OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s Jagmeet Singh, facing a rout of his left-wing New Democrats in next month’s election, may have revived his party’s fortunes with his emotional response to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s blackface picture.
Singh, 40, the first minority leader of a federal Canadian political party, is also running in his first national campaign as head of the New Democrat Party (NDP).
When the photo of Trudeau in blackface emerged last week, Singh, a practicing Sikh who often pairs bright turbans with stylish suits, won widespread praise for focusing on the potential impact on people who have experienced racism, rather than on scoring points against Trudeau.
“The kids that see this image, the people who see this image, are going to think about all the times in their life that they were made fun of, that they were hurt, that they were hit, that they were insulted, that they were made to feel less because of who they are,” he said in a three-minute video posted to social media.
“I want you to know that you have value, you have worth, you are loved. And I don’t want you to give up on Canada and please don’t give up on yourselves.”
Canada is a multicultural country, and more than 22% of the population are members of visible minorities, while another 5% are aboriginal, according to the latest census.
“Singh was made for this issue,” said Ipsos pollster Darrell Bricker. “This is his time. There’s nobody else who can speak to this issue better than he can.”
Though there is little chance the NDP could win the election, the reversal of Singh’s fortunes could shape the outcome of the vote.
In Canada’s parliamentary democracy, he could be a kingmaker if neither Trudeau’s Liberals nor the Conservatives win a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Or he could draw votes away from Trudeau and hand victory to the Conservatives.
Some 14% of Canadians said Singh would make the best prime minister, up four percentage points from last week, according to Ipsos, compared with 33% for Trudeau, who lost four points from last week.
Singh’s response resonated with Canadians of all backgrounds.
“I’m not an NDP voter but he just gained my respect and a bit of admiration,” said @tarchon7, who described himself as “a Canadian patriot, father and conservative” on Twitter, while others filled social media with appreciation for his stance.
Voting intentions among visible minorities spiked for the NDP after the blackface images emerged, reaching 20% compared with 12% a week earlier, pollster Angus Reid said.
“Trudeau’s pain is Singh’s gain,” said Shachi Kurl, executive director of Angus Reid Institute, on Twitter.
On Tuesday, the Conservative Party showed it had momentum by taking a lead in three national polls, but that’s also because Singh and the Greens have taken a bite out of Liberal support.
“The issue for the Liberal Party is not necessarily losing to the Conservatives; it’s the fragmentation of the progressive vote,” Bricker said.
The upshot could be a Conservative government or a Liberal minority one supported by either the NDP or Greens, Bricker said.
Singh is getting extraordinary visibility now, with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp giving ample coverage to his campaign events, while just a month ago he seemed to be heading for disaster.
Singh, who lives in the Toronto area, had a rocky time after winning NDP leadership in 2017. Not elected to parliament until earlier this year, he had repeated squabbles with his caucus.
A third of the NDP lawmakers elected in 2015 - 15 in total - decided not to run again this year. One of them shifted to the Green party last month.
Many of the top NDP staff has also fallen by the wayside, and on the day the official campaign kicked off on Sept. 11, the party still had 85 nominations to make in order to field a candidate in each of Canada’s 338 ridings.
Since then, Singh has stood out for his eloquence and pragmatism on the campaign trail.
Trudeau, who has repeatedly begged for forgiveness from Canadians for the blackface episode, called the NDP leader to apologize privately on Tuesday. Neither side provided details.
Singh had previously said he would only take the call if it were private.
“I don’t want to be used as a tool to exonerate Mr. Trudeau. I don’t want to be a part of a PR process to say he checked off these boxes and, look, he made this call, and he’s all good,” Singh told reporters. “I don’t want to be a part of that.”
Reporting by Steve Scherer, additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa and Moira Warburton in Toronto; editing by Amran Abocar and Cynthia Osterman