Jagmeet Singh joins the race for federal NDP leader

If he succeeds as leader of the NDP, Singh will be the first non-Caucasian to helm a party at the Federal level

Ontario deputy NDP leader Jagmeet Singh launches his bid for the federal NDP leadership in Brampton, Ont., on Monday, May 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Ontario deputy NDP leader Jagmeet Singh launches his bid for the federal NDP leadership in Brampton, Ont., on Monday, May 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

BRAMPTON, Ont. — Jagmeet Singh launched a potentially historic bid Monday to make the leap from provincial politics to head up the federal NDP, with a speech heavy on themes of equality and social justice.

If Singh is successful, he would be the first non-Caucasian to helm a major federal party.

Singh, who was born in east Toronto to Punjabi parents, said while growing up in Newfoundland and Labrador and Windsor, Ont., he was picked on because his name, skin and hair were different.

“I faced a lot bullying at school and often felt like I didn’t belong,” Singh told hundreds of supporters at Bombay Palace in Brampton, Ont. — the same place he celebrated his 2011 provincial win.

Singh said he wasn’t alone, but it struck him as “incredibly unfair” that other kids who were no less capable couldn’t follow their dreams because their families had less money. Singh’s father studied medicine in Newfoundland and Labrador then moved the family to Windsor.

“The values that guide me today, and will continue to guide me as leader, are the progressive, social democratic values rooted in my experiences growing up,” he said, switching often between English and French in his speech.

Singh was named deputy Ontario NDP leader in 2015, when speculation was already swirling that he would run federally. Singh has also fought hard against police street checks known as carding.

He said Monday after his speech that he wouldn’t be resigning his Ontario seat to run.

“I’ve had busy schedules before and I’ve been able to still stay in touch with my constituents, so I plan to do that,” he said. The legislature rises for the summer June 1 and returns in September, which is also when online voting starts for the federal leadership.

Supporters at his launch Monday included two provincial caucus colleagues, B.C. legislature New Democrat Rob Fleming, Manitoba legislature New Democrat Nahanni Fontaine and former MP Mylene Freeman.

Singh brings an opportunity for “true representation,” Fontaine said.

“He is really a break in the fabric of status quo,” she said.

Singh, 38, is known around the legislature as a fashion plate with a recent spread in GQ, a Sikh who pairs his colourful turbans with three-piece suits, a mixed martial arts fighter, an avid social media user and lawyer-turned-politician.

Singh said he will later roll out a policy platform, but listed the major issues facing Canada as inequality, climate change, Indigenous reconciliation and electoral reform.

He took Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to task in his speech for what he called inaction on all of those issues and said that breeds cynicism.

“The right wing is using this to foster a politics of fear and division,” Singh said.

“We’ve seen its most alarming forms in France, in the U.K., and of course, in the United States. And together, we will do everything in our power to make sure it never comes to Canada.”

The Conservative leadership candidates are “tripping over each other to drive a wedge between Canadians,” he added.

The other official NDP leadership contenders to replace Tom Mulcair are B.C. MP Peter Julian, Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and Quebec MP Guy Caron.

Singh would break through a long-standing barrier at the federal level, one that really ought have been shattered long ago, said Karl Belanger, Mulcair’s former principal secretary.

“Having somebody from a different ethnic background than what we have seen over the past 150 years is something that needs to be applauded,” Belanger said.

The NDP has had trouble connecting with ethnic minorities both in Ontario and at the federal level, said Queen’s University labour and history professor Christo Aivalis.

Singh’s leadership would send a strong signal to the party and to the Canadian public, Aivalis said.

“While some people fear that his turban, his name, his skin colour … could hurt him in certain parts of Canada, others say that in big cities where the majority of seats are, he speaks to a new Canada,” Aivalis said.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Monday that Singh has been a help to the provincial party.

“Jagmeet’s been an excellent member of our team,” she said. “He’s certainly done a lot of hard work to engage young people with our party, to engage folks in the broader GTA with our party.”

Singh’s candidacy will undoubtedly bring a new dimension to the race, said Nathan Cullen, a veteran MP who sought the job in 2012 as one of several rivals to Mulcair.

“I think it will likely change the dynamic for the good,” Cullen said in an interview. “I’ve always been a fan; he’s a compelling speaker and has solid progressive roots and I think would be a challenge for (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau.”

The next leadership debate is scheduled for Sudbury, Ont., on May 28.

— With files from Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa

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