Burnaby byelection ignites debate about identity issues in politics

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh understands the complex makeup of Burnaby South, where he’s taking part in the Feb. 25 byelection.

Inside a sunlit co-operative housing complex in Burnaby, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh knocked on doors of residents whose first languages included Croatian, Filipino and Spanish.

Often, to their surprise, Singh greeted them or said goodbye in their mother tongue.

The leader is staking his political future on a byelection in Burnaby South, an extremely diverse riding where nearly 55 per cent of residents were born outside Canada. But recent missteps by his former Liberal opponent, Karen Wang, highlight why politicians must be careful when discussing issues of identity.

Singh said he learned to say, “Hello, how are you?” in about 40 languages because when he was young, someone unexpected greeted him in Punjabi and he appreciated it as a sign of respect.

“I feel like it’s my way of saying, ‘I respect where you come from and your history, and who you are, and a part of what makes you, you. It says a lot without saying a lot. It just says, ‘I value you,’” he said while on his recent door-knocking campaign.

The Liberals on Saturday announced a replacement for Wang: Richard Lee, a former provincial legislator.

The former Liberal candidate stepped aside Wednesday after she urged Chinese people to vote for her on social media platform WeChat. She contrasted herself, the “only” Chinese candidate, with Singh, who she described as “of Indian descent.”

Wang held a tearful news conference a day after dropping out, in which she said a volunteer wrote the post and it’s common in Chinese culture to mention someone’s ethnicity. She said the Liberals asked her to resign, then wrote her apology, and she’s considering running as an Independent.

The turmoil has sparked debate about how racial identity fits into Canadian politics. Some observers say parties have a long history of cynically appealing to the so-called “ethnic vote,” and Wang’s only fault might have been putting the strategy in writing.

Others say her post crossed a line by pitting two groups against each other.

Peter Julian, the New Democrat MP for nearby New Westminster-Burnaby, said his party’s approach is to consider how…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.