The New Democrats

In Canada, brothers Jagmeet and Gurratan Singh are redressing the stereotype of “image-conscious” politicians.

Gurratan Singh (left) recently told Canadian newspaper The Star that he is considering following his brother Jagmeet (right) into politics.

“As a brown-skinned bearded man, I don’t have the luxury of not worrying about how I look. There are a lot of negative stereotypes and prejudices that I’ve had to dispel or disarm.”

I

It’s during a break in our photo shoot at the Toronto Reference Library with Jagmeet Singh, the newly minted leader of Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party, and his brother Gurratan, that it dawns on me—Jagmeet has the job I wanted when I was nine years old.

As a supernerd in the late ’70s, I played NDP leader in my school’s model parliament, winning our mock election in a landslide. I idolized the party’s leader at the time, Ed Broadbent, a former academic from a family of auto workers. This despite the fact that he would never be described as telegenic, dashing or blazingly eloquent—at least not when compared with his rival, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father to current PM, Justin. Rather, Broadbent was often criticized, as his Wikipedia entry notes, “for his long and complex speeches on industrial organization.” Such were my interests as a nine-year-old.

On the surface, the contrast between Broadbent and Singh couldn’t be sharper. Broadbent, who bore some physical resemblance to Richard Nixon, albeit with a much friendlier face, was a product of the 20th-century labour movement and its aversion to flashiness. Though remembered as a likable campaigner in person, I doubt Broadbent would have had much time for Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, were such platforms available to him. The 39-year-old Singh, a former litigation lawyer and practicing Sikh, is brawny and movie-star handsome, a tireless preacher of positivity and a popular Instagram dandy. Being born in 1979 may put him at the tail end of Generation X, but in every other way he presents as millennial. Things are often “Awesome!” with Singh.

That he is the first person of color to lead one of Canada’s major parties is historic—as are his age and his skill in using social media as a tool for political communications. Even before he had declared his candidacy for the leadership, GQ—a magazine not known for paying much attention to Canadian politicians—interviewed Singh at length, remarking he “understands that the real power of social media isn’t showing off his custom-designed suits (though those look sharp as hell), but as a vital tool for communicating with his constituents—the youth, in particular.”

With the library’s curvy five-story atrium as a backdrop, Singh is photographed wearing a bespoke three-piece navy-blue suit from Toronto’s The Dirty Inc., and an olive-green dastaar, or turban—a more subdued color choice than the bright pinks and yellows he is often seen in (to provide “pop,” he says). An embroidered strap known as a gatra is slung across his waistcoat, outlining his muscular frame. “Jagmeet has more of a wrestler’s body, with a longer torso,” assesses Gurratan, who is standing off to the side. “I have more of a dancer’s body—longer legs.” Gurratan, 34, serves as his brother’s closest advisor and confidant, though when he arrived for the photo shoot he introduced himself as the “stunt double.” Behind us a crowd of a dozen people has gathered, mostly young, eager but polite, awaiting the right moment to approach the NDP leader.

It’s been the case all day as we make our way about the library: Strangers stopping Singh to take selfies and express their support or admiration, some of whom he greets in their mother tongues. “Merhaba,” I hear him say to a man identifying himself as Turkic-Afghan. Singh, who is fluent in English, French and Punjabi, claims he is able to greet people in over 40 languages. Agreeing to a photo with one young couple, Singh arches his eyebrows and flashes a sideways peace sign across his beard. The hand sign, known as “chucking a deuce” in hip-hop culture, is one of Singh’s go-to selfie poses, though sometimes he will pantomime a theatrical mustache twirl. Throughout all the glad-handing, his enthusiasm never wanes. “One thing I’m really proud of is my energy,” Singh tells me later. “I’ll want to go to the gym even after a full day of this. This one [assistant], he’s 10 years younger than me, he’d ask, after a busy day, ‘Aren’t you destroyed?’ No, I gotta work out!”

The Toronto Reference Library is as broadly representative a place as you’ll find of the city’s population—more than half of which was born outside of Canada. Impressive enough is how effortlessly genuine and engaged Singh seems when meeting new people. Even more so is the power of what Singh represents, as evidenced, especially today, by the measure of ardency with which young people of myriad backgrounds buzz around him. He is relatable in a way that few Canadian politicians have ever been, especially among those who have rarely seen much in a politician they could relate to.

