It’s not Jagmeet Singh’s turban that’s the NDP’s problem in Quebec

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Globe and Mail columnist Adam Radwanski.

As Jagmeet Singh this week announced his first endorsement from a sitting Quebec MP, Hélène Laverdière, his campaign team spun that it would help put an end to the chatter about whether a turban-wearing Sikh could win votes in that province.

Fat chance, at this point.

Concerns among New Democrats about Mr. Singh’s viability in the province that catapulted the NDP to its best-ever election result six years ago, which have generated voluminous punditry in both official languages since Le Devoir reported on them earlier this month, are unlikely to be abated by one of 16 Quebec caucus members coming aboard. Nor is Ms. Laverdière’s backing, helpful though it may be, likely to change the minds of those Quebeckers – a majority of the electorate there, a recent Angus Reid poll suggested – who would not vote for a Sikh, or anyone sporting religious headwear.

The danger to Mr. Singh’s hopes of winning the NDP’s fall leadership vote is not so much that lots of Quebeckers could come out to cast ballots against him: Despite Quebec accounting for nearly half the New Democratic caucus, the party does not have enough members there to count for much in a one-member, one vote system. Rather, it’s that New Democrats elsewhere in the country could be wary of selecting someone who would make it harder to get back toward the 59 seats they won in Quebec in 2011.

As understandable as that worry may be, this would be a good time for New Democrats to ask themselves: Is it actually in their interests to try to stay in the good graces of people who would never vote for a proud member of a religious minority, even if that includes a fair number of folks who voted for them at least once before?

To raise that question is not to dismiss as a bigot anyone who is uncomfortable with the overt religiosity of someone like Mr. Singh. No doubt, as media in the rest of the country often bend over backward to point out, some of the discomfort stems from a liberal secularism that only intimate familiarity with the Quiet Revolution can explain – even if the giant cross in the National Assembly, and that same poll showing higher comfort with evangelical Christians than with either Sikhs or Muslims, suggest other factors are also at play for some Quebeckers.

But setting aside the reasons for some Quebeckers’ sentiments, the issue for the NDP is compatibility between their potential supporters there and in the rest of the country.

If they are to challenge for government, New Democrats probably need to have a chance of winning at least double the number of ridings in the rest of Canada as in Quebec. Yes, a smaller chunk of the electorate in other provinces shares the discomfort with practising Sikhs, Muslims or other members of prominent religious minorities in leadership positions. But those on the left side of the spectrum are more likely to decide not to vote NDP if they perceive the party as intolerant toward those minorities.

That is especially the case in the urban and suburban areas that increasingly dominate the electoral map, where the NDP would dearly love to challenge the Liberals’ current dominance. And it obviously applies to growing minority-religion and visible-minority populations themselves, which are huge factors in suburban battlegrounds in particular, and which the NDP needs to figure out how to court if it is to avoid perennial third-party status.

In just the right circumstances, the NDP could simultaneously win over voters in Quebec and the rest of Canada who have divergent views on something so fundamental. That’s arguably what happened in 2011, although gains in places like the Greater Toronto Area and B.C.’s Lower Mainland were still short of what would be needed to win government.

But the history of parties that paper over major ideological fault lines to build coalitions of Quebeckers and non-Quebeckers suggests it is a recipe for long-term disaster even if it brings short-term success – Brian Mulroney’s alliance of Quebec nationalists and Western populists (among others), culminating in the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives and the rise of both the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party, being the most obvious example.

Those fault lines can change with time. It has been long enough since the height of the sovereignty debate that federalism may not be as divisive a topic as it once was. Minority rights, in a country continuing to undergo profound demographic change, now look more like the sort of subject on which a party will suffer if it tries to have it both ways – as the NDP got a whiff of in the last campaign, when it managed to cede defence of niqab-wearing women to the Liberals outside Quebec and alienate Quebec supporters by belatedly taking that side.

Pessimistic New Democrats might see a Catch-22, since foregoing Quebec hardly seems like a viable path to government or even back to Official Opposition. But less than two years ago, the Liberals demonstrated it is possible to win a majority of seats in Quebec unapologetically presenting as a party sympathetic to and aligned with minority populations.

Whether the Liberals’ supporters in 2015 were fully on board with religious accommodation, or just willing to overlook it, many of them are presumably accessible to a pluralistic NDP as well.

It need not necessarily be Mr. Singh leading it. There are plenty of perfectly defensible reasons, from lack of federal experience to believing he lacks policy substance to being put off by the flashy manner in which he presents himself, that New Democrats could decide he’s not their guy.

But whoever winds up as their leader should be wary of trying too hard to keep inside the tent anyone who would reject Mr. Singh because he wears a turban. It’s a good way to eventually have the tent collapse altogether.

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