With his signature turban and polished style, Jagmeet Singh cuts a unique figure on the political landscape. He is also the first full-time leader of a national political party in Canada who is not white. As such, he has experienced life in this country differently from other politicians.
Singh, now 40, was born in Scarborough. He grew up there, and in St. John’s, N.L., and Windsor, Ont. He was elected as a New Democrat MPP in Ontario and was deputy leader under Andrea Horwath until 2017, when he was elected leader of the federal New Democratic Party. He is now also the New Democrat MP for the B.C. riding of Burnaby South.
In his new memoir, Love & Courage (Simon & Schuster), coming out Tuesday — a book the publisher insists “is not a political memoir” — Singh writes about his personal life and family. Here, the Star presents an exclusive first excerpt from the book, detailing some of the racial and sexual abuse Singh was subjected to when he lived in Windsor and was in grade school.
“Is he brown because he doesn’t shower?” one boy said at recess.
“Dirty,” whispered another.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I was mishearing them, but then the taunts turned to my hair. I felt a shadow looming above me.
“I seriously can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl.”
“Dare you to.”
I kept my head focused straight ahead, trying to ignore the stares and the taunting. Suddenly I felt my topknot being pulled and then a hard shove knocking me to the ground almost simultaneously. I hit the grass hard and felt a sharp strain in my neck. I bit back the yelp, a mixture of pain and surprise, in the back of my throat. I snapped back to my feet and whipped around to confront my assailants. They were pointing and laughing at my patka, my small head wrap, half pulled off my head. My knees were covered in grass stains. I launched toward them with my hands up, yelling, “Let’s go!”
The bell rang to end recess and, with it, my hopes of settling the score, as teachers quickly began corralling all of us students back to class. When I went from Jimmy to Jagmeet, I also went from a regular bowl cut to wrapping my long hair in a patka. I thought I was making a personal decision about who I was, not inviting a new world of bullying. However, as soon as I hit fourth grade, the bullying became relentless. It wasn’t just at school but wherever I went. I was stared at, mocked, made fun of, and often assaulted for the way I looked.
Kids made fun of me for my name, calling me “Jughead” or saying I was a jug of rotten meat. Even the teachers who were well-intentioned would end up butchering the pronunciation of my name.
“It’s Jagmeet, like ‘Jug-meet,’ ” I repeated, over and over, to little effect.
Every recess after that brought with it new insults.
“Hey, diaper head!”
“What’s that stupid thing on your head?”
“Take that towel off.”
The more I heard the taunts, the less I tolerated them. Though I felt afraid and wasn’t completely sure of myself, I held my head tall, shoulders back, and was ready to fight.
“What’s up? You got something to say, say it to my face!” I said, shoving them and getting pushed back. Within seconds, we’d be swinging fists until a teacher broke up the fight and made us stand against the wall for the rest of recess.
I tried to keep my anger and frustration from showing. Whenever I got detention or was told to stand looking at “the wall” during class because I’d misbehaved, I’d stare at the wall, bored and a bit embarrassed. But I was never tempted to stop tying up my hair or go by Jimmy again. Changing my identity wasn’t an option.
If anything, the teasing actually made me even more committed to standing out. To me, my patka, just like the turban I would eventually wear, represented that, as Sikhs, we stood for equality and social justice. In fact, the very act of wearing a turban in the Sikh tradition was an act of rebellion. Historically, turbans were worn by those of a noble class, and it was prohibited for lower classes to wear them. Sikhs defied that prohibition in an act of revolution, declaring all humans to be noble, no matter where they were born or what their gender was.
Besides, I knew that removing my patka wouldn’t appease the bullies anyway. Kids didn’t limit their bullying to my turban or name — they also attacked me for the colour of my skin. One of the most common slurs I heard — “Paki” — was a catch-all insult for brown people, whether they were from Pakistan, India, or Lebanon.
My mom knew about the insults and about my fights (moms always seem to know what’s going on, even when you don’t want them to know). She wanted me to focus on my studies, use my energy more productively.
“Just remember,” she used to say. “We are all connected. We are all one.”
But she never discouraged me from standing up to bullies. She was never willing to tolerate racism, and she didn’t want her kids to have to put up with it either.
Around this time, my parents suggested that maybe I could learn some self-defence techniques, and I was really excited about this idea. I began tae kwon do classes with an instructor (now deceased) whom I’ll call Mr. N. After I’d taken some classes at his gym, he moved his dojo to his home and gave students classes there. He saw that I was really interested in training and offered me extra classes. I had become used to my mom dropping me off in front of his house. Then I’d walk alone to the back and head to the basement, where Mr. N would be waiting for me. The first time I arrived for my extra class, though, when I walked up to the backyard gate, Mr. N was already in the backyard. He was sunbathing on a reclined patio chair.
“You’re early,” he said, sitting up in his chair. I looked at my watch — not really, I thought, I’m just on time. I was more surprised to see that the only garment Mr. N was wearing was a leopard-print Speedo. He looked down, registering my surprise, and laughed. “If I wore these in the winter, my neighbours would think I’m crazy.”
He stretched a little, then opened the back door and gestured for me to head inside. Before I could take my first step downstairs, he stopped me with a hand on my back.
“Nope, this way,” he said, pointing upstairs. “You’ll see — this is a very different program. A special one.”
I was a kid, just a scared, bullied little kid. I wanted to be bigger. I needed to be stronger. Mr. N knew my insecurities and aspirations, maybe better than anyone else. He studied me as closely as I studied tae kwon do. He knew I was in a hurry to get my black belt, and he promised he would fast-track me.
Mr. N abused me. He tied his perversion to my performance, which was my primary motivation. And as the weekend sessions continued on top of my weekly training, I convinced myself that I was improving at tae kwon do.
It didn’t take long for the abuse to seem normal. That’s the thing about abuse — it can make the victim feel an overwhelming sense of shame, a shame so disabling that one suffers in silence. I somehow blamed myself for what had happened, and while I knew the abuse was real — I didn’t imagine it — part of me didn’t actually believe it. And if I didn’t believe it, how was anyone else going to? So I carried the shame and stigma; I buried it deep. I told no one, and I told myself not to think about what had happened. In a way, I prevented myself from actually accepting the truth.
But here, now, is the truth of the experience: abuse doesn’t just go away, even after it ends. The consequences linger. They take a toll, even if it’s invisible for a while. By not speaking up, by convincing myself that nothing had happened, I got through — in the short term. But in the long term, I would have to face the truth. I would have to unearth it, bring it to the surface, and examine it. I would have to face the fact that I was the victim, not the perpetrator. I would have to accept that the abuse really did happen, that it had taken a devastating toll on me, and that I was not to blame.
Excerpted from Love & Courage: My Story of Family, Resilience, and Overcoming the Unexpected. Copyright © 2019 by Jagmeet Singh. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster Canada, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. For more information about the book and Jagmeet Singh’s book tour, visit loveandcouragebook.com.