The comparison to Justin Trudeau is unavoidable: Singh comes across as an at-ease street-level campaigner, who might actually enjoy all the town halls and meet-and-greets, whereas Trudeau can seem like he’s trying much too hard to get everyone to like him. (Efforts to appear “woke” are a related complaint.) A recent profile in Toronto Life magazine not unfairly described Singh as “the left’s greatest showman,” the tone dialed as a compliment.

“As a brown-skinned bearded man, I don’t have the luxury of not worrying about how I look. There are a lot of negative stereotypes and prejudices that I’ve had to dispel or disarm.”

According to a 2017 poll, three in 10 Canadian voters said they “could not vote” for a turban-wearing Sikh man.

“We can’t be passive when we see injustice happening around us.”

II

His swift rise to political stardom already has pundits asking whether Singh has the potential to be Trudeau’s “worst nightmare”—a bold conjecture considering that Singh leads a party that has never won power nationally, and does not himself currently hold a seat in the federal parliament.

Historically, Trudeau’s center-left Liberal Party has appropriated NDP policies whenever it seemed politically viable. Many of the social programs Canadians prize most, such as universal health care, originated with the NDP, but the Liberals take the credit. In the last election, Trudeau actually won by running to the left of the NDP on many economic issues, including deficit spending. Now, with signs that the electorate is trending leftward, the hope is that not only will Singh return the party to its roots—but that he might even provide the winning model for 21st-century progressive politics. The signature issues in which Singh has planted his party’s flag neatly reflect the zeitgeist: the increasingly precarious nature of work, immigrant rights, income inequality and the environment. As the journalist Michael Harris put it, “Singh is the ideal political leader to make the case that millennials deserve a better shake […] and that he is the real progressive in the conversation.”

And a politician couldn’t ask for a more appealing up-by-the-boot-straps origin story. Jagtaran Singh, Jagmeet’s father, arrived in Toronto from India’s Punjab state and endured a fate typical for many educated immigrants to Canada—not having his professional credentials recognized in his new home. Already a family physician in India, Jagtaran worked several jobs, including as a security guard, in order to again put himself through medical school and then train as a psychiatrist. He and his wife, Harmeet Kaur, a teacher also originally from Punjab, raised three children—Jagmeet, Gurratan and daughter Manjot—mostly in Windsor, an industrial town in southwestern Ontario where Jagtaran worked as head of psychiatry at a hospital and later started his own private practice. As a child, Jagmeet suffered such racist abuse from classmates that his parents switched him to a prep school across the border in Detroit. At 21, while Jagmeet was in London, Ontario, pursuing his undergraduate studies in biology, his father became sick and unable to work. Gurratan, then 16, was sent to live with his older brother.

“When I moved in with Jagmeet, he suddenly had a high schooler to feed and sustain,” Gurratan tells me later in the evening, over dinner at Planta, a vegetarian restaurant in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood. (The brothers are vegetarian and abstain from alcohol.) All at once, Jagmeet was a student, family breadwinner and surrogate father. It was during this time, Gurratan says, that Jagmeet “opened my eyes to a lot of social justice issues and looking at the world through a different lens.” There was an obvious synergy whenever they discussed politics, and Gurratan, who would follow in his brother’s footsteps and attend law school, recognized in his older brother a born leader. “He already had this natural charisma,” he says.

And yet Jagmeet insists he was a reluctant politician. The idea to run as an NDP candidate in the federal election of May 2011 came from Gurratan and a group of close friends, all of whom were active in social justice issues locally. “[Jagmeet] was always giving guidance and direction to the work we were doing, mentoring us,” says Gurratan. “It just came to a point where we saw a lack of people in our community advocating, representing the issues we cared about, like refugee and immigrant rights, poverty, social justice. We thought we needed to put someone forward who could be that voice.”

Though Jagmeet says he was, at the time, “satisfied where I was as a lawyer” which included a share of pro bono work and advocating for refugee and immigrant rights, Gurratan was relentless. While one friend, Amneet Singh Bali, Jagmeet’s future campaign manager during his leadership run, complimented him on his natural leadership qualities, his brother played the bad cop. “He would tell me, ‘You can’t pass up this chance to help the community—you’re going to let everybody down,” remembers Jagmeet. “There was a lot of guilt tripping.” It took six months to convince Jagmeet to run.

