TORONTO -- As the debate about religious symbols continues to divide voters in Quebec, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was confronted with the issue firsthand when he was told to cut off his turban during a campaign stop in Montreal.
Singh was greeting shoppers as he strolled through Atwater Market on Wednesday morning when he was approached by a man who gave him some unsolicited advice about his appearance.
“You know what?” the man whispered to Singh. “You should cut your turban off and [inaudible] you look like a Canadian.”
“Oh, I think Canadians look like all sorts of people. That’s the beauty of Canada,” Singh politely responded with a smile.
The man mumbled something else to Singh, to which the politician responded “I don’t agree, sir.”
“In Rome you do what the Romans do,” the man continued.
At that point, the NDP leader replied “Eh, but this is Canada. You can do like whatever you like” before walking away from the man.
The exchange happened moments after Singh acknowledged he had faced discrimination his “whole life” growing up in various communities in Canada during a press conference at the market.
“We've got beautiful communities that are welcoming and loving, but in all those communities, there's also been systemic racism that exists across Canada,” he said. “So there's always been challenges for people based on who they are and I am not a stranger to that I face prejudice myself as many Canadians do.”
Singh later directly addressed the Atwater Market confrontation on Twitter.
“Lots of Canadians are told they have to change who they are to be successful. My message to all of you — be yourself & celebrate who you are. We all belong,” he tweeted, along with video of the exchange.
Singh was touring Montreal ahead of Wednesday night’s French-language leaders’ debate, in which the province’s controversial secularism bill is expected to be a hot-button subject.
Quebec’s Bill 21, which was adopted in June, bans civil servants, such as judges and school teachers, from wearing turbans, hijabs, or any other religious symbol while on the job.
While the law has received plenty of support in Quebec, it has been widely criticized as discriminatory in other parts of the country.
Singh has repeatedly spoken out against the bill going so far as to call it “state-sanctioned discrimination” on the first day of the campaign. Despite his opposition, he has vowed not to intervene in the law should he become prime minister.
When asked about his decision at a press conference on Wednesday, Singh said he didn’t want to interfere with a court challenge by two civil rights groups that is currently before Quebec’s Superior Court. He said he hoped his presence in the province would serve as an argument against the bill, however.
“I’m hoping that by being in Quebec and saying ‘Hey listen, I got a turban and a beard and I'm out here talking about loving the language, fighting against climate crisis, investing in people, investing in universal medication for all, that people could see you know what maybe it isn't a good idea to have divisive laws that discriminate people based on the way they look,’” he said.
Like Singh, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May have also promised not to challenge Bill 21 if they are elected. Only Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has remained open to the possibility of a federal intervention after the election.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault has directly called on the federal leaders to stay out of the province’s affairs and not to participate in a legal challenge against Bill 21.
The debate on Wednesday night will be an important one for Singh who is hoping to hold on to the NDP’s 14 seats in Quebec. The NDP leader said he was “excited” about the debate because he loves the French language and he wants to hold Trudeau to account on his record in office.