Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s newest political rival is a charismatic Sikh politician who rocks bright turbans, has social media savvy and is a vocal champion of the rights of people of colour and the LGBT community.
Jagmeet Singh, the 38-year-old son of Punjabi immigrants, became the first non-white to head a major political party in Canada after being elected leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP). Soon after getting elected with 53.6% of the vote on Sunday, Singh told the cheering crowd, “I am officially launching my campaign to be the next prime minster of Canada.” The next federal election in Canada is set for October 2019.
In early September, Singh had deftly handled a delicate situation of a white woman racially heckling him on stage during a public meeting in Brampton. A video of his telling the woman about love and courage had gone viral.
Late on Sunday night, the member of provincial parliament (MPP) of Ontario hit the headlines again but for much bigger reasons. By polling 35,266 votes, Jagmeet registered an impressive victory over three other contenders running for party leadership — Northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus (12,075 votes), Manitoba MP Niki Ashton (11,374) and Quebec MP Guy Caron (6,164).
Though it’s a long road to the top post, Singh is the latest Sikh Canadian to make an impact on the country’s politics. Trudeau’s cabinet has three Sikhs, including defence minister Harjit Singh Sajjan and industry minister Navdeep Bains.
In 2015, a record 20 Canadians of Indian origin were elected to the 338-member House of Commons. As many as 18 were of Punjabi origin.
Jagmeet Singh’s father, Jagtaran Singh, is from Thikriwal village of Punjab’s Barnala district while his mother Harmeet Kaur is from Ghudani Khurd village near Ludhiana.
As a brown guy with a strange name and headgear, Singh has had several brushes with racism. Being bullied as a child made him turn to martial arts and he went on to captain his high school wrestling team.
He also won the Toronto championship in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, according to reports by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Singh has spoken about how he has often been stopped for random police checks, which motivated him to push for a ban on this police tactic. He told TOI in an interview that such experiences had given him a greater sensitivity to issues of unfairness and injustice.
“This sensitivity has shaped my politics by developing a strong desire to challenge injustice and work toward creating a more equitable society,” said Singh, a lawyer by profession. He has also been a strong advocate of a religious exemption for turbaned Sikhs from motorcycle helmet laws. For Singh, who has even done a YouTube tutorial on tying a turban, the headgear is a very important part of his Sikh identity.
“I hope that by celebrating my own identity, it encourages others to celebrate their own,” said Singh, whose signature style — teaming colourful turbans with bespoke suits —has got him into the pages of fashion magazines like GQ and has led to gushing profiles about “The incredibly well-dressed rising star in Canadian politics”.
But sartorial savvy isn’t the only reason Singh makes headlines.
He doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to criticising US President Donald Trump’s travel ban or speaking out against India’s treatment of minorities. In 2013, he was denied a visa to visit India. According to Singh, he was to visit Amritsar for an awards ceremony by two NGOs which had selected him for the Sikh of the Year Award.
He had told TOI that the Indian government was apparently annoyed with him for “raising the voice of justice for victims of anti-Sikh riots of November 1984”. “I have been propagating the issue that these were not riots between two communities but a state sponsored massacre,” Jagmeet had told TOI in December 2013.
He was denied entry to India then, but he still hopes to be back. Perhaps as Canada’s first brown prime minister.
Neelam Raaj and IP Singh | TNN