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Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leadership Candidate, Says He’s Ready To Lead

September 30, 2017 9:53 PM
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Jagmeet Singh, NDP Leadership Candidate, Says He’s Ready To Lead

"I always believe you should be better today than you were yesterday ..."

The NDP leadership hopeful leans back against the window in the boardroom of the NDP's headquarters in Ottawa. He has just concluded back-to-back interviews with members of the parliamentary press gallery and "This Hour Has 22 Minutes."

Dressed in a pinstriped dark blue suit, no socks and a bright bubblegum pink turban, he furrows his brow. Singh looks genuinely confused and, maybe, a bit hurt.

The previous day, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair told reporters that it is "important" for the party's next leader to have a seat in the House of Commons, suggesting that he hadn't been afraid to fight for a seat in a Liberal stronghold in order to be in Parliament.

"I'll let the only person in the race who's not in the House yet decide ... you know, what he does if there's ever an election, but I think that if we're going to have somebody leading the party after I'm gone, it'll be a heck of a lot better to have that person crossing swords on a daily basis with the prime minister," Mulcair said.

Singh has suggested that if elected leader, he might spend the next two years building the party's presence across the country — much as Jack Layton did after winning the NDP race in 2003 — rather than run in a byelection.

He has also been coy about committing to run for his Brampton, Ont. provincial seat federally. That riding is currently held by Liberal Raj Grewal, another charismatic young Sikh — leaving open the possibility of running in Toronto where an NDP win may be more likely.

Singh twists the sides of his moustache through his thumbs, curls it upwards and then stands up. He has a packed agenda, and he's already late to meet with students from the University of Ottawa's NDP club.

Their excitement is palpable when they see him arrive. About 20 students, bright eyes and rosy cheeks, lift their hands up at once to ask him questions.

He talks about being born in Scarborough, Ont., and moving to St. John's when his father was accepted to medical school at Memorial University of Newfoundland; then living in Windsor, Ont., where his dad got a job as a psychiatrist. (Singh actually lived in the Punjab state in India as a baby — he was cared for by his grandmother while his parents struggled to gain a foothold in Canada).

He talks about his family's struggle when his father became ill and Singh, the oldest child, became the family's main breadwinner. He delves into the racial injustice he felt as a law student being stopped for "driving while brown" and his fight to end police carding practices.

Earlier in the day, Singh met up with Ottawa cyclists on Parliament. He snapped pictures, and with his Brompton folding bike and his three-piece suit, peddled around the city with the curious folks who had come out to see him.

Later, that evening, his "JagMeet and Greet" event was swarmed by New Democrats excited at the prospect of having a debonair brown-skinned Sikh as their leader.

To some in the party, Singh resembles the NDP's arch enemy: Justin Trudeau. They see him as flashy and not enough of a policy wonk.

His rival, Ontario MP Charlie Angus, has suggested — without naming Singh — that the party doesn't need "empty slogans." Singh's campaign motto is the often repeated call for "love and courage." He loves to Snapchat and Instagram. He sprinkles "bro" and "cool" in conversation, and doesn't take himself seriously.

The 11 MPs who endorsed him like his style. In personal conversations, they describe him as collaborative, willing to listen and to take advice.

Party heavyweight Nathan Cullen called him the "right guy for the right time," noting his excellent ability to communicate. New MP Sheila Malcolmson said she felt a "surge of hope, inspiration and excitement about how the party could connect and lead" when Singh hosted a town hall in her Nanaimo riding.

Former leadership contender Peter Julian, who bowed out of the contest in June and endorsed Singh, noted the tens of thousands of new members the Ontario MPP has brought to the party. (Singh's campaign officials say they signed up 47,000 new supporters — more than a third of the party's total 124,000 members).

Others, however, think he's a bit pompous. Singh has refused to entertain the possibility that he might lose the race, telling New Democrats in several debates that he will win.

"It's something that I don't have the luxury not to be," he said, noting that critics discount him because he is Sikh and the only non-MP in the race.

In HuffPost's extensive profile in January, Singh said he grew up with the idea that people would stare at him because he was different.

"'You're dirty, your skin is dirty, why don't you take a shower?'," he recounted them saying. "... or 'You're not a boy, you're a girl because you have long hair,' and then they would just come up and pull my hair, or just punch me."

His father enrolled him in taekwondo so he could learn to defend himself. Singh later became captain of the school wrestling team and the Greater Toronto Area's grappling champion in his weight class. Being picked on also taught him to portray confidence, he said.

"[It] makes you less of a target when you are very sure of yourself," he said. "... I had to try to develop this mentality that people are going to stare at me, they are going to look at me, so I'd better give them something to look at," he told HuffPost.

Asked why he now wants to lead the federal New Democrats, Singh acknowledges that he never gave it serious thought until about a year and a half ago. After party members politically beheaded their leader at the Edmonton convention in April 2016 over a disappointing election result, Singh said he was pleasantly surprised to hear his name come up as a potential successor.

