For 150 years, every major federal party leader in Canada has been white. This changed in 2017 when Jagmeet Singh won the first-ballot victory to lead Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP). Shortly thereafter, Singh was accosted at a public event by a white woman named Jennifer Bush who directly accused him of being in bed with Shariah law and the Muslim brotherhood.
Jagmeet encouraged his supporters to meet her with “love and courage, love and courage.”
It was the first national test of Jagmeet Singh’s leadership, and it won’t be his last. That Singh refused to correct his attacker by clarifying that he is not a Muslim speaks volumes to his sense of solidarity.
To correct her would be to stand aside from the Muslim she thought she was attacking. This politics of solidarity is grounded in Singh’s political philosophy, exemplified in the reason why he ceased to be “Jagmeet Dhaliwal” the lawyer when entering politics. Dhaliwal is an upper-caste Punjabi surname, and he shed it for the egalitarian name “Singh.”
Canada represents itself as a vibrant, multicultural society, but if it is, it isn’t because of any inherent Canadian “values.” It’s because people of colour have fought tooth and nail to have their humanity respected.
We know that any progressiveness is always under threat by the foundations of structural white supremacy that have colonised hundreds of Indigenous territories in the making of modern Canada.
Set amidst the violence of settler colonialism, Jagmeet Singh’s story is at once extraordinary in terms of his position as one of the country’s most important national politicians, and simultaneously ordinary, because of how every-day his fight against everyday white supremacy has had to be.
Born to immigrant parents whose education wasn’t recognised in Canada, “Jagmeet Singh Jimmy Dhaliwal,” grew up as Jimmy Dhaliwal in the eastern Canadian province of Newfoundland before returning to Ontario, the place of his birth. Like so many other children without white skin in a settler-colonial society, he was told to wash off his complexion and was violently attacked simply for existing. He learned to fight back— literally—by studying Taekwondo as a child and becoming a champion submission grappler by his late teens.
As a member of the Punjabi diaspora, Singh was empathetic to the plight of French-speaking people in Canada and learned the French language in part from listening to endless amounts of French-Canadian music. Learning French was an act of minority solidarity in a predominantly Anglophone country however, the feeling in Quebec towards Singh was not exactly mutual. During the recent election, an NDP supporter in Montreal suggested that Singh “cut off” his turban to look more Canadian. Singh fought back with an earnest attempt at education, telling the man that there’s no single way to “look” Canadian.
That province had recently passed a law outlawing religious symbols from being worn by public employees.
Singh would not be allowed to practice law in Quebec unless he parted with his turban, beard, and kara.
As the first non-white leader of a major federal party, Singh has constantly been held to a higher level of scrutiny than his political opponents. Perhaps the best example of this in the two years since he has occupied this role was when news broke of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s scandalous blackface and brownface incidents photographs. This openly racist and demeaning act has seemed to have had little impact on Trudeau’s fortunes. Yet simply for wearing a Turban, Singh has been singled out for so much public scrutiny that he even did a newscast where he untied his turban and allowed a white journalist to touch his hair to see that there was nothing mysterious underneath.
The lesson is clear: if you are white, you can always excuse your racism by saying you were somehow unaware and that you feel bad about it. If you aren’t, expect that you will always work harder to gain public trust.
It was a defining moment of the 2019 campaign when Singh spoke directly to racialised people in Canada as news of the Prime Minister’s racist photographs broke. A visibly and audibly emotional Singh said, “I want you to know that you might feel like giving up on Canada. You might feel like giving up on yourselves.
I want you to know that you have value, you have worth, and you are loved. And I don’t want you to give up on Canada and, please don’t give up on yourselves.”
Singh’s generosity and willingness to indulge the ignorance of the majority population of Canada, while refusing to compromise on his identity as an extremely visible minority is a defining part of his political identity. The rise of Jagmeet Singh comes alongside rising white-nationalism in Canada and across the settler-colonial centres.
What’s clear is that regardless of formal electoral fortunes, his work at the highest levels of Canadian politics is just getting started.