in mainstream politics. These are not personal flaws of his, they are flaws in social democratic parties that by their very nature seek to accommodate to capitalism and limit movements to electoral politics. The inherent limitations in social democracy won’t be overcome by racist arguments against “ethnic groups,” but only by building multiracial working class movements in the streets and workplaces.

For the time being, we must remember that public criticism of Jagmeet Singh doesn't happen in a vacuum, it is happening in an atmosphere of heightened Trump-era racism and a legacy of Islamophobia lingering from the Harper era. It’s important that criticism of Jagmeet reflects these facts because come his next election, every comment he makes will solicit a racist response and thousands of racialized people will be the ones to bear it. We must make sure that they do not stand alone.


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