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Jagmeet Singh Discusses Racism In Canada & Quebec Bill 21 In Exclusive MTL Blog Interview

"I hope that my presence on the political landscape is a way to challenge these beliefs."
Staff Writer
Jagmeet Singh Discusses Racism In Canada & Quebec Bill 21 In Exclusive MTL Blog Interview
  • We sat down with Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, to discuss the upcoming election.
  • He discussed his party's plans for the country as well as his own experiences of racism in Canada.

This is MTL Blog’s Election Interview Series.

Over the course of the next few weeks, leading up to the Federal Election on October 21, we’re speaking to candidates from Canada’s major federal political parties, including the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party, and the People’s Party of Canada.

This week, we spoke to Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party. We caught up with Singh at a press conference late last week at Montreal's MR-63. 

Singh discussed his party's platform, Bill 21, racial discrimination, and how the NDP plans to stay relevant.

All answers and questions have been edited for clarity.

Born in Scarborough, Ontario to Indian immigrant parents, Jagmeet Singh's story is a classic Canadian tale. His foray into politics began in 2011. Political engagement runs in the Singh family, in fact. His great-grandfather fought against British occupation in India and his brother, Gurratan, is a member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. 

Singh studied biology and law, and pursued a carrer as a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto, a role in which he advocated for the protection of citizens' rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Providing pro bono legal counsel to activist groups and marginalized communities, and with a 6-year stint as an NDP MPP in Ontario, Singh was uniquely equipped to assume the mantle of the NDP's leadership in 2017, winning with 53.8% of the vote. 

With only 13.4% support across the country and only 9.8% support in Quebec, Singh and his NDP party have a tough campaign trail ahead of them. As one of the youngest Prime Minister hopefuls and as the first and only Federal party leader who is a visible minority, Singh's first campaign will truly test his leadership ability and his party's efforts for relevance in what's set to be one of the most contentious elections in recent years. 

READ ALSO: Jagmeet Singh Discusses His Struggles & Beliefs In Exclusive Interview With MTL Blog

Last time we had an election, the NDP suffered a disastrous loss in Quebec, especially post the orange wave. How does the party plan to stay relevant going forward and to break through the apparent two-party system that we have?

Yeah, big time. You know, to change things you got to be willing to fight for it. And I am. And it takes courage, it takes toughness. One of the things that we did to break through the two parties is that we put forward a campaign, a series of commitments that I'm really proud of. 

People in Quebec can look at these commitments and be proud of it. We put forward the boldest, the most audacious plan we've ever put forward on the environment, on fighting climate change and on making sure we have a way to create jobs for people, support working-class people. 

We've got commitments on public transit, retrofitting houses. Really bold initiatives that will really show people, hey, if you need someone on your side and you want somebody who's going to fight to make your life better in a real way, we've got a plan to do it.

I'm ready to take on really the big fight against the powerful corporations that are running the show. We've seen that in recent years, the pharmaceutical industry has lobbied the Liberal government over 600 times and they abandoned a commitment to drop the price of medication. They got lobbied by the fossil fuel sector 1500 times and then the Liberal government broke their promise to end the fossil fuel sector investments. So I'm ready to fight and I want to fight for people.

Public transit, for Montrealers, is how we get around for the most part. Especially for young people who might be more inclined to vote for your party. Is there one specific initiative that you can maybe not promise, but declare to Montrealers that the NDP will tackle going forward?

There are a few, actually! We will make the biggest and boldest investments in public transit compared to anyone else. We'll make sure that it's public investments. We believe in public ownership, so we won't bring in privatization.

A big thing for us is if you create a public infrastructure that's owned publicly, you can control the accessibility and the affordability and the quality. As soon as it becomes private, then accessibility isn't the question. Profit is a motive and if profit is a motive then you can increase rates so that it doesn't actually allow for people to afford it or access it. It's no longer about accessibility. It's about profitability.

