How Jagmeet Singh hopes to win over the next generation of NDP voters

The Ontario New Democrat MPP and his circle of young Sikh activists are trying to build a national movement and win the NDP leadership

Jagmeet Singh

MPP and NDP leadership candidate, Jagmeet Singh is photographed outside his Queen’s Park office in Toronto on June 1, 2017. (Photograph by Jenn Roberts)

Jagmeet Singh
MPP and NDP leadership candidate, Jagmeet Singh is photographed outside his Queen’s Park office in Toronto on June 1, 2017. (Photograph by Jenn Roberts)

The man in the panama hat was pointing menacingly at Jagmeet Singh—raising his finger dramatically and curling it over the TV cameras and the heads of the gathered reporters. Singh, standing there, was elegantly dressed as always, in a fitted grey suit, black tie and orange turban. But he looked nervous.

He had just, using a teleprompter, finished giving perhaps the most important speech of his life: he was running, he told the crowd at the Bombay Palace restaurant in suburban Brampton, Ont., for the leadership of the federal NDP. Now, in the middle of his first presser as a national contender, with all eyes on him, a man in a panama hat was threatening to make a scene.

“I’ll give you all the time you need!” the man was telling Singh’s staff—inexplicably—as he shrugged off their pleas for calm.

Meanwhile, the reporters’ queries—about the ethics of running at the federal level while Singh, an MPP, retains his seat in the Ontario legislature, for example—seemed to leave Singh nonplussed.

Already the man in the hat was slipping through the crowd to reach him—he had something to tell Singh, to tell everybody! Just then, Nader Mohamed, Singh’s formidable-looking digital director, wearing a beautiful suit and a man bun, with his beard impeccably manicured, stepped nimbly into the scrum to head the man off.

Willy Blomme, a former Jack Layton speechwriter and one of Singh’s campaign principals, had spotted the trouble. So had Amneet Singh, an amiable media handler with the campaign, who with an uncharacteristically panicked expression on his face was swirling his index finger in a wrap-up gesture.

Blomme grabbed the candidate and whisked him from the room. Later, as the crowd thinned, the man in the hat would tell anyone who’d listen he was not going to let Singh bring sharia law to Canada.

It was Singh’s big moment and it was cut short by ill-informed paranoia about his faith. Sharia is canonical Islamic law; Singh is a baptized Sikh who, in the parlance of his community, “wears the five Ks”: unshorn hair (kesh), steel bracelet (kara), a ceremonial sword (kirpan) and wooden comb (kanga), and special undergarments (kachhehra).

For Singh, the man in the hat was nothing new: in key ways, his visibility has defined his life and politics, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the tumultuous aftermath of which galvanized a whole cohort of second-generation Canadians, Singh among them.

At 38, he is already a seasoned politician, with a reputation for defying significant odds. In 2011, he became the first New Democrat to win a seat at any level of government in suburban Peel region, west of Toronto, and the first turban-wearing Sikh to sit in Queen’s Park. Under leader Andrea Horwath, he rose through the party ranks, becoming her deputy (a role he’s set aside for this campaign).

The federal leadership bid sees him running into similarly brisk headwinds: he’s received unpromising numbers in early opinion polls. Known for his bespoke suits and fashion spreads in GQ, and for his exuberant presence on youth-oriented social media platforms, he at times appears to flirt with dandyism and frivolity. Some media coverage has been fawning (Clement Nocos, the freelance writer who conducted the Q & A that ran alongside the GQ spread, now works on Singh’s campaign). Critics say he is all glamour and little substance, a pretender in a field of more experienced national operators.

Yet Singh has racked up more endorsements than his rivals, and according to the latest quarterly fundraising report from Elections Canada, he’s raised more money than all his opponents combined. Perhaps most importantly, he has street cred with grassroots New Democrats—something he pulls off with help from a tight circle of friends who have little experience in federal politics, but an impressive track record as activists taking on left-wing causes.

As young adults who came of age in the post-9/11 period, Singh and his trusted advisers helped created a Sikh renaissance in Ontario that they are now attempting to leverage into a much broader left-wing political movement. “I think, in a really disruptive way,” he says, “a bearded, turbaned guy is going to be able to win over all of Canada.”

