OTTAWA — Jagmeet Singh is no stranger to beating long odds — which is good, since taking over the Prime Minister’s Office this fall seems the unlikeliest of outcomes for the leader of the federal New Democrats.
The energetic former criminal lawyer, who cuts a striking silhouette in his tailored suit, long beard and colourful turban as he rides his collapsible bike around Parliament Hill, captured the country’s imagination in 2017 when he became the first non-Caucasian to lead a Canadian political party — a historic achievement, sure, but one he quickly ascribes to those who came before him.
“We as a team were only able to dare to dream of this kind of idea, running to be prime minister, because other people broke barriers,” the 40-year-old Singh said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
His hope, he said, is that young people will see a turbaned Sikh tearing down walls and be inspired to “dream of overcoming some challenge or barrier.”
The challenge Singh faces over the next several weeks will be substantial indeed.
Just four years removed from the heady pre-campaign days of 2015, when the NDP were within striking distance of forming their first-ever federal government, recent polls have shown Singh and company trailing Elizabeth May’s once-distant Greens, their status as Canada’s third party suddenly in jeopardy.
That looming undercard battle may be why Singh declared publicly last month that the NDP wouldn’t support the Conservatives in a minority Parliament — an eyebrow-raiser that was billed as a declaration of disdain for rival Andrew Scheer’s past statements on same-sex marriage, but interpreted by many as an early acknowledgment that the top job was beyond his grasp.
To hear him tell it, however, Singh is unconcerned by any Green threats.
They’re a “non-factor” in places like Brampton, Ont., he said — a key battleground where Singh is confident his deep connections to the community, forged during his past life as a member of the Ontario legislature, will hold the party in good stead.
“They’re not a factor, but I am,” Singh said. “I am a massive factor. People see me as their champion. They’ve seen that I fought for them and they see New Democrats as being on their side.”
He also points to groundswells of NDP support in Toronto, Vancouver and in B.C’s lower mainland — all areas where the party’s election campaign is expected to spend the bulk of its effort.
Singh — like the party he leads — is no stranger to long odds, said Jennifer Howard, his campaign manager and chief of staff.
“You have to have an understanding of what it takes to sometimes overcome the odds, and Jagmeet understands,” Howard said. “He’s also somebody who is more inspired to fight for other people than himself. That comes up time and time again.”
Singh’s own path to politics has not been without adversity and trauma. In his autobiography, “Love & Courage,” he described being sexually abused at the hands of a martial arts instructor at age 10 while living in Windsor, Ont.
“He tied his perversion to my performance, which was my primary motivation,” Singh writes. “And as the weekend sessions continued on top of my weekly training, I convinced myself that I was improving at taekwondo.”
The book also documents the ripple effects of his father’s alcoholism on the family, and how Singh had to become the sole income-earner by working in retail — an experience that informs his political activism on pocketbook issues like poverty and tuition fees.
“I got through those struggles because of a lot of help and my family depended on a lot of help,” he said, pointing to time his father spent at a publicly funded rehabilitation centre and help received from strangers when his family had nowhere to live.
“I don’t believe that someone’s job status or income level should determine their ability to succeed and do well in life, and that’s why I really passionately believe in social programs and services.”
In short, Singh is no stranger to being the underdog, said Howard. He likes to exceed expectations.
“I think he has, many times in his life, had to fight to get to where he is,” she said. “He knows how to do that.”
Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press