I think that really speaks to Quebec. It's concrete and something that we can do to make those investments realized. We're going to end fossil fuel subsidies and we're committing to that and those are in the billions and billions of dollars. That's a lot of money that can help build the orange relief line, for example, that folks need and other transit that people are looking for.

On the healthcare front, what's important for Montrealers, though they don't realize it, is universal medication coverage. Though Quebec has a system, it's very, very costly. So if you work at a minimum salary job or just an entry-level job, a lot of Montrealers' salary goes to paying for their insurance because it's mandatory. What we're proposing would be a universal system that would not require people to pay into a private system. It would actually cover everybody. It would be cheaper and they would save a lot of money. I met some folks that were working at a grocery store, on minimum wage, and it was almost two weeks of their salary that went to the private insurance.

And then the third one that we really want to focus in on, would be affordable housing. There is housing, but in urban centers, people can't really live. They've got to move out into the suburbs or further to find an affordable place. We would bring affordable housing, or a real affordable rental option for people right in the heart of the city so that people could actually live and stay in the community they want.

It's no secret that you're a public servant who wears a visible religious symbol. Can you tell me if you've experienced racism and discrimination on the campaign trail or in your career as a politician? 

I was a lawyer in Toronto, one of the most diverse cities in Canada and I was stopped by police for no reason in my city, asking "where I'm going, what are you doing?" I've experienced this multiple times throughout my life when I lived in Newfoundland and now, in Ontario.

So this is something that's not a Quebec issue or an Alberta issue, it's a Canada-wide issue. People experience it everywhere. I experience it in my city, I experienced it as a lawyer, as a student, and even as a politician. At one of my own rallies in Brampton, I was approached aggressively by a heckler who was yelling out all sorts of hateful, divisive Islamophobic things. Hate is wrong, but I also try to respond with love. The only way you can counter hate is with love.

I know what it feels like to be told that I don't belong because of the way I look, I'm not good enough, that I shouldn't be in this role, all that. I've got lots of great support but then I get some haters that say all sorts of negative things. But I'm just one person and what I've experienced is a reflection of what a lot of people experience.

Women get attacked for the way they dress, the clothes they wear and they face all sorts of barriers, right? People face barriers because their sexuality — it's no business of anyone's, what someone's sexuality is and somehow we use that to just infringe on or to discriminate against someone and they're made to feel like they're not allowed or capable of advancing. Race, religion, all sorts of things. So I've seen that and I know it's hard and I hope that my presence on the political landscape is a way to challenge these beliefs. 

It's clear that you don't agree with Bill 21 and though it's a provincial issue, will the NDP attempt to push back on the implementation of Bill 21 should you establish government? What will the NDP do for those who might be concerned in Quebec, who wear religious symbols? 

I respect that there's a jurisdiction that each province has but my presence in the political landscape, as a leader of a political party wearing a turban and saying to people in Quebec that I want to fight for the French language and defend the identity of Quebec is important. 

People hear me say that and someone who because of this law won't be able to become a teacher is in itself my act of resistance, my act of saying, hey, this is a divisive bill and it's hurting people.

I'm a person that fell in love with French language growing up in Windsor, a very Anglophone city. I fell in love with the French language and I speak it fluently and I want to defend it. And I think society should go where we support and promote Francophonie through encouraging and loving it, as opposed to dividing people, pitting people against each other. That's not going to help defend and create a better society. 

I think what we could do is we can make sure we protect women's right to choose, minority groups, we can protect LGBTQ communities. That's how we build a better society.

Missed our other interviews? Check them out here:

Maxime Bernier, People's Party of Canada
Conservative Party (coming soon!)
Green Party (coming soon!)
Liberal Party (coming soon!) 

The Canadian Federal election is happening on Monday, October 21st, 2019. 

Voting for the first time? Want to know more about how our electoral system works? Check out our this handy guide from our colleagues at Narcity Canada! 

Stay tuned for more from the NDP and all the other Federal political parties in Canada.

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