Jagmeet Singh
Jagmeet Singh, Federal NDP leader candidate, and Ontario NDP provincial MPP of Bramalea-Gore-Malton, works out at the South Fletcher’s Sportsplex in Bramtpon, Ontario, Canada. June 2, 2017. (Photograph by Mark Blinch)

Singh’s chosen medium is his own body. He combines his elegant attire with a penchant for bicycles—he owns several, including a foldable Brompton in British racing green—which he clearly enjoys riding while dressed to the nines.

Normally he favours three-piece suits, but for an interview with Maclean’s, at a Mississauga strip mall not far from where he shares a house with his parents and brother, he rolled up on his Brompton in a pink turban, white T-shirt, chinos and tan-coloured Sabahs, a brand of handmade Turkish shoe. His kirpan was slung over his shoulder and he was talking on his cellphone as he pedalled. He’d called ahead to confirm there’d be no photographer and that he could dress casually.

In interviews, Singh frequently refers to a conclusion he says he came to growing up: “If people are going to stare at me anyways, I might as well give them something to look at.” Even when he worked as a criminal lawyer, a legal niche known for nattiness, Singh stood out. For many years, he did not know this was a long-time strategy for Sikh men.

Over tea and a salad, Singh calls up on his phone a turn-of-the century photograph of three turbaned men strolling through Vancouver wearing three-piece suits. The image dates from around 1908, when Vancouver’s Khalsa Diwan Society instructed newly arrived Sikh men to wear “three-piece suits with nicely tied turbans” and to carry umbrellas and pocket watches. “The appearance of being sharp,” says Singh, “well-dressed—to convey that confidence—was a community mandate. I thought I came up with it on my own, but there seems to be a tradition for it.”

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Singh grew up in working-class cities: St. John’s, where his father trained as a psychiatrist, and Windsor, Ont. At school, his long hair and dark skin led to frequent scraps with other boys, he says: “They would come up and punch me or try to pull my hair.” Singh took up martial arts, a lifelong passion. Soon, to rescue him from the distraction of fisticuffs, his father sent him to the elite Detroit Country Day School in Beverly Hills, Mich.

At Western University, where he studied biology, Singh felt that he’d “turned the corner” on the challenges of dealing with racism: “It was a space where people were more exposed to different things; there was a certain open-mindedness in the halls of learning.” It didn’t last.

He was at Western when the 9/11 attacks unleashed a newly virulent form of prejudice across North America. Aimed at Muslims, the violence wasn’t discerning. One of the earliest fatalities was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh from Punjab who’d lived in the United States for more than 10 years and was shot to death in Arizona. “I stand for America all the way,” the shooter screamed at police.

Says Singh: “9/11 resulted in a whole new wave of extreme racism and hatred. People driving by yelling ‘Osama,’ physical confrontations. I was able to stand up for myself. But it created a lot of tension, a lot of negativity. People would be afraid—literally—and walk away in fear.”

The eldest of three siblings—he has a brother, Gurratan, and sister, Manjot—Singh has always played the role of big brother, not just within his family, but within a group of southern Ontario Sikhs. “He’s not just my older brother,” says Gurratan, 33. It was Singh who taught Gurratan’s high school friend Amneet—now his PR man—how to tie a turban. After 9/11, Singh was advising his honorary siblings about how to carry themselves as Sikhs at a time when their visibility made them targets of nearly unprecedented rage.

Comedian Jasmeet Singh, 27, known as “Jus Reign,” first met Singh as a kid in Guelph, Ont., where rumours had circulated that he was Osama bin Laden’s nephew. “Jagmeet is one of the first dudes I ever saw with a turban and beard who was so confident—I’d never seen that level of confidence in a Sikh man in the post-9/11 world. There were a lot of people giving up, not wanting to embrace their roots, their heritage. Jagmeet took who he was and wore that every single day.”

Singh has Jack Layton’s hail-fellow-well-met gift with crowds, updated to the millennial vernacular: “How’s it going, brother!” “I’m pumped!” “LOOK AT THAT BEARD RIGHT HERE!” he will tell people during micro-encounters—grabbing shoulders at a union event in Toronto, say, or in St. John’s after an all-candidates debate. He and Gurratan, who’s played an important role in his campaigns, favour the bro-shake: hands clasped in arm-wrestling fashion, then a shoulder bump.

In parallel to the enthusiasm around Singh’s leadership bid runs the question of whether Canadian voters are ready for him. It’s a question that’s often put quietly, or placed safely in the context of Quebec, where outward displays of religious affiliation in politics are often frowned upon (but which, due to this tendency, becomes an easy scapegoat for similar anxieties that exist across the country).

The question is an open one also in the federal NDP. His opponents in the contest to replace Tom Mulcair—Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Guy Caron—each have years of federal experience. Singh began with the backing of zero members of the federal caucus (a half a dozen MPs have since endorsed him, including Quebec’s Hélène Laverdière). For some, this echoes the trajectory of Layton’s leadership run in 2003, when he leapt from Toronto city council to the national stage. “I think Singh is trying to position himself as the next Jack Layton—the dynamic outsider who offers a big boost to the national party,” says Ryerson University politics professor Myer Siemiatycki.

Others aren’t so sure. There is a constituency of New Democrats who see Singh as all flash, and as a johnny-come-lately. A recent Mainstreet Research poll of NDP members found him trailing Angus and Ashton badly, with just 7.5 per cent support. (The rumpled Angus led with 23 per cent.)

At an all-candidates debate in June hosted by the United Steelworkers labour union in downtown Toronto, Ashton, a Manitoba MP, owned the room and received one of the night’s most enthusiastic responses, name-checking Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Singh, meanwhile, received tepid reactions. Awkwardly, it was often only the small corner of the hall where his team sat that applauded him.

The NDP lost the city of Toronto in the last election, edged out by the resurgent Grits. Singh’s only road to winning this race is selling new memberships; his supporters know it and see the NDP’s future in similar terms. “Everybody wants this party to be led by an old white guy named Sanders or Corbyn,” says one Singh supporter, a person of colour. “It’s the tale of two NDPs. One party is old downtown support and labour. Then there’s a new NDP that’s trying to grow the party in all directions.” He added: “Every party has its old-stock Canadians.”

In Singh’s telling, contained within the Sikh religion is a progressive philosophy able to incorporate within itself a panoply of leftish political commitments: to LGBTQ rights, environmental stewardship, indigenous reconciliation, diversity.

“When I wear the turban,” he says, “I wear it as a mark of honour, that I stand for all these progressive social-justice things. It’s my way of telegraphing that to the world. It’s an act of rebellion.” That pattern—of combining the themes of Sikhism, and the strategies of Sikh youth activism, with those of the NDP, has become Singh’s MO.

Jagmeet Singh
Ontario deputy NDP leader Jagmeet Singh launches his bid for the federal NDP leadership in Brampton, Ont., on Monday, May 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Sikh political engagement is a Canadian reality. Sikhs comprise less than two per cent of the population, yet Justin Trudeau appointed four to Cabinet in 2015; Punjabi is the third-most-spoken language in the House of Commons.

Central to Sikhism, says Zabeen Khamisa, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Waterloo, is “this idea that your political activism, your engagement in this world, is infused with your spirituality.” This tenet is called miri piri, after the two swords worn by the 17th century Guru Hargobind, one representing his spiritual calling, the other his worldly fight against injustice.

By the late aughts, Singh, a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School, was practising criminal law, first at Pinkofskys, a legal-aid firm known for its aggressive tactics, then on his own in Mississauga, Ont. On the side he was doing pro bono work for grassroots groups involved in anti-poverty campaigns and immigrant and refugee rights, including workshops he conducted on the rights of protesters.

One of these groups was the Sikh Activist Network, formed by Singh’s brother, Gurratan, and his long-time friend Amneet a decade ago, while they were students, and which they called “a previously underground network . . . of Sikh activists working for social justice while resisting the poisonous exploitative and murderous powers of neo-imperialism.” In ways that no one could have foreseen, and despite the shopworn rhetoric, this group would become the bedrock of Singh’s political career.

