The York University Magazine

YorkU Fall 2014

The alumni magazine of York University

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20 YorkU Fall 2014 he moment news broke that Jagmeet Singh (LLB '05) had won the Bramalea-Gore-Malton riding in the Ontario election on Oct. 6, 2011, two men paraded him on their shoulders through the cheering crowd gathered in his constituency office. All eyes were fixed on the man in the orange turban. Only five months earlier, Singh had come tantalizingly close to winning the same riding in the federal election and joining Jack Layton's orange wave in Ottawa. This time, he handily defeated the long-serving incumbent to join Andrea Horwath's New Dem- ocratic Party (NDP) on the opposition benches at Queen's Park. The York grad delivered his victory speech in Punjabi, English and French. As the first New Democrat to win in Peel Region and the first turbaned Sikh to sit in the Ontario legisla- ture, he had made history. Not bad for a non-partisan criminal defence lawyer once reluctant to run for office. Three months later, the Toronto Star hailed Singh a trail- blazer and listed the rookie member of the provincial parlia- ment among Toronto's Top 12 Personalities to Watch in 2012. In short order, this dashing 35-year-old bachelor – a Toronto- area Brazilian ju-jitsu champion with a taste for bespoke suits, fancy watches and fine cars – appeared on the cover of Toronto Life as one of the city's most stylish in 2013. Even Toronto Sun political columnist Christina Blizzard, no fan of the NDP, was charmed, giving him high marks for shaking reporters' hands before media scrums. Singh didn't get this kind of attention as a boy. When he was growing up in blue-collar Windsor, Ont., children and even adults taunted the boy with the top knot, dark skin and odd name. The Canadian-born child of Punjabi immigrants started martial arts classes and toughed out elementary school. He attended private high school in Detroit and was surprised at the welcome and respect. "It's almost worse when you see the difference and realize this is what life should be," says Singh. A stellar student and competitive athlete, Singh meant to follow his psychiatrist father into medicine, but family circum- stances made him keen to enter the workforce faster. So after completing a biology degree, he studied computer science, decided it was not for him and heeded his philosophy professor's advice to try law. At York's Osgoode Hall Law School, Singh hung out with anti-poverty and community activists, not Bay Street careerists. Interested in issues of power and equity, he believed lawyers had a duty to uphold social justice. Nevertheless, he hadn't a clue T what kind of law to practise. One day he sat in on a bail hearing at the busy Brampton Court House. The defence attorney was grilling a police officer about why he arrested his client, a young black man. "I remembered all the times I was pulled over in Windsor and harassed and asked a lot of aggressive questions," says Singh. He decided to be a criminal defence lawyer. Singh articled in Windsor, worked in Toronto then hung out his shingle in Brampton. As a busy young attorney, he made time to give seminars to youth about their legal rights. He offered pro bono support to a group protesting a visit to Canada by an Indian trade minister who had persecuted Sikhs. Disappointed that local politicians ignored their concerns, the group resolved to defeat them in upcoming elections and asked Singh to stand as a candidate. Singh said no. "I was just hitting my stride as a lawyer and starting to enjoy my lifestyle." They persisted and finally he capitulated and joined the New Democ- rats. "They had the best track record addressing the things I care about – inequity, human rights, racism." He won the nomination in Bramalea-Gore-Malton and campaigned against the 20-year Liberal incumbent. "It was an uphill battle." He dropped Dhaliwal, his Punjabi upper-caste surname, and adopted the more common Singh: "I wanted to send a message that I would represent all people." Young people canvassed for Singh in droves and took their enthusiasm home to their parents. Jack Layton encouraged him. "He told me, 'People are going say you won't win. Don't ever let them tell you it can't be done.' " He lost by only a few hundred votes, then won by more than 2,000 in the ensuing provincial election. Singh, the justice and labour critic who has advocated for lower car insurance rates and temporary-worker protection, won again in the June provincial election. In his Queen's Park office stands a full-length mirror. Singh cares about his appearance. As a member of a visible minority, he knows the power of first impressions. "I learned early if I walked with confidence, people wouldn't bother me," he says. "So I dressed in a manner that conveyed strength and confi- dence. I used clothing as social armour." Post 9/11, Singh faced heightened intolerance: "People I passed on the street would call me Osama or bin Laden." Some Sikhs removed their traditional head coverings and cut their hair. Not him. He deliberately wraps his head in brighter colors. "I figure people are going to look at me anyway, so let me give them something to look at." His turban is a conversa- tion starter, an invitation to engage, a chance to break down barriers. "I like being visible rather than invisible," he says. Y

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