Meet Jagmeet Singh, Canada's newest political star

The New Democratic Party is hoping that its new leader Jagmeet Singh's personal charisma, ethnic background and history as a social advocate may finally provide a formula that can lift the party to power at the federal level.
The New Democratic Party is hoping that its new leader Jagmeet Singh's personal charisma, ethnic background and history as a social advocate may finally provide a formula that can lift the party to power at the federal level.PHOTO: REUTERS

OTTAWA, Ontario (NYTIMES) - While Canada has long promoted multiculturalism, it took until this week for a major Canadian political party to choose a leader - Jagmeet Singh - who was not a white man or woman.

But Mr Singh's decisive win in the race to be the leader of the New Democratic Party, the furthest to the left of Canada's mainstream parties, is far more than a symbolic victory for minority groups in the country.

Mr Singh, 38, whose parents immigrated from India, shares many of the personal traits that made Prime Minister Justin Trudeau such an appealing candidate and helped propel him to power in 2015.

The New Democrats, who so far have only ever achieved power at the provincial level, are hoping that Mr Singh's personal charisma, ethnic background and history as a social advocate may finally provide a formula that can lift the party to power at the federal level.

"Canadians deserve a government that understands the struggles that people are facing right now," Mr Singh said on Sunday (Oct 1) afternoon in Toronto, after the announcement of his victory.

"It takes an act of love to realise 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."

Mr Singh's election underscores the already prominent role that Sikhs, who make up about 2 per cent of Canada's population, play in Canadian politics.

Four members of Mr Trudeau's cabinet, including his defence minister, are Sikhs.

Other Sikhs are prominent in provincial offices. Mr Singh himself, who lives in the Toronto area, was the New Democrats' deputy leader in Ontario's legislature.

The New Democratic Party is the third-largest party in the federal Parliament.

During the leadership race, Mr Singh's campaign signed up 47,000 new members, according to party figures.

But he now faces several significant challenges, not least of which is to get elected to the Parliament, most likely through a special election to fill a vacant seat.

Most of the seats the New Democrats hold in Parliament are from Quebec, where Mr Singh's wearing of symbols related to his faith, including a turban, are seen as an affront to a widely held belief that politics should be secular.

Mr Pierre Nantel, one of the New Democrats from Quebec, was particularly critical of Singh's religious practice during the leadership campaign.

Mr Singh will also have to swiftly gain greater recognition outside of Ontario and communities with large Sikh populations, like Burnaby, British Columbia.

Canadians who know nothing about Mr Singh's political views probably have a good sense of his personal panache through the media attention he has attracted.

He is an urban cycling fan with a large collection of bicycles. Most of all, he is associated with his meticulously tailored, fashionable suits.

In interviews, he has suggested that his wardrobe choices were something of an act of defiance.

"If people are going to stare at me anyways, I might as well give them something to look at," he told GQ magazine earlier this year.

"I saw it as a chance to transform an awkward situation into an opportunity to show people who I really am. I wanted to show that I was confident and sure of myself - that I wasn't afraid of who I was."

Self-confidence may be Mr Singh's defining characteristic, say people who know him. He did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.

"He was always very optimistic, confident, able to stand up for himself, to not get bullied but respected," said Mr Harjinder Singh Kandola, the president of the Sikh Cultural Society in Windsor, Ontario, where Mr Singh lived from the age of seven until he went to college.

Mr Singh, whose father was a psychiatrist in Windsor, has repeatedly said that he was bullied as a child.

The situation became so severe that his family sent him across the international border to Michigan to attend the elite Detroit Country Day School for his middle and high school education.

A degree in biology and then legal studies at the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto followed.

Mr Singh's career was to become entwined with that of his older brother Gurratan.

The two were involved with the Sikh Activist Network, a youth group co-founded by Mr Gurratan Singh. While intended as a group to fight for social justice, it also became a meeting place for Sikh performing artists. By many accounts, it was also the foundation of Mr Jagmeet Singh's political career.

The brothers were not the family's first political advocates.

Their great-grandfather Sardar Sewa Singh Thikriwala was the founder of a rebel movement against British rule in Punjab State in India.

Peel Region, the Toronto suburb that Mr Singh represented in Ontario's legislature, has a concentrated but not united South Asian population. Much to Mr Singh's dismay, there is considerable ill will between Sikhs and other Indian immigrants stemming from religious and cultural divisions back in India. Ending that divide has been one of his goals.

"It's so important that we erase this," he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp on Monday.

As an elected politician, Mr Singh's agenda has been more focused on domestic issues. Like most New Democrats, he speaks out about income inequality, housing disparities, the cost of education, the need for job opportunities and efforts to reconcile relations with indigenous people.

In Ontario, he also took the lead on an issue for which he was perhaps uniquely qualified as a legislator: racial profiling by the police. Mr Singh said he had been pulled over by the police 11 times since he was a teenager simply because of his appearance.

During his leadership campaign, he vowed to end the practice nationally.

Like any group, Sihks in Canada are not monolithic in their political support. But at the federal level, they have generally tended to back the Liberals, which helps explain why they are represented in Mr Trudeau's Cabinet.

It is unclear whether that will change with Mr Singh.

Ms Rachna Singh, whom Mr Singh made appearances for twice during her recent and successful campaign to become a New Democratic member of British Columbia's legislature, said that it was a mistake to view Mr Singh as strictly an ethnic figure.

Like many Sihks, Mr Singh noted that he has taken on issues that were deeply divisive among Sikhs, including his support for gay, transgender and lesbian rights.

"He values every community, that's why he's leader today," she said.