As the network evolved, Gurratan and Amneet (both of whom went on to graduate from law school) took to describing it as an organization committed to changing media stereotypes about Sikhs and encouraging spirituality via the arts. It quickly became a testing ground for young, socially conscious Sikh artists—among them the hip-hop performer Humble the Poet, the spoken-word poet Rupi Kaur and Jasmeet Singh (Singh’s young mentee from Guelph), known professionally as Jus Reign.

One historical episode the group became focused on was an outbreak of anti-Sikh violence in 1984, when the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards, aggrieved over the military storming of a holy Sikh shrine in Punjab earlier that year, sparked riots in which more than 3,000 Sikhs were killed. In 2009, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of that crisis, Singh and his Sikh Activist Network associates mounted the first “When Lions Roar” event, billing it as “a night of hip hop, poetry and performances.”

Over the next several years, these gatherings mixed political seminars with Sikh hip-hop shows that drew thousands of young people. This and other campaigns also became laboratories for an approach to political marketing that Singh continues to use to this day, and that others have turned into arts and entertainment careers. “It’s a renaissance period for the Sikh community,” says Singh. “The first wave of immigrants came to survive. Now you’re seeing the next generation saying, ‘Let’s flourish.’ ”

With their low-budget, often hilarious and anarchic social media presences, members of this cohort have generated millions of hits, and have achieved fame, even wealth. Their work is frequently subversive, resembling a kind of culture jamming, in which media is scrambled and used against itself to critique the status quo. Members of this cohort have generated millions of social media hits, and have achieved fame, even wealth. Jus Reign today makes his living off YouTube, with 850,000 subscribers, and specializes in slyly funny, frenetic, dark commentaries about life as a visible minority in North America. In one, a non-Sikh character tells him: “It’s going to start snowing soon, do you even know what that is? Snow, buddy—not sand!” Lilly Singh, known as IISuperwomanII, who was born in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, ranked third last year on the Forbes list of top YouTube earners, with revenues of $7.5 million. She now has a home in an affluent part of L.A., an international book deal, and a role in the upcoming HBO adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In her early videos she demonstrated how to tie a turban, or caricatured her parents; today she skewers the alt-right critics who write her hate mail (“A Geography Class for Racist People,” posted to YouTube in June, has received 5.7 million views). Rupi Kaur, 24, who first publicly performed her poetry on a “When Lions Roar” stage, self-published her debut collection, Milk and Honey, in 2014; it became a New York Times bestseller last year. Kaur developed a following by posting her short, simple poems, about feminism and other issues on Tumblr, a micro-blogging site, and Instagram. Kaur’s following exploded after Instagram censored a photograph of the poet in bed with her sheets stained with menstrual blood, a decision that sparked international controversy and caused many to rally around Kaur.

“These people were involved in the activist network; now they’ve grown up, they share a vision and they’re making it happen,” says Khamisa. “Everything they do still addresses social issues, some sort of political idea.” Some have even gone into politics.

For Singh and the Sikh Activist Network, the political turning point came in the spring of 2010, when Kamal Nath, at the time India’s minister for road transport and highways, arrived in Toronto to meet then-Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty. Many Sikhs view Nath as a war criminal for his alleged role in organizing the 1984 riots.

Gurratan and Amneet helped mount a protest around the visit, and reached out to politicians to drum up opposition. Jack Layton was among the few to speak out forcefully against Nath, referring to the “many Indo-Canadians … especially hurt by the presence in Canada of a man who allegedly organized anti-Sikh pogroms.”

Amneet and Gurratan decided they needed a champion in government. When Amneet proposed Jagmeet, Gurratan was initially skeptical. Singh says he wasn’t keen, either—he is in some ways an uncomplicated guy, a fan of comic books and fantasy novels, who likes to watch his diet (he eschews eggs and most other animal products), and to work out at the gym. But Gurratan and Amneet argued that no one was better positioned to advance their agenda. They set their sights on the federal riding of Bramalea-Gore-Malton. No New Democrat had ever won in the region, and there was skepticism from party brass in Toronto. Singh, then in his early 30s, was the oldest person on the team; none of them had experience in electoral politics.

One early decision involved commissioning Jus Reign to do the campaign videos. In one, the comedian sits down to interview Singh but quickly nods off, precipitating a dream sequence in which Jus Reign’s head and smiling face are inserted into promotional images from the all-white ’80s and ’90s sitcom Full House.

