In jiu-jitsu, you tap out when you know you’re defeated. There’s honour in that. But Jagmeet Singh wasn’t beat.
At least, he refused to accept it.
Long before he led the New Democratic Party in a federal election campaign against long odds as the unquestioned underdog, Singh was a young criminal lawyer, scrabbling to earn enough that his family would never again wobble on the precipice of poverty.
On the side, he would fight. Sometimes irresponsibly.
In this particular jiu-jitsu tournament, his opponent snaked his legs around one of Singh’s, torquing his ankle and knee in opposite directions. This was “excruciating,” but he didn’t consider it dangerous. As he said, “I’ve always had the toughness. I would never tap to pain.”
When it was over, Singh collapsed to the mat. His leg felt weak. He could barely walk.
Turns out that while the future NDP leader was refusing to tap out, his opponent was busy tearing apart the major ligament in his knee. Singh needed reconstructive surgery, and hasn’t fought competitively since.
More than halfway through the country’s 43rd federal election campaign, Singh is trying to tell different versions of the same story to the Canadian public: more than Justin Trudeau or Andrew Scheer, the NDP leader knows the anxieties many of us face. He is the turbaned son of Sikh immigrants, who fought racist bullies on the playground and overcame the trauma of sexual abuse to take on the responsibilities of his family while his father was sidelined by addiction. Through it all, he persevered with a sunny disposition that belies his pugnacious spirit.
It’s a story with parallels in the narrative of his political life — something Singh is happy to emphasize as he works to defend an NDP whose chances were all but written off at the beginning of the campaign.
After his knee surgery, Singh says he still had a struggling family to worry about. And as a self-employed defence lawyer, he would have no income if he took time off to recover. So, just days later, Singh says he was back in court with his leg in a splint, sweating through the pain that he declined to numb away with painkillers, because he doesn’t take any drugs (or drink alcohol).
“I don’t give up,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It’s just my way of doing things.”
In another universe, another version of Singh toils in obscurity at an auto plant in Windsor, Ont.
He applied to work there every summer while he was working on his undergraduate degree. It was a tempting gig, with solid pay and stability — exactly what was missing in his life.
“I always think about if I would have got that job,” said Singh, 40, his voice crackling in the wind over the phone from British Columbia, where he sat on a piece of driftwood on the shore of the Salish Sea. “I just wanted to survive.”
Singh’s memoir, “Love and Courage,” documents at length how his life as the eldest son of a high-ranking Windsor psychologist was disrupted by hardships many of us can only imagine. Bullies in elementary school called him “dirty” for his brown skin and “diaper head” for the patka that covered his hair. He signed up for tae kwon do lessons, which exposed him to a whole new arena of pain. His coach — Reginald Nelson, who died in 2006 — lured him with a promise of “special” training, only to sexually abuse him.
Meanwhile, life at home unravelled as his father crumbled in the grip of alcoholism. Singh writes of his father’s bouts of anger, how he hid bottles of vodka around the house and eventually lost his licence to practise medicine. At one point, Singh kicked his own father out of the house, and later described bathing his wasted body at the filthy apartment where he lived alone, while the rest of the family tried to figure out how to carry on without him.
“A lot of people have gone through a lot worse things, but my brother has truly seen a glimpse into a precarious life,” said Gurratan Singh, the 34-year-old New Democrat MPP for the same Brampton riding — albeit with different boundaries — that his brother represented from 2011 to 2017.
“When they talk about Jagmeet being different, that is why he is different.”
Studying biology at the University of Western Ontario, Singh took in his little brother, signed him up for high school and cooked him the gargantuan feasts that teenage boys routinely devour. Cooking has been a passion of Singh’s ever since — he even invented his own Punjabi poutine, featuring sweet potatoes and a special Indian-inspired tomato sauce.
In the early 2000s, he abandoned the aspiration to become a doctor, choosing law instead because it was a quicker route to the income he needed to support his family while his dad tried repeatedly to get sober in rehab. He got into Osgoode Hall, the prestigious law school at York University.
Singh was the type to blast Dead Prez, the aggressively leftist rap duo from New York, and show up to class in the velour track suits that were in vogue at the time for those with a hip hop tilt.
Sonia Lawrence, Singh’s professor in first-year criminal law, remembers “a masculine guy who was projecting a lot of confidence.” Singh wasn’t shy about speaking up in class and had strong views, but he wouldn’t “take up more room than he should, which is a thing that many, many, many confident law students do,” Lawrence said.
“He was really engaged in the idea that you could use law for social change,” she added. “He was pretty determined about that, but still feeling around how he was going to do that.”
This attraction to social justice may have stemmed his upbringing. In his memoir, Singh writes about how equality and the unity of everything are core tenets of the Sikhism. His mother’s teachings were also important, particularly the idea notion of charhdi kala, or “rising spirits,” a diktat of perseverance in the face of hardship.
After graduating in 2005, Singh worked briefly at the Pinkofskys law firm before embarking on his own as a self-employed criminal defence lawyer. He got involved in social causes around Brampton and Mississauga, where his family had relocated as his father finally succeeded at sobriety and a new life.
“I started feeling pretty secure,” Singh said. “Everything was balanced out.”
Then his brother pushed him.
On May 2, 2011, Singh and Gurratan and a small collective of volunteers were crammed into a Brampton campaign office, stunned as they watched the federal election results roll in on TV. Jack Layton’s “orange wave” was lifting the New Democrats to victory in unexpected places, most notably in Quebec, where the party was almost non-existent.
Brampton, a suburban city in the 905, was another place where New Democrats weren’t supposed to get elected. Yet here was a rookie named Jagmeet Singh on the ballot for the NDP, neck and neck for a seat. He wound up losing, but the margin was close — 539 votes — and when he ran again that fall in Ontario’s provincial election, he won.
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“He was our breakthrough guy in the 905,” said Peter Tabuns, the NDP MPP who sat beside Singh at Queen’s Park for more than two years. “When you do that on very difficult turf, you get noticed.”
The decision to run didn’t come naturally to Singh. Gurratan and a longtime friend, a progressive activist named Amneet Singh, were engaged with a variety of causes in Brampton. As Gurratan tells it, they grew tired the political “void” in their city and wanted to elect someone with the NDP. They wanted someone likeable, charismatic and at ease with public speaking. And right in front of them, there was Singh — a left-leaning lawyer who was already helping them in their local activism.
But Singh was having none of it — at least initially.
“We just saw so much in him,” Gurratan said. “I got pretty upset with him in pushing him to go forward to do it.”
At the time, Singh says, he felt comfortable with his position in life for the first time in quite a while. His legal practice was humming. His father was sober, and his family felt secure. He was also already engaged in causes he cared about: he taught legal rights clinics and offered pro bono representation to protesters arrested at events like the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto.
“I was angry with him,” Singh said. “He was pushing me out of my comfort zone and I was also a little bit — it was bumping on the idea that he was younger than me, and I had taught him and raised him.”
Eventually, Singh was convinced. He says he now sees the argument as a “beautiful moment” when his younger brother taught him something important. “We were helped out so much by so many different people when we were in a tough position,” he said. “Thriving meant giving back.”
Over the next six years, the rookie MPP from Brampton championed more affordable car insurance, condemned police carding and rose to deputy leader — even though he got on the wrong side of many colleagues by calling for Ontario to “respect the diversity of beliefs” on a new sexual education curriculum that was opposed by social conservatives. Known as a flashy dresser — he has described his fashion sense as a sort of armour against racial discrimination — Singh was written about as the “most interesting” person at Queen’s Park, a star on social media with the lackadaisical parlance of a younger generation and an affability that is referenced constantly by those who know him.
By 2016, there was hype enough for a news article to list him as a possible candidate for the federal leadership after the disappointment of the 2015 election.
Singh says he had never considered the leadership until then, but he was the instant front-runner when he jumped into the race in May 2017. He brought in thousands of new members, raised more money than all his opponents combined, and swept to a first-ballot victory on Oct. 1, 2017.
Charlie Angus, the northern Ontario MP who was his closest competitor in the race, had doubts about this ostentatious new leader. There were also concerns he was “too centrist,” Angus says, with a proposal during the race to roll long-standing Old Age Security payments with other supports into a single, means-tested benefit for seniors. After the campaign led by Thomas Mulcair in 2015 — in which many New Democrats remember being outflanked on the left by the Liberals — there were worries Singh would be out of step with the party’s social democratic base.
“I knew he was incredibly charismatic, I knew he was really popular with people, but I didn’t know he could do that work in the base,” Angus said.
It didn’t take long for a perception to settle in that the party was in trouble. There were verbal gaffes and stumbles, as Singh showed ignorance of his own party’s policies — on guns and Venezuela, for instance — and initially refused to condemn political violence after attending a Sikh diaspora event where someone argued it was justified. He was criticized for removing a party veteran from chairing a committee chair after he broke ranks on a Commons vote, and was blindsided by separate accusations of sexual harassment against two of his MPs.
“Anyone who read the news,” said one NDP insider who worked with Singh through the period, “knows it wasn’t the easiest time.”
Things started to turn around, at least in Angus’s eyes, when Singh sought help from people like veteran adviser Michael Balagus, who helping on the campaign, and Jennifer Howard, a former Manitoba finance minister who is now Singh’s chief of staff. He also gambled and won by relocating to B.C. to win a vacant seat in Burnaby South in February, ending the 14-month stretch in which the NDP leader didn’t have a seat in the House of Commons.
“He staked everything on that,” said Angus. “That was a big test for a lot of our base.”
On top of that, the NDP came out before the election with a platform that plants the party firmly to the left of the Liberals, with pledges to spend tens of billions on universal pharmacare, dental care for millions of Canadians, and a go-after-the-rich rhetoric that coincides with a proposed “super wealth tax” on the uber-wealthy.
Now the bigger test is underway. Singh is campaigning with an underfunded NDP war chest — party donations plummeted by almost 75 per cent from 2015 to 2018 — and polls suggest the party may struggle to make gains or even keep what it had when Parliament dissolved at the start of the election.
He also says he’s getting ready to compete in jiu-jitsu again, for the first time since he refused to tap out and got his knee torn apart.
But that fight will have to wait, he says, until this one is over.