And he might just be the new face of Canada’s New Democratic Party
Jagmeet Singh looks the way you hope a progressive politician would. Recently, BuzzFeed anointed him the “most stylish politician in Canada by like a million kilometers.” He’s the first turban-wearing Sikh to sit in Queen’s Park; he commutes to work by bike, often featured on his Instagram (35k followers). When I meet him in his office, Party Next Door is blaring from his Bluetooth speakers.
At 38-years-old, the criminal defence lawyer turned politician is a rising star in Canada, currently serving as Deputy Leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party. But why should you care about a guy that represents a suburban district outside of Toronto? Because rumor has it that Singh will soon make the jump into federal politics and run for leadership of the left-wing New Democratic Party of Canada, ready to take on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party government.
Both identify as progressives, but unlike the Prime Minister, Singh supports policies such as electoral reform and the repeal of Canada’s Anti Terrorism Act, Bill C-51. And while he’s just as happy to grab a selfie with you as Trudeau, Singh understands that the real power of social media isn’t showing off his custom-designed suits (though those look sharp as hell), but as a vital tool for communicating with his constituents—the youth, in particular.
After the scandals that surrounded the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, Toronto became the political laughing stock not just of Canada, but the world. But if Singh’s ascent continues, he may turn Toronto’s reputation around as the hotbed of a new progressive movement.
GQ: You may just have the most interesting Instagram and Snapchat accounts of any politician. Do you think social media might be ruining democratic politics?
Jagmeet Singh: It can be a double-edged sword. The ability to become more accessible, to spread a message further, and to share stories at a faster rate are great things to come from social media. As politicians, we have another platform with which we can reach people but also listen to them. Social media enables us to talk about issues, shine a light on problems, and raise awareness of struggles that might have gone unnoticed. On the flipside, it also allows for a lot of noise and distractions. Sometimes it doesn’t create the best environment for a healthy discussion and can lead to trolling.
It also has a hand in organizing these global protests that we’re now seeing against Donald Trump.
I came from a tradition of demonstrations and protests, and I really believe in them. I think they are powerful ways of bring people together, to organize, to raise awareness, and most importantly to empower people. Protests have a value in society that I don’t think you can quantify. The protests we’re seeing that oppose some of the heinous things we see going on in this world are perhaps a silver lining to a lot the negativity we see and the pessimism that we feel. We feel that things are going in a bad direction, and when people are upset, it encourages them to come together and express that dissatisfaction. That’s a beautiful thing.
How did you get into Canadian politics in the first place?
I faced some significant racism as a kid growing up with a unique identity—you know, brown skin, long hair for a boy, with a funny sounding first name like Jagmeet, while going through childhood in a small Canadian city with little diversity. But because of having to deal with racism myself, I became very sensitive to unfairness. It created this appreciation and understanding of the struggles people go through from all walks of life. I was more sensitive and aware of the struggles people faced when it came to poverty, gender, and other systemic barriers.
As a student, I would help with issues by spreading awareness and going to demonstrations. In law school, I began to use my legal training to help marginalized groups. Then as a lawyer I continued to do human rights work with local organizations and cultural communities that felt their political representation was inadequate; that the elected officials we had were not tackling the issues that mattered to them. A group of friends, colleagues, and family—my brother Gurratan Singh and friend Amneet Singh were a big part of this—kept encouraging and pushing me to run for political office. I finally caved and got into politics.
My Sikh spirituality also influences my political style. We strongly believe in social justice as an element of our founding philosophy—that there is one energy and that we are all connected, kind of like the force. So if I see someone else suffering, as a Sikh I see that as me suffering. There’s this morality that flows from this idea that we are one and connected, and we celebrate diversity and people of different backgrounds, cultures, and religions. At the end of our meditations, our mantra that we repeat roughly means “we wish the betterment of all humankind.” That motivates me to help build a world that’s fair and equal.
How did your personal style become such a part of your political style?
So throughout my life, I realized that people would stare at me because I stood out. Some may feel awkward about that. Being stared at makes you feel self-conscious. I felt that if people are going to stare at me, I might as well give them something to look at. [laughs] I saw it as a chance to transform an awkward situation into an opportunity to show people who I really am. I wanted to show that I was confident and sure of myself—that I wasn’t afraid of who I was. That confidence fought off some of the stereotypes and prejudice I encountered, and I started to develop my style more when I realized I could tear down some of these stereotypes.
A beard and a turban sometimes conjure up negative associations, but if you see someone with a lime colored, bright orange, or pink turban, it disarms people’s stereotypical notions of this image and it disarms people from those stereotypes. It became a way for me to extend my platform as a politician. Because I was considered stylish, with these colorful turbans and well-cut suits and showing myself as confident person, I could use that as a tool to talk about things like unfairness, injustice, poverty, and inequality in the public sphere.
