Is Canada ready to support its first non-white party leader?
It’s a question that dominated much of the conversation Tuesday when former New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen met with residents and Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke NDP incumbent Randall Garrison, at the Stick in the Mud Coffee House in Sooke.
Cullen is completing a Building a Healthier Future tour where he’s touted his belief that only the NDP will stop Conservative Leader Andrew Sheer from forming the next federal government.
The conversation soon turned from political alliances to race as Cullen acknowledged that his party has faced challenges after embracing Jagmeet Singh as its leader in 2017.
“When we picture a national leader it’s someone who looks like you and me,” said Cullen, gesturing at his own face. “A lot of people expect a male, white guy of a certain age and background. Yet the country isn’t a 60-year-old straight white guy and its disturbing that some people haven’t realized it yet.”
It’s a reality that’s been demonstrated several times since Singh became party leader.
Singh in recent months was forced to abandon press conferences when belligerent protesters interrupted the proceedings. On another occasion, a woman accused Singh of supporting Sharia law. Sharia Law is an Islamic religious tradition and Singh is Sikh.
Cullen said many of these concerns could have been addressed if Singh had the opportunity to enter the House of Commons earlier.
“At first, he wasn’t allowed into the House because there were no byelections, and they (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) wouldn’t call a byelection,” Cullen said. “It had an impact since it makes a huge difference when you actually hear him (Singh) instead of hearing people talk about him.”
Cullen said that after Singh won a byelection in late February, the NDP was left with a short window of opportunity to let people know who their leader was and what he stood for.
“Now, the more I hear him and see him in action, the more and more I’m impressed with him,” said Garrison, the NDP incumbent for the Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke electoral district, who was also present for Tuesday’s informal gathering.
“I watched the leader’s debate, and I was so impressed. You had the Liberals and Conservatives bickering and there was Jagmeet, off on the side, saying, ‘OK, how does this help solve the price of medication, or housing, or the opioid crisis?’”
Cullen also said the rhetoric of some other politicians does little to advance the debate about race and diversity.
“The Bloc (Québécois) leader told voters in Quebec to only support candidates that ‘looked like them.’ Then (People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime) Bernier repeated it,” Cullen said. “These aren’t just racial dog whistles, they are outright whistles. It’s important that we watch for that and stand up against it.”
Cullen’s comments were met with agreement from the Sooke residents in the group. Johanna Sholton said she’d come to listen to what Cullen had to say and agreed with his assessment of Singh’s performance as the NDP leader.
At one point in the discussion, she said that it’s too bad that we even have to talk about (Singh’s) ethnicity, but it’s something we have to face and educate people about.