The underdog roots of Jagmeet Singh
Jagmeet Singh has always been the underdog and he thrives on it. He will often point to chardi kala, a Punjabi term used in Sikhi for aspiring to a positive and joyful demeanour in the face of adversity—or “rising spirits” as he sometimes describes it—as a driving principle behind his eternal optimism.
For Singh, the polls, the pundits, and the politicians never really seem to matter. These things that take up the political discourse in Canada, he is quick to point out, don’t really affect the daily lives of working people. Instead, he says, it is people and their well-being that matters most to him. With that focus, it is no surprise he’s regularly underestimated by his detractors while remaining steadfast in the face of their criticism.
Love & Courage, the pre-election memoir by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, is notable for what it doesn’t contain: an in-depth story of his political career. Since becoming the first elected NDP representative from the burgeoning 905 suburbs of Mississauga and Brampton during the 2011 Ontario provincial election (after coming very close to winning a seat as a federal MP during the 2011 ‘Orange Wave’), Singh has had a storied career that’s culminated in his leadership of the federal NDP in the 2019 federal election. This autobiography isn’t about that.
Love & Courage starts with Singh’s defining viral moment from September 2017 where he stood up to an Islamophobic event crasher, earning him accolades from the likes of Bernice King and Seth Rogen. The book ends with a five-page epilogue that speeds through his entire time in elected offices.
The memoir’s central focus is Singh’s struggles during childhood as his family navigated Canada’s often racist immigration and economic systems. Structural inequalities forced his parents to move several times, first from his Scarborough birthplace to Punjab, and then on to St. John’s. Finally, the family landed in working-class Windsor, which Singh still considers his hometown.
Singh’s story illustrates how Canada’s political-economic system, one which frequently devalues the human capital and communal contributions of dark-skinned newcomers, forced his well-educated parents to struggle to earn a decent living.
Singh’s father, though holding a medical degree and experience as a trained doctor, had to work the night shift as a security guard while supporting a newborn baby. Singh’s upbringing and his experiences are clearly rooted in the workers’ struggles that most racialized newcomers face when they come to Canada, especially those seeking to escape extreme violence and poverty.
Singh’s underdog story of struggle continued into his youth, where he experienced both overt and systemic racism. As federal NDP leader, he is often asked whether or not he prepares for inevitable confrontations with racist hecklers (earlier this month, Singh was confronted by a man who told him to cut off his turban).
His entire Canadian life experience, from school yard fights over the colour of his skin, to police carding, to the Islamophobic reaction to 9/11, has prepared him for these moments. Through it all, chardi kala exemplifies his continued approach to the racism he has faced and continues to face, both in everyday life and out on the campaign trail.
Singh also movingly chronicles the sexual abuse he suffered in his youth, as well as his father’s battle with alcoholism. Laying bare these vulnerabilities shows not only how far he has come, but his understanding of trauma and the experiences that now inform his approach to reconciliation.
If there is any political story to glean from Love & Courage, it is how he and the Punjabi-Sikh community in the Canadian diaspora have had to grapple with the trauma and aftermath of the 1984 Sikh Genocide. Relatedly, Singh also addresses the troubling mainstreaming of right-wing Hindu nationalism fomented by the current Indian government, but this topic takes up little space in the book. This is somewhat surprising considering his outspoken opposition against past and present human rights abuses which has resulted in Singh being denied a visa by the Indian government.
Though his memoir doesn’t present a clear “political awakening” or revelatory moment of “class consciousness”, it is still easy to see how Singh’s politics have been informed through his Love & Courage story. For all his occasional slip-ups, the criticism that his politics and policies are not radical enough to change anything—or the evergreen concern of the white pundit-class that “Canada is just not ready for a non-white leader”—Singh’s story shows that, with the odds he has faced and overcome, it would be a misstep to underestimate him.
At the start of the 2017 leadership campaign, many thought of the slogan “love and courage” as vapid and clichéd. Many forgot that this slogan and Singh’s chardi kala spirit echo Jack Layton’s parting words to Canadians back in 2011: “Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear”. Layton’s underdog Orange Wave continues to be the high water mark for where Singh ought to take the NDP. Today, whether confronting racists on nationally televised debates, white supremacists in the streets, or neoliberal austerity in daily politics, Love & Courage is beginning to sound more like a rallying slogan for the underdogs.
Clement Nocos is an Ottawa-based policy analyst and writer. His work has previously appeared in The Globe and Mail, VICE, and GQ. He studied political economy at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the University of Tokyo. He also previously worked as Jagmeet Singh’s campaign handler throughout the 2017 federal NDP leadership campaign.