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Sikh Becomes Canada’s First Nonwhite Political Party Leader

In his acceptance speech, Mr....

A lawyer from the Toronto area on Sunday became the first nonwhite leader of a major political party in Canada. The New Democratic Party gave Jagmeet Singh, a son of Indian immigrants and a Sikh, a resounding victory.

Mr. Singh, who wears a turban and garments associated with his faith, is a member of Ontario’s provincial legislature. He had no experience in federal politics and entered the party’s leadership contest relatively late.

Even so, he won 53.6 percent of the votes cast by party members. Charlie Angus, a member of Parliament from northwestern Ontario, finished second with about one third the votes that Mr. Singh received. The balloting had been expected to be just the first of several rounds scheduled to extend until the end of October.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Singh pledged to support a list of traditional goals from the party’s platform, among them reducing income inequality, making housing affordable and tackling climate change. But he said he also wanted to make sure that no Canadian is stopped by the police because of his skin color.

“To make progress on these issues, to truly make Canadians’ lives better, we owe it to Canadians to form government,” Mr. Singh said. “We owe it to them.” 

While from a very different background than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Liberal leader, Mr. Singh has frequently been compared to him. Just 38, Mr. Singh is known for his taste in clothing (which he discussed earlier this year with GQ magazine), charismatic campaign style and skillful use of social media. But like Mr. Trudeau during his early days heading the Liberals, Mr. Singh has also faced accusations from critics that he favors style over substance.

The furthest to the left of Canada three major political parties, the New Democrats went into the 2015 election leading most opinion polls only to see Mr. Trudeau take power and the party wound up in third place in Parliament, after the Conservatives.

Many inside and outside of the party blamed an excessively cautious platform that included, uncharacteristically for federal New Democrats, a vow to balance the budget. Tom Mulcair, the leader whom Mr. Singh succeeds, was also widely viewed as being unappealing to many younger voters.

Historically, the New Democrats held few seats in Parliament from Quebec. That changed dramatically in 2011 when the separatist Bloc Québécois collapsed and the party swept much of the province. That made the New Democrats, under Jack Layton, the official federal opposition for the first time in the party’s history. But Mr. Layton, who was born in Quebec and who was popular there, died a few months later.

The wearing of religious symbols like turbans is unpopular with many Quebecers who see it as an affront to the province’s embrace of political secularism, a reaction to the Roman Catholic church’s long dominance there.

That may create a challenge for Mr. Singh in Quebec, although the most overt reaction to him came at a campaign event in suburban Toronto that was captured on video. Mr. Singh is Sikh, not Muslim, but an angry woman repeatedly accused him of being affiliated with the “Muslim Brotherhood” and wanting to impose Sharia law in Canada.

“We believe in love and courage,” Mr. Singh replied. “We don’t want to be intimated by hate.”

The woman eventually walked away.

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