Well this is it. One of the most electric stories in the history of the Indo-Canadian experience is about to play out and it’s not a film, book, or novel — it’s real life. Perhaps it may become one of the more intriguing tales in Canadian political history.
An over-exaggeration? Maybe, but you will definitely remember the name Jagmeet Singh. Singh has thrown his hat into the NDP leadership race. This comes after months of being woo’d by substantial names in the party such as people who worked closely with Jack Layton and have now put their names forward to help Singh. Some like Brad Lavigne, doing so at the cost of leaving a high profile job. After considering Singh’s bio, one can see the allure. A successful defence attorney who got into the field after experiencing injustice firsthand from police officers — Singh not only took this experience as inspiration for law but also policy, by pioneering a bill which ended the action of “carding” by police in Ontario that allowed them to randomly perform street checks.
He also has experience in overcoming the odds politically which was seen vividly in the thrill and suspense of his 2011 provincial victory in which he won by a close margin in the liberal stronghold, Bramalea-Gore-Malton. He became the first turban-wearing MPP in Ontario history.
There is also an “X” factor. His fashion taste has made it into the world of GQ magazine which detailed his charm. His Ontario roots and the ability of making a dent in that province is also rightfully anticipated among party insiders. There’s ample reason to get excited for the NDP faithful.
That being said, the obstacles will be immense and his race and culture will most likely be the focus of dialogue. It will be asked: is Canada ready for an Indo-Canadian (let alone non-white) prime minister? At some point you can bank on a story being done on hate reactions towards Singh.
Yet, what I am more interested in is this: how will Singh deal with himself and his religion? Through history we have seen different examples of the mixing of religion and politics. Tommy Douglas, a former baptist preacher, intertwined his policies with his religious beliefs. He was clear in communicating a Canada that would embrace the social gospel and see healthcare as a right, a divine right even.
Looking south, JFK made sure to tell the public he wasn’t running to be the first catholic president but rather the first president who happened to be catholic. Martin Luther King was quite comfortable using biblical imagery in describing his journey; he often compared himself to Moses straining for the promised land ahead.
Further away we see the example of Gandhi who was explicit in the religious, mystical, and contemplative fuel for his stance on peace. Canadian intellectual giant George Grant, in the Plato tradition of defining philosophy as the ongoing experience of the perfections of God, saw Gandhi’s integration of religion, philosophy, and policy as fruit of true knowledge and experience that the enlightenment and technology would always be inept in offering.
Obviously these are examples of figures who are quite loved across the spectrum. However, for every William Wilberforce — sparking the end of the slave trade, there is also a George Bush — highly associated with violence and war and also being highly religious. This latter element is well known in the modern liberal ethos of Canada, especially its university campuses that mostly approach religion as an ill to be evolved from. The former peace and rights tradition has been forgotten. People are hard pressed to remember that it was actually the protestant reformation and its focus on the priesthood of all believers and access for all to scriptures that birthed liberalism — some would even say modernism. In certain circumstances in the Hindu Mahabharata were the first instances of a peace tradition encouraging warriors to do whatever it takes to avoid casualties.
Without a pastor, there would be no NDP.
So how then will Jagmeet Singh, in light of this cultural amnesia, respond to mention of his religion? Will he completely ignore it? That would be hard to do as he openly lives his life with the hallmarks of a practicing baptized Sikh. It should also be difficult to avoid since the decision to keep a turban on can be so vital for Indo-Canadian youth who are facing all kinds of pressures inside and outside the culture. In an interview with Rick Mercer however, Singh leveraged questions about his turban to make more general connections with the audience. He related how his friends described him as a hipster before it was trendy on account of his fashionable clothing, colourful turbans, and vegetarianism. This type of deflection will be detrimental, especially in light of previous challenges the NDP experienced regarding the balance of citizenship and religion — namely the Thomas Mulcair and the niqab fall out in Quebec.
Will Singh intentionally avoid the elephant in the room like JFK did? Will he be unashamed like MLK and Ghandi? Or is he just a Canadian hipster, an NDP version of Trudeau and simply what many unique politicians want to be desperately seen as: normal? For Christian Alberta, secular Quebec, and perhaps all of Canada, authenticity might matter more than normality.
Here’s to hoping whatever the answer is, that Jagmeet Singh dares to keep the turban on, and not just literally. History is kind to winners and martyrs. Every Joshua needs a Moses. Every worldview needs to be challenged. If the typical Canadian voter does not care what Guru Nanak Dev said about equality, or does not care what Singh believes and how this impacts his choices in personal or public life, then it’s time to show them why it does and will always matter. Should this be the central issue? Of course not. But this not being a point of reflection at all would be a fruit of cultural assimilation at its worst. Here’s to looking at you Jagmeet Singh.
Sat Sri Akal.