HAMILTON — Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh sought to keep his campaign on message Thursday as images of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in racist makeup threatened to overshadow an event where he touted how the party's plan to expand health services would help small businesses.
The event in this industrial city on the shore of Lake Ontario was at a restaurant specializing in Afghan and Persian food, where Singh spoke with several local small-business owners about the challenge they face in providing health benefits to their employees.
The aim was to underscore how the NDP's already-announced plan to introduce national pharmacare and extend public dental coverage to low- and middle-income Canadians would help companies save money and lead to healthier, happier and more productive employees.
"We want small businesses to thrive and we believe making these investments in health care will make them even more competitive and more successful," Singh said following the roundtable discussion, which also involved NDP candidates from the area.
The NDP has said it would invest $10 billion in a national pharmacare plan to cover the cost of medications within the first year of its mandate if elected to power.
It would also extend full public dental coverage to households making less than $70,000 per year while households making between $70,000 and $90,000 would be covered on a sliding scale. That program is expected to cost $2.5 billion over the first two years and $800 million each year after.
In both cases, the NDP says the measures will save money for Canadians, businesses and the health-care system.
Singh has also committed to leaving the tax on small businesses, which he described Thursday as "the backbone of our economy," at nine per cent. That stands in contrast to his plan to raise the tax rate on large corporations and introduce a new tax on the wealthiest individuals.
Yet while Singh tried to stick to his campaign script, which has aimed at promising to make life more affordable for Canadians struggling to make ends meet, there was no escaping the numerous questions about the images of his rival Trudeau in "blackface" and "brownface."
Singh for the most part responded to the images by speaking of the hurt the pictures and video, which feature the Liberal leader in dark makeup before he entered politics, have caused to many Canadians who have suffered racism and discrimination.
The NDP leader, who is a practising Sikh and the first member of a visible minority to lead a federal party in Canada, has previously spoken about having faced racism and discrimination when he was growing up.
But rather than speak of his own experiences on Thursday, Singh turned the focus to other Canadians who have struggled with such attitudes — and warned that Trudeau's actions threaten to worsen already escalating hate and discrimination in Canada.
"When you've got a prime minister that is mocking the lived realities of Canadians, it can inflame those tensions and give more oxygen to those who believe in discriminating (against) people based on the way they look," he said.
"That's why it's deeply concerning. The impacts that this has on Canada and on the lives of Canadians can't be underestimated. This is massive."
During an event two years ago, as Singh was running for the NDP leadership, a protester accused him of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and wanting to impose Islamic Shariah law.
Rather than pointing out that he is not Muslim, Singh told the protester that the NDP believes in "love and courage" and repeatedly told her: "We love you."
The incident was captured on video and went viral. Many commentators later saw it as a turning point in Singh's successful bid for the NDP leadership.
Speaking on Thursday, Singh said Canadians will have to decide who the real Trudeau is while underscoring what he described as the importance of having a federal government "that's going to move forward the policies to end discrimination."
Noting that the NDP platform includes plans to end carding — arbitrary checks of people's identities on the street by police — and address discrimination within the justice system, Singh said his party wants "to build a society where people are not judged or treated unfairly because of the colour of their skin or their identity.
"And that's something New Democrats are committed to doing."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2019.