OTTAWA—Jagmeet Singh couldn’t let it continue.
His father’s drinking was too much. For years he’d come home from work, hit the booze, pass out on the family couch. There were fits of rage and failed attempts to dry out, as his once-sturdy frame shed weight to the alcohol.
Something needed to change, so Singh told his dad to leave, and kicked him out of the house.
He was 21.
“My mom was kind of … emotionally drained from everything that was going on. And I was the eldest and I had to step up,” Singh told the Star by phone on Monday.
“It was probably the hardest thing I had to do in my life.”
Singh is 40 now, and known to Canadians as the leader of the federal New Democratic Party. In his new memoir, Love and Courage, published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster Canada, Singh unfurls the story of his upbringing in Windsor, Ont. and the hardships he overcame on his way to becoming the first leader of a major federal party who is not white. With an election in the offing, the memoir is the NDP leader’s entry into the familiar genre of political get-to-know-me books, a requisite pre-writ practice that Singh saw as a chance to share elements of his personal story that could, as he puts it, “make people’s lives better.”
He writes about racist bullying he experienced as a Sikh kid with long hair and a patka, a small head wrap. He was pushed around on the playground, called dirty for his brown skin, derided as a “Paki” and a “diaper head.” To help him defend himself, his parents put him in tae kwon do training, a decision that exposed him to the trauma of a coach who—as Singh discloses publicly for the first time in the book—abused him when they were alone at his house.
But more than anything, Singh said the book is as much his story as it is the story of his father, Jagtaran, a doctor from India who came to Canada and fell into a cycle of alcoholism that alienated his family and left his eldest son feeling the burden of responsibility—for himself, and his loved ones—at a young age. He recalls arriving at university in first year and being reminded of a rehab facility where he had driven his father for one of his attempts to stop drinking.
His father’s example turned the young Singh off drugs and alcohol as a teenager, and to this day, he says, he abstains even from coffee.
“He was incredibly generous and loving on one hand, but then hurting the same people that he loved. It was just so confusing,” Singh said.
“It’s easier to understand a stranger, my martial arts instructor who abused me … that he could hurt me … But it’s much harder to deal with someone that you love and who clearly loves you. Them hurting you is much harder to understand.”
His father’s decline also landed the family in financial hardship. With no doctor’s salary to support them, Singh said his family lived for a time without a place to call home. He would call around to people they knew and ask if they could stay with them for a while.
When he was 20, he took in his younger brother Gurratan to live with him while he finished his undergraduate studies, and became a sort of father figure who cooked, cleaned and took care of him. (Gurratan followed his brother’s career path as a lawyer and then Ontario MPP for the riding of Brampton East.)
Singh said the difficulties during those years gave him insight into what many Canadians go through, and make him understand the impact federal policies like national pharmacare—a key plank in the NDP’s emerging election platform—can have for people struggling to make ends meet.
“I’ve had some experience in a bunch of different types of struggles that people face, which gives me the ability to understand a lot of people that are feeling frustrated or afraid or worried, because I remember feeling different levels of those emotions throughout my life,” he said.
He also found the process of writing the book “liberating,” particularly when it came to opening up about the sexual abuse from his tae kwon do instructor—a man who has since died, and who Singh isn’t sure was ever publicly accused or charged with any crime. The abuse was something he didn’t tell another human being about for a decade, and until recently was only known among a close circle of loved ones. His hope is that in telling this story, others won’t feel like they need to bottle up and hide with what happened to them, like he did.
“The ultimate healing is when you can grow personally, but also help others grow,” he said. The title of his memoir, and his political slogan, “love and courage” is about that growth, he said: how people can find a way to look past shame and regret and love themselves, love other people despite the harm they have inflicted, and ultimately extend that love to the planet and our communities
“I really believe the goal is to love everyone around us,” Singh said. “That is the ultimate goal.”
As for his father, he eventually found a rehab facility that worked—one in Windsor that was publicly funded, Singh pointed out—and has been sober for more than 13 years. Singh said the turning point for him, was when he saw his dad depleted and frail, using a walker to support himself. That’s when he realized his alcoholism was an illness, not a choice, he said.
“You have to take steps to protect yourself, but you can still love someone who is sick,” Singh said.
“Now he’s one of my best buds, my best friends. He’s awesome.”
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga