Jagmeet Singh on relentless optimism and what’s next for the NDP

He talks with Marie-Danielle Smith about a disappointing election result, how to create an inclusive Parliament—and when to say ‘chardi kala’
Canada's New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh in Ottawa October 6, 2021. Photograph by Blair Gable
Canada’s New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh in Ottawa October 6, 2021. Photograph by Blair Gable

I caught up with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh on Parliament Hill on the same day that his new caucus of 25 MPs gathered for their first post-election meeting.

Singh led the New Democrats to a modest increase in the popular vote in September’s election, but the party gained only one additional seat, falling well short of its hope of appealing to an electorate persuaded by progressive rhetoric but dissatisfied by successive Liberal governments.

The lawyer, former Ontario NDP deputy leader and father-to-be spoke about election disappointments, policy priorities, courageous optimism and what he’ll tell his future child about running for politics.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How do you feel things are going, now that you have two elections under your belt?

I feel an immense sense of honour and gratitude that I get to do something I really believe in and love to do, and that I get to hear people’s stories. Things feel good, but it’s still a struggle and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

It seemed like conditions were ripe in this election for NDP policies to shine. Why didn’t you gain more ground?

In the scheme of things, people didn’t want this election; they were frustrated and basically said they were sending back the exact same Parliament. I think we’re the only party that grew our vote. Everybody else didn’t, so that shows there’s a good trend.

But it looks like a missed opportunity. What could you have done differently?

I’m disappointed. There were a lot of really good [potential] MPs who were so close to winning and would’ve been really good voices in Ottawa. I think that there are 10 or 12 seats where we were a couple of percentage points away. We have to close those gaps.

READ: Jody Wilson-Raybould on Ottawa’s power problem

Have you been ironing out that strategy?

As opposed to [using] the back of a napkin, I like data. I’m very data-driven. We’ve initiated a review with the goal to have a constructive assessment of what worked, what didn’t work and the action items that we need to take to correct some of the things that were just close. In Davenport, we were 76 votes away from winning. In Vancouver Granville, 280ish votes. We’ve got all these seats that were just shy, just a bit, like with Ruth Ellen Brosseau in Berthier-Maskinongé. These are all very achievable differences.

A criticism was that the 2021 platform was almost identical to the 2019 platform. People were asking: Why hasn’t the NDP innovated?

Everything in there is stuff that we still believe in, and we’re not going to abandon stuff we believe in. I think the criticism I heard was that we were too ambitious. We want to do too many things. And I think there might be something there. That people want to believe us and are nervous about whether we have a plan to achieve these things.

Canada's New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh in Ottawa October 6, 2021. Photograph by Blair Gable
(Photograph by Blair Gable)

What are the major priorities you want to concentrate on?

I want people to know that we’ve got a plan around pharmacare. It’s a really thorough plan. We’ve studied the New Zealand model. We’ve got clear evidence on how covering those medications will result in fewer cases of extreme illness. We’ve got evidence around outcomes and how it improves health and reduces cost. Even with telecoms, there’s actually a whole bunch of real things we can do. We can start with a price cap. It’s worked in the States; it’s worked in Australia. There’s one clear law that if we changed it overnight, it would open up the ability to have low-cost options, and [the problem] is that low-cost competitors can’t use companies’ existing infrastructure. It’s like building a bunch of roads and no one else can use the roads.

Can you use your leverage in the minority Parliament to work toward those kinds of bigger policy goals?

What can I do right now that would immediately help people, that we can push, that is timely, that we can build enough momentum around? I think the focus would be on getting through the pandemic. One of the most important tools is paid sick leave. I fought to expand it 22 times in Parliament. Trudeau said no, and then in the middle of the campaign he said yes, we’ll do it.

READ: Mark Messier on leadership, trust and magic mushrooms

Was that frustrating?

I was insulted by the fact that they had the gall to say no 22 times, and just cynically present it in the middle of the campaign. I would love to get it done. I don’t care about credit; we’ll sort out credit down the road, whenever people believe who they believe.

It seems like there’s a general leftward shift in Canadian politics. Conservatives are sounding more like Liberals. Liberals are sounding more like the NDP. That might be a victory for progressive ideas, but is it a problem for your party that everyone’s moving in on your turf?

No, because our goal is to make things better.

So it doesn’t matter if you’re the prime minister who’s doing it, as long as it’s getting done?

My dilemma is that I don’t think it’s going to get done. Pharmacare is a really good example. Trudeau campaigned on it in 2019 and promised it in a throne speech. And not only did he not do it, but we actually presented a bill to move forward, and the bill was based on their own report. It recommended a Canada Pharmacare Act that would be one of the key steps to establishing the system. We literally put that in word for word—with no, like, “and the Liberals suck,” so they can’t say, “Oh, we voted against it because you added in that the Liberals suck.” They voted against it. The final nail in the coffin is that in their budget they have zero dollars allocated for it. So are they really into pharmacare? No. The evidence doesn’t show that.

READ: Liberal and NDP officials mull over a potential deal

You disagree that everything’s moving leftward? You think it’s just a facade?

I think it’s a facade. On taxing billionaires, it seems like a very clear thing. It makes a lot of sense. We put all of that into a motion saying let’s go after pandemic profiteering, offshore tax havens—Pandora Papers type of stuff. And the Liberals voted no. And the Conservatives voted no.

