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Jagmeet Singh Book Purposefully Light On Political Content, NDP Leader Explains

The NDP leader has been praised for his honesty in his new memoir, “Love & Courage.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speaks at the Broadbent Summit in Ottawa on March 29, 2019.
Adrian Wyld/CP
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speaks at the Broadbent Summit in Ottawa on March 29, 2019.

OTTAWA — Jagmeet Singh rejects the notion that he's a political lightweight.

"I don't buy that," the NDP leader said in an interview Friday. He begins listing reasons why: he was a member of the Ontario legislature for eight years, served as deputy NDP House leader and was considered the "third most prolific speaker" in that assembly.

He suggests the knock against his political experience is tied to the fact that he's the first non-white leader of a federal party. "There's this notion that if someone doesn't look like the perception of what a leader looks like, they make that argument," he said. "I don't think it holds merit."

Singh is in a Winnipeg hotel room. It's barely 8 a.m. and he's about to head to Ottawa for the last leg of his book tour. His memoir, "Love & Courage" was released last week and has been praised for its honesty about his experiences with racism and overcoming the trauma of sexual abuse.

"Love & Courage" is a quick 309-page read that guides readers through this politician's life before politics. Singh is proud of his time in the provincial legislature, but that period is given one cursory paragraph in the book's epilogue: "Together, we put an end to the Ontario police's carding practices... And we fought to finally call the Sikh genocide what it was."

The title mirrors the slogan used to launch Singh's NDP leadership campaign in 2017. But the book was purposefully light on political content, he explained.

He said he left out partisan politics to "make this a story that focuses on some of the personal struggles that I've faced" and to keep it "really readable" for Canadians.

Despite the timing of its release, less than six months before a federal election, Singh claims he didn't use the book as an opportunity to map out his vision of Canada and its problems. "I use my platform to do that all the time," he explained. "Every day that I've been a leader, I've been putting forward our vision."

Watch: Jagmeet Singh takes his seat in the House of Commons

In "Love & Courage," Singh writes about the challenges his family experienced as immigrants, such as his father's struggle to have his international professional training as a doctor recognized in Canada.

He reaches out to visible minorities by addressing topics such as language attrition — the process of losing a first language. Singh spent time as a toddler in India, and returned to Canada able to speak in full Panjabi sentences. But his parents decided to speak mostly English at home to help him fit in at school. The decision had consequences.

"Not speaking my parents' language had left a gulf between them and me. When I finally spoke our mother tongue with my parents, I felt a new bond form between us," he writes in the book.

Singh frequently uses pop culture as a touchstone. There's a childhood anecdote of using the money his dad gave him to buy cassettes of francophone singers Patrick Bruel and Roch Voisine at the mall, and how he listened to Radio-Canada as a kid for impromptu French lessons.

'Love & Courage' was a 'healing' process: Singh

Singh is a new British Columbian, moving there shortly before being elected in February as the MP for Burnaby South. He arrived on the West Coast after spending years living in the Toronto area, Newfoundland and Labrador, and southwestern Ontario.

When his family moved from Newfoundland and Labrador to Ontario in 1986, he describes the culture shock after learning the Atlantic province's tradition of building big beachside bonfires and singalongs wasn't one shared by the rest of the country.

Singh elaborates on schoolyard taunts that followed him, and how he began taking martial arts lessons to get tougher.

He recalls playing basketball in Grade 3 when another kid called him "Little Nipplehead," mocking Singh's patka — the cloth worn by Sikh children to cover their hair bun. Young Singh caught the bully off guard by shoving him to the ground.

A young Jagmeet Singh poses for a school photo in this undated picture.
Courtesy of Singh family
A young Jagmeet Singh poses for a school photo in this undated picture.

Aside from the vignettes of a multicultural Canadian upbringing, Singh also tackles some difficult matters of the heart. The martial arts lessons were also a way to learn self-defence to help protect his mother and siblings against a belligerent father at home. Singh discloses details of his father's alcoholism — an addiction which strained and maimed the relationships around him.

He describes the anger and disappointment in finding bottles of Russian Prince vodka hidden under sinks and in drawers around the family home.

There's a particularly heartbreaking scene where Singh writes about visiting his dad in 2007 — estranged from his family and living alone — and finding crumpled lottery tickets strewn throughout the apartment. The memory ends with Singh carrying his gaunt father, his body marked by addiction and neglect, to the bathroom to bathe him.

His father tries to make small talk to make the moment less awkward by asking his son, "You're a lawyer now?" He was. Singh had been called to the bar a year earlier.

Jagmeet Singh, left in both pictures, poses with his mother and father in two undated photos.
Courtesy of Singh family
Jagmeet Singh, left in both pictures, poses with his mother and father in two undated photos.
Jagmeet Singh (left) poses with his family in this undated photo.
Courtesy of Singh family
Jagmeet Singh (left) poses with his family in this undated photo.

Singh said the year-long writing process was a cathartic release that forced him to step back and examine his life so far.

Much praise has been shown for Singh in the past week after he described the sexual abuse he experienced as a 10-year-old boy at the hands of his taekwondo instructor.

Singh said it took nearly a decade to break through the walls of shame and guilt he built around the experience to even talk about it with another person. He was 25 when he told his mother. He told his dad during the process of writing this memoir.

"I feel like for healing, the ultimate healing is not just when you just heal yourself, but when you're in a point where you can then take whatever you've gone through and try to help others," he told HuffPost Canada in an interview. He wanted to send a message to survivors who have gone through harassment and abuse that it's "not your fault."

"Sometimes when you go through abuse, you kind of feel like you don't deserve to be happy. You don't deserve love. You feel tainted ... just reject that and tell people you do deserve to be happy and to have love and to have a good life."

In the acknowledgements at the end of "Love & Courage," there's a shout-out to the Windsor, Ont. clinic that admitted Singh's father after neither his savings nor insurance could cover the expense: "Thank you to Brentwood Rehabilitation, a publicly funded rehabilitation centre that, in many ways, helped to save my family.

It's not uncommon for political leaders or figures, who are not household names, to release memoirs during an election year. The books and press tours are a strategic way to familiarize voters with a name before they go to the polls.

Singh's memoir is light on politics, but his story has given him opportunities to reiterate his support for social programs. "My family relied on them, I relied on them," he said.

He plugs his party's "pharmacare for all" plan and talks about the environment and a need to "passionately" defend it, adding that his NDP supports creating an economy that's more inclusive.

Asked what new audience he's trying to reach with his memoir, Singh said, "Just all Canadians, really."

Nine hours later, Singh is no longer in Winnipeg. He's at a Chapters in downtown Ottawa signing copies of his book, embracing friends, and making small talk with people who've lined up to see him. The media-savvy federal leader walks toward a photographer and gives him advice on which angles will make a better shot.

A young man walks up to Singh and hands him a card. He says he wants to thank him for his work as a politician.

Singh, who is standing in front of a table and chair for the book signing, is moved and hugs the young man. He doesn't want to sit down because he prefers to be on his feet.

It's better to meet people with no objects in between, he explains; you get a more genuine interaction this way.

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