Jagmeet Singh, the current deputy leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP), announced Monday evening that he is joining the race for the party’s leadership to oust current leader Thomas Mulcair in Ottawa.
Born in Scarborough, an eastern section of Toronto to Punjabi parents before moving around the country, Singh said he was picked on because of his name, skin, and hair. His father studied medicine in Newfoundland and Labrador before moving the family to Windsor, Ontario, where Singh inevitably ending up slamming headfirst into the discrimination Canadians like to pretend doesn’t exist. It’s assumed to be some of his motivation in his ongoing fight against police street checks known as carding.
“I faced a lot [of] bullying at school and often felt like I didn’t belong,” Singh told hundreds of screaming supporters at the Bombay Palace in the Toronto suburb of Brampton last night. Singh said he wasn’t alone, but it struck him as “incredibly unfair” that other kids who were no less capable couldn’t follow their dreams because their families had less money.
“The values that guide me today, and will continue to guide me as a leader, are the progressive, social democratic values rooted in my experiences growing up,” Singh shouted to the crowd, often switching between English and French throughout the night.
A rising star in the NDP, Singh was named deputy Ontario NDP leader in 2015. Even then, rumors swirled about a potential federal leadership run. Having such strong support in his riding, Singh said Monday that he would not be resigning his Ontario seat to run.
“I’ve had busy schedules before and I’ve been able to still stay in touch with my constituents, so I plan to do that,” he said during his speech. And by the numerous members of legislature throwing their support behind him, there can be few doubts.
“Jagmeet’s been an excellent member of our team. He’s certainly done a lot of hard work to engage young people with our party,” Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said. If Singh can successfully make the leap from provincial to federal politics, he would make history as the first non-Caucasian to helm a major political party in Canada. Singh, who is Sikh, would break through a long-standing barrier at the federal politics level- one that should have been shattered long ago, says Karl Belanger, former principal secretary for the current NDP leader Mulcair.
“Having somebody from a different ethnic background than what we have seen over the past 150 years is something that needs to be applauded,” Belanger said. Labor and history professor at Queen’s University, Christo Aivalis, agrees that Singh’s leadership would send a strong message not only to political parties themselves, but also the Canadian public.
“While some people fear his turban, his name, his skin color…[that] could hurt him in certain parts of Canada, others say that in big cities where the majority of seats are, he speaks to a new Canada,” Aivalis said.
Make no mistake. This isn’t just about skin color. Singh is a star in his own right. It’s not just about his incredibly fabulous GQ spread featuring Singh in glitzy fashion posing around the Ontario Legislature, although that is a symptom of it. Singh may potentially be able to beat current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at his glamorous image game and social media presence (at least check Singh had 47.4k followers on his Instagram and almost as many views on his Snapchat stories), but Omar Khan writes, Singh “keeps Liberal Party activists like me awake at night.” Peers in undergrad together in the late 90s, Khan writes about how Singh “always spoke out against things he felt to be unjust, from alleged police brutality to cases of international justice.”
Singh has carried this fighting spirit to his politics, championing policies that appeal to many working and middle-class citizens, immigrants, and visible minorities. He pushed for stronger protections for temporary workers. He continues to fight against racial profiling in the practice of carding. Even leading the charge for lower auto insurance rates; though seen by some as simple retail politics, it addressed the perceived injustice of residents in his riding and surrounding Toronto suburbs of paying exorbitant premiums. And perception is everything, isn’t it?
Singh has distinct advantages over his traditional competitors despite not being well-known outside of Ontario. Although he didn’t grow up dirt poor like Reagan and Clinton, or fatherless like Obama, being the son of Sikh immigrants from India is a clear grounding point for Singh. Fighting through the prejudice of his youth, he went on to finish his undergrad at the University of Western, gain his criminal law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, and took his riding by storm when he ran in 2011. Stemming from his election campaign, Singh has a vast network of loyal activists across Canada, boasting a huge following of young NDP activists from all backgrounds. Success in leadership campaigns follow those who can incite a strong ground organization of volunteers to recruit, conduct voter contact and knock on doors- Singh’s campaign foundation didn’t wither and die after his win. If anything, it’s grown stronger as Singh steps into the limelight.
His pet causes to date don’t speak to a national vision. But if he comes up with one, it would be grounded- or at least seen as grounded- in the struggles of those working and middle-class voters all the parties are vying for. Tied to charisma and approachability, young members of the community are rallying around him- much like with Trudeau before his 2015 election. Except this time, the country’s anger is directed at him for the very issues Singh cited as his main focus in his upcoming policy platform: climate change, inequality, electoral reform and Indigenous reconciliation. Both Trudeau and Singh know how far leveraging freshness, excitement, and empathy can go in a political campaign, and Singh has the advantage of a happy constituency from which to grow his. He’s younger than Trudeau was when he became prime minister- and Singh has already been hailed as emblematic of a new, cool Canada in some social media circles.
“People are hungry for new leadership in our country,” Singh said Monday night amidst orange signs bearing the slogan “With Love & Courage.”
It’s too early to tell for sure. But come NDP party voting in October, it may very well be with the love and courage of his supporters that Singh wins.