That first election day, Jagmeet surprised everyone when he came within 500 votes of beating the race’s incumbent. Still, he figured that was the end of it. But when a provincial election was called a few months later Jagmeet was again encouraged to run. This time it was more than just a group of friends. “I got hundreds and hundreds of calls, people saying they want me to run again, [and] ‘We didn’t realize you would come so close.’ It made me think now is the time, I don’t see myself doing this again in the future.” Only six months after his first try, Jagmeet won, eventually rising to become deputy leader of the opposition NDP in the provincial legislature.

Though Gurratan may have been the one who pushed him into politics, Jagmeet’s values were passed down from earlier generations. His great-grandfather, Sewa Singh Thikriwala, was a Punjabi martyr and folk hero who led uprisings against colonialism in the early 20th century. He died of starvation from a hunger strike while in prison. More essential was his mother, who instilled in Jagmeet the spiritual values of Sikhism, though his father was non-observant. “On a fundamental level, [Sikhism says] the universe may be diverse, with different life forms and types of people, from different places speaking different languages—but we all have a common thread that connects us. We are all one.”

It’s from this starting point, Jagmeet says, that Sikh philosophy asserts a moral obligation to defend the rights of others—hence his passion for social justice. “This is why we wear the kirpan,” he explains, referring to the curved ceremonial knife Sikh men are required to wear. “Kirpan literally means grace and honor. The oath that we take with grace and honor is to defend the rights of all people, and that we can’t be passive when we see injustice happening around us.”

Growing up as part of a racial minority, however, defending others first meant learning how to defend himself. At eight years old, while living in Windsor, Jagmeet began growing his hair out according to the Sikh practice known as kes, and wearing a turban. The bullying got instantly worse, prompting Jagmeet to sign up for aikido and taekwondo; by high school, he was captain of the wrestling team. (These days, he still trains in Brazilian jujitsu.)

Whatever antagonism Jagmeet encountered only reaffirmed his sense of who he was, both as an individual and as part of a larger community. “The whole point of kes in Sikhism is an acceptance of our natural way of being, accepting yourself in a deeper way,” he says. “If there’s gray hair coming in or it’s frizzy I don’t worry about it. There’s something relaxing and beautiful about that.” It’s symbolic, he adds, of the necessity to make peace with oneself. “When I see more gray coming in, it’s a reminder that we’re mortal,” says Gurratan. “That we have limited time on this earth and [we need] to make the most of it. What we wear is an expression of the values we aspire to.” In the case of growing up Sikh in North America, he adds, “there’s this incredibly strong social aspect to it—we can’t hide who we are or where we’re from.”

And their religion is something Gurratan and Jagmeet see no reason to downplay, or claim as a private matter, anyway—rather they are happy to talk about it whenever asked. Not just to demystify it, but to show how well its values accord with a progressive view of the country, and perhaps where the culture is moving more generally. “This whole [movement] we’re seeing today toward well-being is what Sikh spirituality is all about,” says Gurratan, noting that popular mindfulness practices such as meditation and fasting are core to Sikhism. “Sikhism is about connectedness—with other people and your own inner light.”

“If there’s gray hair coming in or it’s frizzy, I don’t worry about it.”

III

When Jagmeet announced his NDP leadership bid in May 2017, he was by far the least known nationally among the four main contenders. During his time in the Ontario provincial legislature, he had done little to distinguish himself, with the notable exception of introducing a motion to prohibit the controversial police practice of “carding”—random ID checks that, studies have shown, disproportionately target young men of color. The issue was a personal one for Singh, who estimates he has been spot-checked about 10 times. “Whenever I was stopped by police,” he says, “it made me feel like something was wrong with me. It erases the value of all your hard work in life, like you don’t have meaning.” Singh’s motion passed the house unanimously.

Beyond that, he had made a splash more for his bespoke suits and the bon vivant lifestyle he documented over social media. Then, with just three weeks to go in the leadership campaign, came the viral moment that mattered. During a rally at a recreation center in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, a woman named Jennifer Bush got up in Singh’s face, shouting accusations that he supported the Muslim Brotherhood and sharia law. Rather than correcting her by explaining that he was Sikh and not Muslim, Singh retained his composure. “We don’t want to be intimidated by hate,” Singh said to the crowd, before turning to Bush. “We welcome you, we love you, we all believe in your rights.”