At the time, Singh was the Ontario NDP's deputy leader, and attracting national attention in party circles for his ability to reach out to non-traditional communities. He was also invited to address New Democrats in Alberta and British Columbia.

"The response from the crowd and from people after I did my keynote address was so overwhelmingly in favour of me running, I then started thinking maybe I should give this more thought," he told Follow-Up, HuffPost Canada's political podcast, in September.

Singh said he didn't decide to run until four months ago, when he announced his bid. But he started his YouTube channel in June 2016, the same month he spoke at the Alberta NDP convention on diversity and reducing inequality.

The discussion with his team, he said, centred on doing "as much positive as I can in the shortest amount of time.

"Some folks said: 'If that's your mentality, then this may be the best way to do the most amount of good. Inspire the most amount of people, get the movement, you know, excited again,' and I started thinking about that ... and eventually it kind of made sense to me.

"There are moments where I was, like, ambivalent. I thought, 'No, it doesn't make sense.' You know, it's such a big sacrifice, such a big step, staying provincial makes more sense in the sense. This is where I received a mandate. This is where I was elected and this is where we're in a great position provincially...."

Singh sees himself as fighting the good fight. The NDP is the only party that can make Canadian society more inclusive and more just, he says, and he believes he is his party's best chance to win in 2019.

"I think I'm able to inspire people, and I'm able to capture the attention of people. And work with the team and celebrate the team to bring out the best attributes and qualities of the team around me. And that's going to put us in the best position to achieve electoral success," he said.

On the campaign trail, he talks about lessons from his mother. It's his way of explaining why he thinks he connects and where his motivation comes from.

"With the risk of sounding too New Age, [it's] that there's something that all human beings share. We share something and even if it wouldn't seem that way on the surface — you might think all people are, you know, different: language backgrounds, different regional backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds, different genders — there's a common humanity that we all share, and a part of my practice, because of my mom's teaching, I try to find that and look for that ....

"We all share far more in common than [what] separates us, and it's a truth that I think all people start to see when you spend time with other people."

Addressing a large crowd at the Bombay Palace restaurant in Brampton at his campaign kickoff, Singh described his mother as the biggest influence in his life.

"She explained to me that if one person is suffering, then we are all suffering. She showed me that it's not enough to take care of oneself, but that we must take care of all of those around us. If we lift up the people around us, we all rise."

Singh is often portrayed in the media as wearing his religion as an accessory: the kirpan stylishly adorning his bespoke suit and his colourful turbans tied in a less traditional style. But Singh is deeply religious: a vegetarian who doesn't drink alcohol, smoke, or do drugs. He embodies the virtues of the Sikh faith: caring for the poor and defending the rights of others.

He told HuffPost he entered politics partly because of his faith. He was encouraged to run by his brother and his best friend, who both felt that the local representatives in Brampton had not been supportive of their 2010 protest. They were opposed to visiting Indian minister Kamal Nath, a man accused of leading a deadly rampage against Sikhs in 1984 after Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards.

At Queen's Park, Singh introduced a motion calling the four-day bloodbath that left more than 3,000 Sikhs dead a "genocide." He said he was standing up for the Sikh community and the injustice towards them.

Singh was denied a visa to visit India in 2013, but he says it had nothing to do with his Sikh activism.

"I criticized their human-rights track record, the treatment of women ... the treatment of Dalits, which is what people call the low-caste or "the untouchables," ... I talked about the mistreatment of minority communities like Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs, and, so, for all this criticism that I have levelled against India, they denied me visa, and, I guess, an ongoing ban."

Singh said he was asked to retract his statement and to sign an agreement that he would not complain any further, in order to be allowed entry.

Earlier this month, Quebec NDP MP Pierre Nantel mused allowed that Quebecers were not ready to embrace a leader who looked like Singh.

"We don't want to see any ostentatious religious symbols. We think that is not compatible with power, with authority," he told Radio-Canada at a caucus meeting in Hamilton.

Bloc Québécois Leader Martine Ouellet went further, suggesting that Singh was too religious for Quebec and that his presence demonstrated the rise of the religious left.

Singh often tries to make the point that — while he may look more religious than Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, whose Roman Catholicism might guide him on issues affecting a woman's right to choose — he shares Quebecers' progressive values on issues such as abortion, subsidized day care, accessible post-secondary education, and treatment of the LGBTQ community.

"I'm confident that I'll be able to reach out on the issues that matter," he told reporters.

On another issue that matters to some Quebecers — nationalism — Singh said this week that he would "immediately" work to support the province's decision in the event of a majority 'yes' vote in a referendum.

"I am someone who supports the right of self-determination," he told a live audience during HuffPost's NDP leadership debate. "If a nation decides on her future, it's up to us to respect this decision — without haste."

Singh describes having a sense of commonality with Quebec. Learning of the province's language fights reminded him of his own Punjabi parents' struggle for language rights in India.

