Politics

Jagmeet Singh Talks Niqab Ban, Not Being Navdeep Bains, and Wente’s Thirsty Column

We also asked if he’s on Tinder.
October 31, 2017, 7:28pm
Our better sides. Photo via author.

Jagmeet Singh has fielded many comparisons to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as of late, but when I asked him about that Tuesday morning, he replied jokingly—yet without hesitation: "I'm younger and hipper than him."

I met Singh, the recently elected leader of the federal NDP party at a coffee shop in downtown Toronto. He looked relaxed, though he was dressed formally in a dark suit, complete with vest and tie, and a mustard turban. Like Trudeau, he knows his camera angles—when his handler was taking our photo, Singh suggested he move to catch us in a better light. (His instincts were on point.)

But unlike Trudeau—unlike any other federal leader in Canada's history—Singh is a person of colour. With both of us being brown, we immediately went off on a tangent about how well we know our native languages (he's ahead of me on that front) and discussed how we deal with baristas who have trouble spelling our ethnic-sounding names (he says his phonetically, I begrudgingly use my nickname 'Mani.')

On issues of race, however, Singh is very optimistic—on the surface at least. When asked about everything from Bill 62, to Canadians' hesitance to vote for a man in a turban, to that trainwreck interview with CBC, he tended to look on the bright side of things. More serious stuff aside, I also really wanted to know if he's ever smoked weed, how he felt about that thirsty Margaret Wente column and whether I can find him on Tinder.

VICE: We did an article, " All The People Who Are Not Jagmeet Singh ," after that CBC reporter mixed you up with someone else. And there was another little controversy in the Hill Times yesterday—
Jagmeet Singh: There was some random backtracking on it yesterday, where (The _Hill Time_s) was like "we knew." And it was like how did the headline and the pictures add up then? Why would you randomly insert a minister there? [Editor's note: The article was on Quebec's niqab ban and had a picture of Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and….Liberal Innovation and Science Minister Navdeep Bains.]

All the People Who Are Not Jagmeet Singh

On one hand, yeah it's funny, and we can make a joke out of it, but on the other hand, does that happen to you often? And how do you actually feel about it?
It happens a lot that other people are mistaken as me. That happens all the time, I get feedback for that all the time, for people who have a similar rounded-shaped turban, like friends of mine. But to me directly being misidentified, it happens infrequently. I think the important thing is it's another example of how I get the reality that other people face, in a way that maybe other federal leaders don't get. When I talk about systemic racism, inequality, I come from a position where I've glimpsed a bit of what that's like.

I wanted to ask you about Bill 62. There's been a lot of backlash, people are saying that it is islamophobic. The Quebec government has said it's not, it's a measure of religious neutrality. Do you feel it is an islamophobic law?
I think that it is absolutely divisive, there's no question about it. What's very troubling about it is at a time when we need to come up with ways to bring people together and unify folks, this is an example of the exact wrong type of policy and wrong type of leadership. And the troubling part about it is there's a genuine concern that people have about the separation of church and state and that's a very legitimate concern given some of the history that people have faced in Quebec and some of the very difficult things that women faced as a result of the encroachment of religion into state, it actually impeded women's rights. But political leaders are using a genuine concern that people have to develop legislation that is divisive and that is hurtful and that is dividing people.

How do you feel about Prime Minister Trudeau's response so far?
My position has always been was unequivocally I am opposed to it—this is not acceptable. I made that very clear, and I came from a principled position. It may not be the most popular thing to say. I said it in Quebec, in Montreal, during a French-language debate for the NDP leadership. So probably the least popular place for me to take that stance but I took it because for me it was a principled position. I'm not afraid of taking a stance that may not be popular. For me human rights isn't something you can pick and choose from. That being said, Prime Minister Trudeau's initial position wasn't strong in condemning the legislation. He's since, you could say evolved, or his position has changed. The criticism is he's not coming from a place of principle if he didn't start off in that spot. But I don't wanna criticize too much the idea of changing one's position because I think that's actually a good thing.

I want to talk a little bit about weed, cause it's obviously something that VICE cares about a lot.
Weed's really important.

Do you use weed?
I don't.

Have you ever? No? Never in your life?
I don't use any drugs, I've never drank or smoked. But I've taken the stance that we need to not only address this issue of marijuana. I've said what we needed to have done immediately, and this comes from my years of working in the criminal justice system, what the government didn't do, which to me is extremely offensive, when you talk about legalizing a substance and you don't immediately decriminalize that is irresponsible. Like it's incredibly irresponsible. The signal's been given that this is gonna be legalized but at the same time right now, people are still being arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated, for a substance that's going to be completely legalized in a short period of time. There also should be a path towards pardons, an automatic pardon for an offence that's legalized. People shouldn't have a criminal record that's going to preclude them from opportunities, like employment, traveling, maybe even in some cases educational opportunities.

There was a poll that asked Canadians if they would vote for someone who looks like you, someone who wears a turban. Something like 70 percent said they would but 50 percent feel that some or most of their friends would not vote for somebody who wears a turban, essentially. How do you feel about the fact that we're doing polls like that? And what do the results say to you?
I'm an optimist so the fact that the vast majority of people, when asked, said they were cool with it, to me is pretty encouraging. The fact that it wasn't 100 percent is maybe just something we already knew, there are barriers that people face. Racialized people face barriers in the work they do, in getting hired, women face barriers in getting hired, in getting paid. So systemic barriers exist based on people's identity. It's something we have to acknowledge, it's the reality, and we should name it, but there's a lot to be hopeful for in Canada.

You have been very vocal about condemning racism, you've done this in a number of ways. