Ottawa: Canada’s latest political phenomenon is just 38. He’s a dapper lawyer who wears bespoke three-piece suits, rides his bike to work and has been featured in GQ.
He also sports a long beard and wears pastel-coloured turbans and a kirpan — a ceremonial dagger — both integral elements of the Sikh religion.
Meet Jagmeet Singh, who is shaking up the lacklustre race to lead Canada’s left-leaning New Democratic Party, the country’s third-largest political player. His backers say he could eventually pose a political threat to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the governing Liberal Party.
Singh, until now the deputy leader of the New Democrats in the provincial legislature in Ontario, is the latest in a line of Sikh Canadians who have made a big impact on the country’s political scene, a remarkable achievement for a minority that in the 2011 census accounted for less than 1.5 per cent of Canada’s population.
Four members of Trudeau’s Cabinet are Sikh. Trudeau recently joked there were more Sikhs in his Cabinet than in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s. (Sikhism is the fourth largest religion in India, but Sikhs make up just 2 per cent of the country’s population.)
Canada’s Sikhs numbered 455,000 in the 2011 census, with the biggest concentrations in British Columbia and the Toronto area. But the political and economic success of the Sikh diaspora here makes Canada a major draw for Sikhs in India.
“For Sikhs across the world, Canada is seen as one of the best places to live,” says Balpreet Singh, legal counsel and spokesman for the World Sikh Organisation of Canada.
Balpreet Singh, a cousin of Jagmeet’s, said in an interview Sikhs have also succeeded in the US but have faced more discrimination, including a series of hate crimes in which Sikhs have been mistaken for Muslims. “We don’t have anything here like you have in America.”
Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, a polling firm based in Vancouver, said Jagmeet Singh appeals to many of the same voters who made Trudeau’s victory possible in 2015. “He appeals to a youth demographic, and he appeals to minority communities,” Kurl said.
“Where Justin Trudeau talks about diversity being our strength, Jagmeet Singh is the embodiment of that. He can almost out-Trudeau Justin Trudeau.”
Sikhs first arrived in Canada at the end of the 19th century but soon found themselves unwelcome. In a now-famous incident in 1914, when the Japanese ship Komagata Maru landed at Vancouver harbour with 376 mostly Sikh passengers, authorities refused to allow the would-be immigrants to disembark. After a court battle, the passengers were expelled from Canada. In May of last year, Trudeau formally apologised for the incident.
The real growth in the number of Sikhs and other South Indians began in the 1970s when the government of Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, relaxed Canada’s immigration laws.
Brought up in Newfoundland, where his father studied medicine, and later in Windsor, Ontario, Jagmeet Singh said the racism he faced as a child made him sensitive to victims of discrimination and motivated his career choice as a defence lawyer.
At a leadership debate held by the New Democrats in June, Singh said his identity would be a vote-getter. “I can connect with new Canadians in ways that others on this stage simply cannot,” he said.
New Democratic Party members will begin casting ballots in the online election in mid-September in what could be several rounds of voting. A final result is expected by mid-October. Predicting the outcome is difficult because voting is limited to party members.
One indication of Singh’s strength: His campaign raised more money by far than his three opponents in the period that ended in June.