"They didn't allow certain states to be able to teach their own languages ... and it was really oppressive."

This sense of fraternity is one of the reasons he decided to learn French as a child.

During the past five months of his campaign, Singh says his French has drastically improved. He feels more comfortable making stump speeches and connecting with Canadians in different regions, "places where I'm outside my comfort zone."

"Like I always talk about the south shore of Nova Scotia as being a really random place that I would never have visited probably as a provincial politician, but federally [it makes] sense to go everywhere. And I was in this crowd of folks that were maybe lukewarm or, like, neutral when I walked into the room, and at the end of it, the entire audience was, like, really engaged, really excited....

"To me that was something that I developed over this campaign, the ability to connect with people that started off as at something that I kind of pride myself in: the ability to connect but it's definitely improved....

"I love the idea of improving. I always believe you should be better today than you were yesterday, and then I'll be better tomorrow than I was today."

He also pledged to boost the resources of the Canada Revenue Agency to go after offshore accounts and tax cheats.

In return, Singh proposed an income-tested basic income for Canadians with severe disability to ensure that none live in poverty. He also offered a new "working income tax benefit," an income-tested wage subsidy for workers that would be provided monthly or quarterly to help minimum-wage Canadians. A new Canadian seniors guarantee would roll all seniors benefits into an income-tested format.

That proposal, especially, has been criticized by Singh's challengers, who feel he is moving the NDP away from championing universal social programs towards income-tested benefits that the Conservatives and Liberals support.

This week, when asked if his support for income-tested models — the idea that those who can pay more should — extended to universal public health care, Singh sidestepped the question.

Singh has come out against current pipeline projects: Kinder Morgan, Keystone XL and Energy East. He has suggested slightly more ambitious greenhouse gas emission targets than the Liberals — 30 per cent of 2005 levels by 2025 rather than 2030 — and pledged more ambitious targets post 2030.

Unlike challengers Guy Caron or Ashton, however, he isn't calling for an immediate and drastic rethink of the Canadian economy. He says that carbon pricing will be twinned with rebates for low and middle income Canadians, that negotiations on carbon pricing will take into account different provinces' situation, and that his concern is that workers not be thrown out of job. Still, he envisions more investments in zero-emission vehicles, a renewable energy super grid and a national public transit plan.

Many of his campaign promises relate to employees in federally regulated industries, such as his $15 per hour minimum wage pledge and his desire to end all unpaid internships.

He also lays out many policies affecting certain groups of people, such as repealing the ban on blood and organ donations by gay men, or men who have sex with transgender women. He wants Health Canada to collect anonymized data on the experiences of LGBTQI2S+ individuals to improve provincial health care experiences, and he wants the immediate removal of all children from Canada's "no fly list."

Two weeks ago, when HuffPost sat down with Singh and noted he had little policy on Indigenous matters, beyond a commitment to support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, he said he did have one. His team recently released a more comprehensive Indigenous justice agenda, addressing income gaps, education, language issues, reconciliation Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls support centres.

When HuffPost also noted that he had nothing on post-secondary education, while Ashton was calling for free-tuition, he said: "Well, we're also offering free tuition.... We've got a team that worked it out and that has a bold offering. Not just tuition, but also ... supports for those who have other costs associated with going to university or going to post-secondary education. There's not just tuition fees. There's also living costs and cost of books. So we've proposed grants to support those that don't have the access."

Singh hasn't been shy to steal policies he likes from his opponents. He candidly admits during debates that he adopted Caron's electoral reform plan — support for a mixed member proportional system with regional lists.

His challengers also appear to follow his lead. Earlier this month at the Vancouver debate, Singh called for the decriminalization of all drugs to help deal with the opioid crisis. Angus now champions the same policy on his website.

"I'm prepared to offer boldness," Singh says. "Our position on criminal justice, our position on basic income guarantees, our taxation policies are all very bold progressive steps forward. And I would not characterize them as incremental at all."

His policy is vague in some areas because this is a leadership race not an election, he said.

"Leadership policy offerings aren't going to be as as detailed as what is offered during an election campaign. But it provides a sense of the substance or the principles that matter," he said.

"When it comes to specific targets in terms of numbers, we will work those out when we have the resources to do that."

For now, Singh has his eye on Sunday, the contest's first ballot results, and then 2019.

Singh relishes it. And he invites the comparisons to Trudeau. But while he may be able to connect to people in the same way as the Liberal prime minister, he stresses that he's no lightweight.

"I'm someone that was a deputy leader of a provincial party, a lawyer for six years and a scientist, you know, a science graduate — so in terms of my ability to provide a reasoned policy based approach to problems, I think that I'll be able to show that there is certainly substance and certainly a lot of follow-through."

All we've seen with Justin Trudeau, he said, "is promises that touch at the surface of the issues .... I'm hoping to go beyond just talking about them to providing a plan and a vision to achieving them in a follow-through that's truly progressive."


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