You point to examples of the Liberals sounding more progressive but not living up to their promises. But they’re still winning elections. Why is it so hard for the NDP to capitalize?

It is hard to dream big. It’s hard to imagine a world outside of what you know. Liberal and Conservative, that’s kind of what folks have known, and it’s hard to break that cycle.

Are you getting tired?

[laughs] No, do I sound it?

You keep saying that you’re “fighting for Canadians,” but I wonder if the fight is starting to feel a bit futile?

I am a spiritual optimist. I am a relentless optimist. Part of that is my mom’s training. She taught me these philosophical ideals. There’s a phrase that is commonly used in the Sikh tradition that was her response to anything: “chardi kala,” which means “rising spirits.” When she taught me the phrase as a kid, I thought she just meant she was in a good mood. I said it back once to her. And she said, “Why?” I said, “What do you mean, ‘why?’ I’m trying to use the language and get better at it.” She’s like, “You missed the point.” Chardi kala means rising spirits specifically in the face of difficult odds. Defiant of those odds, I’m in rising spirits.

Your leadership doesn’t seem to be under any outside threat. When will you know that it’s time to let go, to pass the torch?

I would say when you don’t have the energy, you don’t have the fire and you can no longer make a positive contribution. I’ve got lots of energy and lots of fire, and so I don’t see that happening any time soon. I’ve got a good vegetarian lifestyle. I work out a lot and meditate. I’ve got energy for days.

Jagmeet Singh, Federal NDP leader candidate, and Ontario NDP provincial MPP of Bramalea-Gore-Malton, works out at the South Fletcher's Sportsplex in Bramtpon, Ontario, Canada. June 2, 2017. (Photograph by Mark Blinch)
Singh, working out during his successful run for the NDP leadership in 2017 (Photograph by Mark Blinch)

There’s a narrative that says this country is angrier and more divided now than it was before the election. Do you think that’s true?

I think that Trudeau and O’Toole both benefit from that and kind of want to create that. They create moments that are not necessarily divisive at all and make them divisive. Trudeau tried to make vaccination a political issue; that is not something you should be wedging. It is going to literally hurt the country if there’s a divide on that.

We did see the rise of the People’s Party, which welcomed people who are against vaccines.

I would say that’s small. Like six per cent?

Which is not nothing.

It’s like, 94 per cent of people don’t agree with that. So I would say that’s a huge consensus. It’s a supermajority of people who are not in that world.

Beyond the pandemic, we’ve seen prominent women of colour leaving politics, saying it’s become more divisive and toxic, and that systemic racism is still a huge problem on Parliament Hill. As someone who broke boundaries to be here, how do you feel about that?

Everyone is here because of the people before them. It’s hard to imagine yourself as a leader when you’ve never seen someone like you as a leader. And spaces that have been predominantly [occupied by] old white men are not going to be very welcoming to women or racialized people. I think about my contribution, what I can do to tackle that, how I can make the space more inclusive. I think about, with my future kid, what I would tell my daughter. And I have a niece—my brother and I are pretty tight, and we have a common living arrangement. When I’m back in Brampton, we all live in a bubble together. I think about her a lot.

Singh’s tips for a very good day

Jagmeet Singh says an excellent day means supporting local businesses and enjoying quality listening, reading and eating. Here are a few of his recommendations. (Click through this gallery)

What would you tell your future child if they wanted to become a politician?

I think there are three things people who are not seen as the traditional person that goes into power are told. One is that they’re not good enough, despite their credentials. I’ve called women to recruit them to run who are more than qualified, and they say, “Oh, I can’t do that.” And then the number of times I call, no offence, a dude who’s probably not as qualified, and he’s like, “Oh yeah, for sure, I’d do that.”

The other thing you’re told is that because you organize in your community, somehow the broader community won’t accept you.

The final thing people are told is that they don’t look right for the role. There’s a lot of focus on appearances and clothing and the look of an Indigenous person, of a racialized person, of a Black person. I think we need to celebrate people for what they are, not make them feel like they don’t belong.

What is a concrete thing that you can do to make things better for people who want to push past all of that?

To flip it, it’s to not take Indigenous kids to court. To deliver clean drinking water. To start building affordable housing. I think there are choices being made that reinforce this feeling of not belonging. My community is going through this pain, and the institution that can fix it is making choices that allow that to continue. I think it’s the outcomes that people want, it’s not that they should get a hug when they walk in the door.

But words matter a lot in certain contexts; for example, during the election campaign, the way that Quebec and its secularism laws were discussed. How does it sit with you, how careful you seem to have to be about the way you talk about that?

My goal is that I don’t want to have any discriminatory laws in Canada. Laws that discriminate against people are wrong, period. People on the ground say there’s a way for people outside of Quebec to help and there’s a way for them not to help. I want to be an ally.

How can you be an ally in that context?

Saying that it’s discriminatory is just a fact, so I’m not going to back down from that. But people on the ground are saying that when the rest of Canada isolates Quebec and says Quebec is racist, what happens is that even people who are trying to fight the bill get caught up in the question of Quebec being more racist or less racist than other places, rather than focusing on dealing with this discrimination. Isolating systemic racism or discrimination to one province is not helpful. The worst clean drinking water problems are in Ontario. That’s systemic racism writ large, the fact that Indigenous people can’t get clean drinking water. That’s happening everywhere. Policing that is discriminatory based on people’s race is happening across Canada. That’s a Canada-wide problem.