The videos represented Singh the politician’s first foray into social media. Today, beyond his suits, he is perhaps best known for his presence on Snapchat: dancing with the Maritime Bhangra Group in Halifax, celebrating Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in Montreal—“Les vibes sont très fort ici!”—or “kicking it with my Somali sisters!” Social media allows his tightly scripted team to stay in control of the message, and appeals to the volunteer youth selling memberships and manning the phones.

A clever online campaign video aimed ostensibly at endearing Singh to NDP supporters in Quebec, and which shows him donning a turban while listening to a cassette of the ’90s francophone singer Roch Voisine—“I know it’s cheese,” he says in French—tears a page directly from the Sikh Activist Network playbook. One NDP establishment type told Maclean’s its intended audience was actually Anglophone New Democrats worried about how Singh will go over in Quebec.

Singh lost the race by a hair. He was never supposed to get that close. Months later, he won in the provincial elections. As an MPP, he’s advocated for fair auto insurance and against precarious work. Last year, he introduced a motion to label the 1984 anti-Sikh riots a genocide (he’s been denied a visa to India because of similar rhetoric). That failed, but a similar motion, brought by a Liberal this year, did not. Exactly according to plan, the Sikh Activist Network had an established force at Queen’s Park.

Singh has remained stubbornly true to his activist roots. One NDP insider says she knows of seasoned establishment New Democrats who’ve offered to help him win; he’s said to have rebuffed them, opting instead to staff his team with young people, most with activist backgrounds. “We’ll take help from anyone,” he says. “But I think politics is often too exclusive. There’s only a certain clique that gets involved. I wanted to build a bigger, more inclusive movement.”

Jagmeet Singh
NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh speaks at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Wednesday, October 28, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Not everyone’s a fan. Jagdish Grewal, editor of Brampton’s Canadian Punjabi Post, says Singh has exhibited an inability to execute at Queen’s Park, and behaves in an ostentatious manner. “When he rides his bike, he wears almost $3,000-$4,000 worth of clothes,” he says. “Jack Layton wore the simple shirt and jeans!” Grewal, a Tory candidate during the 2015 elections, was dumped by that party after the surfacing of an old editorial he’d written suggesting gay people could be made straight through therapy.

The Stephen Harper Tories invested heavily in bringing new Canadians on side, and helped create an orthodoxy that sees them as natural Conservatives, particularly on social issues. Says one progressive Muslim Singh supporter: “People will always question how progressive you are if you’re a person of faith, especially from immigrant communities.” Singh represents a different category of voter: upwardly mobile, university-educated, second-generation Canadians who don’t have a natural political home and want one. Key to Singh’s strategy is the way he highlights his own difference and plugs it into broader concerns. He and his team have managed to expand his Sikh activism to create the basis of a broader coalition—of South Asian cabbies, black anti-carding activists, downtown Toronto hipsters, Sikh Motorcycle Club of Ontario members in leather vests.

Neesha Rao, 30, attending Singh’s office launch in Malton, a neighbourhood of Mississauga, had just bought an NDP membership. She’d previously joined the Conservative party ahead of its leadership race, to vote for Michael Chong. “Left and right doesn’t work anymore,” says Rao, who practises family law.

Later, at an event one morning at the Muslim Welfare Centre in Mississauga, Singh joined volunteers gathered to build halal food baskets for needy families. “I’m so excited—I was like, ‘I hope he’s joining our team!’ ” said one woman wearing a hijab when Singh arrived. “Can we have a group picture!?”

Mohammed Hashim, a senior organizer with the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and an early supporter of Singh’s, stood back and watched. “Imagine him beside Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer,” he said. “What would that mean to my kid? What would it mean for waves and waves of immigrants? It’s a story too powerful for the NDP and Canada to deny.”

A few minutes later, Hina Mirza, 38, the woman in the hijab, stood cheering Singh and her fellow volunteers on—many were her teammates in the Sisterhood Softball club in Toronto’s western suburbs, where she’s a psychotherapist and a family and marriage counselor. She was still excited. “He represents what Canada stands for,” Mirza said of Singh. “He represents our generation.

“He’s like Mr. Canada.”