The shooting at a mosque in Quebec City last week drew a lot of similarities to the 2012 massacre at a Wisconsin gurdwara. We know what drives these hate-inspired acts of terrorism, but how should policymakers respond? In particular, how should policymakers like yourself holding the unique and possibly uncomfortable position of being part of the community that was targeted, respond to hate?
You can’t fight fire with fire, so we have to respond by celebrating who we are and loving our diversity to create a climate where people feel comfortable and welcomed and feel that they can belong. Specifically, and in addition to that, we need to hold to account any leaders who, in their words, actions, or policies, whether subtle or obvious, encourage or create the climate for this type of hate to exist. When people say things that are Islamophobic, misogynistic, or in any way hateful, even if they’re subtle, it creates a climate that emboldens others to act on that hate.
But if we have an environment where we discourage and denounce hate, and repeat the message of inclusivity, being welcoming, and ensuring people feel like they belong, then we can help end these horrific acts. On a personal level, I have experienced Islamophobia. As a very visible Sikh, I have received the brunt of a lot of anti-Muslim hate while carrying an image of what people stereotypically associate with Muslim men. My response as a Sikh is not to say “I am not a Muslim,” but to say “hate is wrong.”
Sikh style icons like Waris Ahluwalia are becoming much more notable for making their articles of faith a part of their style. What do you consider when incorporating your articles of faith, like your Pagg (turban) and Kirpan (dagger), into your style?
I feel like you have to celebrate who you are and where you come from, particularly as a Sikh, born in Canada with roots in Punjab. Your identity is important. I ensure my articles of faith are all high-quality and beautiful to celebrate them. I wear bright, colorful turbans—I’m not trying to hide them, though it’s really hard to hide a turban anyways—but now I’m really try to make them pop and stand out. I wear a beautiful, nice-quality Kara (bracelet) and a well-crafted Kirpan that’s made in the U.S. accompanied by a decorative Gatra (kirpan strap) with a unique embroidery.
I celebrate my articles of faith by having them made with high-quality and my style and aesthetic comes from the belief in quality and things lasting a long time if you take care of them, as opposed to consuming and discarding what you wear. This also goes into the suits that I wear. I believe in well-tailored suits, with a timeless character, and a slight “edginess” which means I wear cuts that are slimmer and fitted than classic looks. But I believe in simple color palettes that are bold, but not loud. I let the loudness come from my turban. I let that speak. You’ll always see me wearing a solid tie, white shirt, and solid pocket square, but my turban will pop.
Why do you think so many politicians generally dress so poorly?
I wouldn’t advise every politician to care so much about their own style, but then again if your style is so poor that it’s distracting it can take away from the bigger conversation. Fashion and style is a form of communication. It’s important to communicate that you take your job seriously and that’s conveyed by the way you dress and carry yourself. So at minimum, politicians should pay attention to style because it is an important form of communication, but it’s probably not a politician’s biggest concern.
Now, I question whether having style and using that as a tool has impacted my ability to be perceived as a serious leader or thinker. It’s something that I struggle with, but I am hoping that the substance of my ideas can outweigh any perception of overt superficiality due to my interest in style.
You were a submission grappling champ in high school and you’re an enthusiastic MMA fan. How did you get into fighting?
I got picked on a lot in school and got myself into a lot of fights. For self-confidence and probably for some self-defense, my parents put me into martial arts and I loved it. I found the discipline, training, body building, skill development, and just learning something new to be exciting. I started martial arts when I was about nine-years old and have been training in one form or another ever since. I started off with Taekwondo and some Akido. I did a lot of wrestling in high school. Later on I did traditional boxing and Muay Thai. I did a lot of striking, but my speciality was grappling so fighting around wrestling, Jiu Jitsu, and Judo was my main focus.
Hypothetically, do you think you can take on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the ring?
[laughs] Yes, definitely. Particularly if he did MMA—that’s my background so I could definitely take him on in that style. But my boxing is pretty solid, so I think I can definitely give him a run for his money.
What about the political ring? Do you see yourself taking on Justin Trudeau in Canadian federal politics?
That’s smooth. [laughs] Well done. It’s something I’m considering. My name was initially put forward [in the running for leadership of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada] with, what I thought, was something of a fluke. I’m a provincial politician, so I didn’t think it was a serious thing. I was honored, but I thought the story would go away. Instead it continued to build, and we recently received a lot of coverage, and because of the support I’ve been receiving, it is something I’ve given serious attention to. I haven’t decided yet.
This article originally appeared on gq.com.