Will Canadians ‘accommodate’ Sikh party leader? | Opinion

At about the same time as the province of Quebec was passing a law requiring people to remove their religious face-coverings, one of the three national political parties was electing a new leader who sports a turban and wears a ceremonial kirpan knife.

These divergent developments reflect the changing and sometimes uncomfortable dynamic of a country that not so long ago was about as homogeneously white as the snow that covers most of it half of the year.

The law referred to above is Bill 62, which in plain language is titled “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies.”

In other words, drop the niqab or get off the bus.

Bill 62 is the end, or at least current, result of a decade-long debate in Quebec about what to do about newcomers who don’t dress or act like the majority population.

As chilling and perplexing as the law may sound, what the Liberal government came up with is a dramatically watered-down version of the one proposed by the previous Parti Quebecois administration, which would have outlawed the display of a sweeping array of “ostentatious” religious dress or adornments.

Bill 62, in essence, requires people to show their face to give or receive government services.

In the immediate aftermath of the passing of the bill last month, Montrealers of all types, being Montrealers, starting wearing scarves over their faces as they boarded public transit buses, in protest of what is perceived as the inherent islamophobia of the law and its problematic enforceability.

Before one leaps to condemn the Quebec government for the negative connotations of Bill 62, it might be instructive to know Canadians elsewhere are in hearty agreement with its intent, according to polls.

On the other hand, as was expected, several groups are mobilizing to have the Supreme Court of Canada challenge the constitutionality of the law.

Then there is the intriguing rise of Jagmeet Singh. As the name suggests, he is a Sikh, and as the religion dictates, he wears a turban, frequently an orange one, the colour of the New Democratic Party, which he now leads. (During the leadership campaign, at the request of a popular TV show host, he untied his turban to reveal his cascading hair.)

The 38-year-old Singh, a human-rights lawyer, member of the Ontario legislature since 2011 and jujitsu master, is being described as a Sikh hipster in the style of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Singh represented a riding in a suburb of Toronto that has the second highest concentration of Sikhs in Canada, next to the Vancouver area.

In October, thanks to an intense effort to recruit party members, Singh won the leadership of the NDP on the first ballot, beating three well-known sitting federal MPs.

Singh’s astounding rise to the top of an established party that two years ago was the official opposition and well-positioned to challenge for government, poses a challenge for the NDP. To have a realistic shot at electoral success in the next federal election, expected in 2019, the NDP needs to rebuild the power base it had established in Quebec.

In 2011, in what was called the Orange Crush, the NDP won 58 of the province’s 75 seats, based largely on the popularity of the Quebec-born leader of the party, Jack Layton. When Layton died of cancer shortly after the election, his successor, Thomas Mulcair, also a Quebecer, was unable to build on Layton’s gains in the 2015 election, brushed aside by the surge to Trudeau’s Liberals.

Few are saying openly a party whose leader wears a turban is unelectable in a province grappling with its discomfort if not disdain for overt religious expression.

An ironic counterpoint that underlines the challenge Singh and the NDP face in Quebec is that 10 years ago the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on the legality of a Sikh student wearing his kirpan while in school. The court said it was his constitutional right.

That 2006 case is often identified as the incident that sparked Quebec’s debate over “reasonable accommodation.”

Singh, come election time, will find out how reasonable that accommodation is when it comes to voting NDP, not just in Quebec, but across Canada.


Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. Email him at: [email protected].