Canada’s Jagmeet Singh: Battling racism with love

The Sikh-Canadian is on the course of becoming the first visible minority in Canada to lead a federal political party.

Mark Blinch Jagmeet Singh photo Reuters
Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh-Canadian, is the frontrunner in the race for the leadership of Canada's New Democratic Party [Mark Blinch/Reuters]

Love and courage.

Journalists like me are temperamentally, if not genetically, conditioned to scoff at politicians who invoke these words in response to hate and cowardice. 

And so it was, after Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh-Canadian who is vying to become the next head of Canada’s on-life-support socialists – and the first visible minority ever to lead a federal political party – kept repeating the two words like a soothing mantra when a racist leapt from the audience at a campaign rally earlier this month to spew her venom at him.

Video of the racist’s lunatic performance and Singh’s calm, resolute response went, as they say, viral. The racist’s aim: goad Singh – verbally and physically – to respond in kind. She failed, pathetically. Armed with two powerful words, Singh remained steadfast. Love and courage, Singh made sure, would define the terms of their brief exchange, and, ultimately, the outcome. 

Defeated and deflated, the racist stopped spouting stupidities about Sharia law and slithered back into irrelevance and, no doubt, the comforting cocoon of her ignorance and the welcoming embrace of Canada’s rancid reactionary press.

Meanwhile, the encounter boosted Singh’s profile not only in Canada, but abroad. People across the globe took notice of and applauded a young, eloquent man with a taste for a rainbow of neon-bright turbans and the admirable sense to defy a racist provocateur with aplomb and intelligence.

READ MORE: Head of Quebec mosque’s car deliberately set on fire

Of course, some journalists, while lauding Singh’s adeptness at diffusing a potentially combustible moment, found his employ of love and courage in that moment too sentimental, too calculated, too disingenuous and too politically self-serving.

The more appropriate response to such an overt expression of hate was to denounce and rebut it, bluntly and unequivocally. Singh ought to have clocked – rhetorically, rather than coddled, the racist interloper. 

Doubts persist about whether Singh is a bonafide socialist or another centrist-hugging chameleon with a Justin Trudeau-like penchant for selfies and sartorial peccadillos - splashy socks meet splashy turbans.


Shree Paradkar, a consistently astute Toronto Star columnist, hit on the stubborn double-standard and dilemma Singh faced if he had put that admonition on public display, particularly in the middle of a competitive leadership campaign with a white-dominated, predominately right-wing corporate press ready to pounce.   

“Anger expressed by white people is passion. The same emotion from a Black man or a turbaned man is a threat,” she wrote.   

This is undeniable, even in a country like Canada that considers itself, and is viewed by so many others, as a happy bastion of diversity, tolerance and understanding. It is a risible myth.  

Still, given my combative nature, I wish Singh had been more forceful and defied the racist caricatures and the usual gallery of rank, ivory polemicists who would surely have tarred any “angry outburst” as possibly disqualifying.

Singh chose a more measured and generous riposte – authentic to him and born, as he explained, out of experience. Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, this accomplished lawyer and politician from an immigrant family tasted bigotry and ridicule all too often because of the shade of his skin and the length of his hair. Those bitter, indelible experiences from yesterday have informed his answer to prejudice today. 

Sadly, but not surprisingly, Singh was obliged, yet again, to address questions about whether a Sikh and his turban could appeal to and attract votes from Quebec, with its mix of deep Roman Catholic traditions and roots, and secularism. The smear, disguised as a query, was posed just 10 days ago by a philosophical “friend”, not foe: A New Democrat Member of Parliament from la belle province.      

Singh rejected politely the ugly claim that his faith and the religious symbols associated with his faith would alienate Quebecers, insisting that, “the people of Quebec have a rich history and heritage of being open-hearted and open-minded.”

OPINION: Warning – Canada is not what you think it is

But it was Singh’s encounter with naked hate and his signature response to it that has become the memorable, defining moment during a protracted contest to choose a successor to Thomas Mulcair – who was promptly and wisely shown the exit door by disappointed party members after The New Democratic Party’s (NDP) depressing election results in October, 2015.

Propelled, in part, by the support and out-sized attention he accrued from the now notorious episode, Singh appears poised to win and perhaps resuscitate the NDP’s near-invisible profile, fast evaporating influence and empty bank account.   

But doubts persist about whether Singh is a bonafide socialist or another centrist-hugging chameleon with a Justin Trudeau-like penchant for selfies and sartorial peccadillos – splashy socks meet splashy turbans. More avowedly progressive NDP supporters also worry that there may be more Tony Blair in Singh than Jeremy Corbyn.

A cautionary sign of Singh’s palatability is the effusive accolades he’s earned from the same band of establishment writers and establishment newspapers that once praised Mulcair for his “statesman-like” reluctance to condemn Israel during its grotesque invasion of Gaza in 2014 and for systematically draining the NDP of its other “militant”, “retrograde” policies.

Indeed, one predictably hyperbolic scribe lauded Singh recently for having “transgressed radical-chic decorum by travelling to Israel with several other [Ontario politicians] on a routine fact-finding tour”.

In an editorial, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, the Toronto Star, well known for its rather limp “liberal” sympathies and energetic devotion to the governing Liberal Party, urged NDP members to back the “charming” Singh “with flair to spare”, despite the “big risks” his candidacy apparently poses for the party’s future.

“But at this point the NDP can’t afford to take the safe route. It needs to bet on the future, and Jagmeet Singh offers the better chance of a path back to political relevancy,” the paper advised.   

Canadians may learn on October 1 whether or not New Democrats have heeded the Star’s perfidious advice. That’s when the results of the first round of voting will be revealed. Given the party’s system of ranked balloting, it could take several ballots and weeks before a winner is finally declared.

When that happens, Jagmeet Singh will know if he’s made history; answered the lingering doubts about his hazy, ideological purity; and if love and courage have prevailed. 

Andrew Mitrovica is an award-winning investigative reporter and journalism instructor.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.