Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Jagmeet Singh stops a racist attack by a white supremacist who interrupted his speech by reaching out to the woman with a call for love and inclusion.
The 38-year-old Ontario MPP, whose “Love and Courage” campaign galvanized supporters, said he hopes his breakthrough as the first person of colour to lead a major federal party “will inspire a whole host of new leaders across the country.”
Jagmeet Singh, a former criminal defence lawyer and Brampton MPP who rose to prominence as an upbeat opponent of police carding and precarious work, will lead the New Democratic Party into the next federal election.
The 38-year-old who brashly predicted his own victory won the party’s leadership race on Sunday with a commanding 53.8 per cent on the first ballot. He will now leap into national politics without a seat in the House of Commons, as leader of a third-place party that’s still reeling from its dispiriting defeat in the 2015 election, when it appeared on the cusp of power for the first time.
Singh, whose parents are from India, is also the first leader of a major federal party who is not white.
“Canadians deserve a government that understands the struggles that people are facing right now,” Singh proclaimed before an audience of party faithful at a Toronto waterfront hotel on Sunday afternoon, where his victory was met with thunderous cheers.
“It takes an act of love to realize we are all in this together, and an act of courage to demand better, to dream bigger, and to fight for a more inclusive and just world,” he said.
Singh dominated the first round of voting to replace outgoing leader Thomas Mulcair, who has led the NDP since 2012, when he took over in the wake of Jack Layton’s death. Of the 65,782 members who voted — a 52.8-per-cent turnout — Singh received the support of more than 35,000.
Charlie Angus, a veteran MP from northern Ontario, placed second with 12,705 votes representing 19.4 per cent of ballots cast. Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, who ran the most left-leaning campaign of the race with pledges for free tuition and universal pharmacare, closely followed Angus with 11,374 votes (17.4 per cent).
Finishing fourth was Guy Caron, the lone Quebec MP in the race, who argued the province is integral to the NDP’s electoral chances and proposed creating a basic minimum income for all Canadians, among other ideas.
But Singh, whose campaign slogan “Love and Courage” was regarded by many as a nod to the “love, hope and optimism” expressed in Layton’s last public statement, fulfilled the hopes of supporters who saw him as a fresh candidate with the potential to expand the party into new constituencies, such as Singh’s own suburban enclave of Brampton.
In an interview with the Star on Sunday evening, Singh said his breakthrough as the first person of colour to lead a major federal party will inspire other people who feel left out or disadvantaged.
“Because other people have broken barriers, it gave me in my life a capacity to even dream of achieving something,” he said, pointing to Rosemary Brown, the first Black woman elected to a provincial legislature.
“Hopefully this next big step” — his leadership win — “will inspire a whole host of new leaders across the country, people who never saw themselves represented in positions of power,” he said.
Singh highlighted four priorities for the NDP under his leadership: fighting climate change, curbing income inequality, pursuing Indigenous reconciliation and changing the electoral system. He railed against the Trudeau Liberals in his victory speech, accusing the party of campaigning as a progressive force and then failing to deliver once in government.
Singh told the Star that he believes he can win voters on the left side of the political spectrum by actually following through on his promises.
“Easy,” he said when asked how he will differentiate his NDP from the Liberals. He said they’ll actually change the voting system — Trudeau repeatedly promised to do so but dropped that pledge earlier this year — and stop a court challenge of a human rights ruling that ordered the government to provide adequate funding to health and family services for Indigenous children.
“It’s going to be very easy to point out all the dreams and hopes that people had, that the Liberals touched on, and just didn’t implement,” Singh said.
In terms of seeking a seat in the House of Commons, Singh repeated that he’s “open” to taking advice on when and where he could run, but made no commitment to try to enter Parliament before the next general election.
Singh said he will resign his seat at Queen’s Park as soon as possible and plans to use his time to engage with Canadians across the country, comparing his situation to when Layton took over the party in 2003 and didn’t have a federal seat.
“I’m confident I can follow in those footsteps,” he said.
Olivia Chow, a former MP and Layton’s widow, also brushed off concerns about a seat. She told the Star after Singh’s victory that she’s certain he can be a strong advocate for NDP priorities, because he has experienced hardships that many Canadians face, such as racial discrimination and struggling with his family to make ends meet.
“When that shapes your life, it means we have a leader who will connect and who is true to his values, and he will deliver what needs to be done,” Chow said.
Adam Vaughan, a Liberal MP from Toronto’s west end and a former city councillor, congratulated the new leader but quickly added that his policies are “thin.” Vaughan defended the Liberals against the NDP claim that they’ve failed progressive voters. He rhymed off policies such as increased children’s payouts to most Canadian families and raising taxes on the rich.
“I will stand with anybody in this country and put our progressive results against their promises to be a progressive opposition,” he said.
Another issue that has dogged Singh during his leadership campaign related to state secularism and religious symbols. The issue is being debated in Quebec, a key electoral battleground for the party, where a bill is before the national assembly that would ban people from wearing religious face coverings when giving or receiving public services.
Singh, who wears a turban and kirpan knife as a practising Sikh, is staunchly opposed to the bill, arguing it would breach individual rights. His stance has drawn opposition from the NDP’s federal caucus; Quebec MP Pierre Nantel recently suggested he may sit as an Independent if the next leader doesn’t respect the will of Quebecers on secularism.
On Sunday, Singh told the Star that his NDP will present a “united front” on these issues, ensuring that members of his party would support individual rights and social democratic values.
Near the back of the hotel ballroom where Singh was declared leader, a 48-year-old Toronto man named Binder Singh watched with a smile. He said he needed to be here “watching history happen,” even though six weeks ago he had bypass surgery on his heart.
“It’s about the dream,” he said, describing Singh’s victory as proof that anyone can achieve greatness in Canada, regardless of their religion or appearance.
“Canadian politics needed a shift. They needed fresher, younger faces to come in now. And Jagmeet is part of that change,” he said.
“A beard or a turban means nothing now.”
Key facts about Jagmeet Singh
Hometown: Singh was born in Scarborough; lived in St. John’s, N.L., until he was 7; and then moved to Windsor, Ont.
Family: He is the oldest of four kids in his family. He is not married and doesn’t have children.
Occupation: Before entering politics with a failed bid for a federal seat in 2011, Singh worked as a criminal defence lawyer in the Toronto area, after graduating from Osgoode Hall and passing the bar in 2006. He later opened his own law practice.
Political trajectory: Singh was elected provincially as an MPP from Brampton just months after losing in the federal campaign, and still holds that seat at Queen’s Park. He stepped down as the Ontario NDP’s deputy leader after entering the federal leadership race.
Hobbies: Singh is known for his proclivity for martial arts: he’s into Brazilian jiu-jitsu and has competed in the past. He’s also a big bike rider. His rides in different parts of the country through various places across the country are often featured on his Snapchat and Instagram feeds, which he updates constantly. In 2012, he told the Mississauga News that he’s an avid reader, saying he went through more than a dozen novels that year.