When a video of the incident was posted to YouTube, it became an instant global sensation, racking up more than 50 million views and praise for Singh’s cool handling of the situation. By the eve of the leadership vote, Singh had raised more money and signed up more new party members than any of his rivals. With 53 percent of the vote, he won in the first round of balloting.

Later, Singh would admit to Maclean’s magazine that, “in a way, my whole life prepared me for this [incident]. I’ve faced much more aggressive situations where I had to defend myself.” From an early age, he understood that if he carried himself in a certain way it would “reduce the amount of people who would want to fight with me,” he now says. And if people were going to stare at him, Singh decided he would give them something to look at. As a teen that meant baggy jeans and a hip-hop aesthetic. It wasn’t until Singh graduated law school that he acquired the taste for elegant, English-cut suits that he’s known for today. While other articling students bought as many suits at discount stores as their budget would allow, Singh treated clothes as an investment, buying fewer but higher-quality pieces and rotating them through an entire year. “I don’t think they ever realized I only had two suits,” he says, crediting the impression he made with helping him attract a healthy roster of new clients.

Not surprisingly, Singh’s easygoing fashionableness has elicited some skepticism about his seriousness as a politician. Though he has been successful at keying in on his core issues, he is at his weakest when articulating policy, both in the small details and the big vision. Questions of style and image over substance already bedevil Justin Trudeau, as he heads into the last year of his mandate. When I ask Singh whether his own posh image might detract from both his message and accomplishments, he turns the question, and its assumptions, inside out. “As a brown-skinned bearded man, I don’t have the luxury of not worrying about how I look,” he says. “There are a lot of negative stereotypes and prejudices that I’ve had to dispel or disarm, and I did that through the way I dressed. My clothing is like social armor.”

Singh has spoken of his style in this way before, but that hasn’t stopped critics from framing next year’s campaign as “Justin versus Jagmeet in the GQ election.” Singh need only look to the man he hopes to unseat as prime minister for a cautionary tale—that the seeming obsession with image and wokeness will only get him so far, until one day, very quickly, it becomes a liability. Exhibit A: Trudeau’s diplomatic trip to India in February, during which he was ruthlessly mocked for going way over the top with traditional Indian outfits.

In interviews, Singh talks a lot about authenticity. On social media he promotes The Authenticity Principle by his friend Ritu Bhasin—a leadership book that argues “choosing to live authentically is the most important step you can take to thrive in your personal life, your relationships and your career.” Bhasin’s thesis has special resonance with members of racial minorities who feel constantly pressured to conform within mainstream society. But there is also the risk, particularly acute for a politician, of being so consciously “authentic” as to read as inauthentic.

IV

So far, Donald Trump’s right-wing populism hasn’t gained much traction north of the border. But that doesn’t mean Singh’s ascendance isn’t, at least in part, a manifestation of the same disruptions occurring to the political process, mainly via technology, but also through popular culture—even if he clearly comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum from Trump. Editorial writers who express discomfort with Singh’s media savviness, snappy looks and upbeat message are perhaps missing the point.

A couple of weeks after my interview with Singh, during a live-streamed interview, the NDP leader was asked by the journalist Paul Wells to assess the country’s mood, given that unemployment is near an all-time low. “People feel okay about the government,” Singh allowed, “but they feel stuck in their lives.” Singh framed the problem in terms of economic inequality, a disproportionate share of the gains in income going to the already wealthy. Singh added that “I think [Trudeau] means well, but there’s a dissonance, where for him it’s maybe an academic discussion when he talks about fairness or inequality.” Singh then pivoted to his own struggles, of knowing precariousness and bigotry firsthand. In recent speeches, Singh seems to be test-driving a phrase that could serve as his slogan in the next election: “This is not as good as it gets.” 

Gurratan understands the seismic shift that his brother represents, not just in politics, but in Canadian society in its broadest sense, and what it means to belong. “For the children of immigrants, and young people of color across the board,” he says, “we’re supposed to feel Canadian, but there’s a sense sometimes that you don’t experience it. For the people who focus on [Jagmeet’s] style over substance, there’s this whole other conversation to be had that Jagmeet represents what all parents, and particularly immigrant parents, want for their children: That they can come to a new country and their child actually has a chance to be prime minister.” 

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