Multicultural Icon, Indian-origin Politician Jagmeet Singh Breaks Out in Canadian Election

Montreal: "Hello, I am Jagmeet." A few days before Canada's general election, with a warm handshake or a touch of humor, the first non-white leader of a national political party looked to consolidate his position as likely kingmaker.

A leftist former criminal defense lawyer, Jagmeet Singh was elected in 2017 to lead the New Democratic Party (NDP), and is backed by voters disenchanted with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Andrew Scheer, the frontrunners for the October 21 ballot.

Born in Ontario to Indian immigrant parents, the 40-year-old observant Sikh who recently married fashion designer Gurkiran Kaur, speaks English and French, but also Punjabi.

On the campaign trail his orange, yellow, pink, purple and baby blue turbans have become a sensation.

"I love you!," yells a young passer-by in Montreal's Hochelaga neighborhood. "I'm going to vote for you."

The NDP's support has climbed as high as 20 percent, according to the latest polls, placing it third behind the Liberals and Conservatives, which each enjoy 30 to 33 percent backing.

The party is promising free dental care and prescription drugs for all, to be financed by raising taxes on "multimillionaires and billionaires."

In recent weeks, Singh has had harsh words for Trudeau, accusing him of signaling a "turn to the left" during the campaign and then "turning right" when it comes to decision-making.

Canadian diversity

"Progressive voting is us," Singh told AFP this week on the campaign trail on Montreal.

He accused Trudeau of protecting big business instead of helping families and called for support from Canadians who "want someone who will really fight climate change, cancel oil subsidies and deal with social inequities."

Singh has vowed not to prop up Scheer if the Tories win on Monday. Liberal and NDP policies are closely aligned, making them natural partners in any coalition, but the NDP has also revived abandoned Liberal promises such as election reform.

Alexandra, a 32-year-old translator and avowed Singh fan, cast an advance ballot for a Candidate she believes best represents Canadian diversity.

"I know I'm white, but I'm bisexual so I know what it's like to be in a minority, and for me, (to see) someone from a minority group rise to a position of power, it's very important," she says.

But not everyone is as keen to see Singh's emergence on the national stage, and he has faced many derogatory, even racist remarks.

Recently in Montreal, an elderly man leaned in to whisper in his ear at a public market that he should take off his turban "to look like a Canadian."

'Punjabi poutine'

Two years ago at a rally, a woman got in Singh's face and let loose a rambling diatribe accusing him of "being in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood" and seeking to impose Sharia law on Canadians — even though he is not Muslim.

To reassure cynics, he regularly reiterates that although he wears a turban, he shares the same values as most Canadians.

"I'm pro-choice, for women's rights, for gay marriage," he has said.

And to sway French-speaking voters in the key election battleground of Quebec, he says he "fell in love with the French language" while growing up in English-speaking communities in Newfoundland and Ontario.

He has railed against a locally-popular Quebec law forbidding teachers and other public servants from wearing religious symbols, however, calling it "offensive."

Promoting Canadian multiculturalism through food, he served up "Punjabi poutine" — an Indian twist on a traditional Quebec dish — in a social media video celebrating Monday's Canadian Thanksgiving.

"It's like Punjabi and Quebec styles merging," he said.​

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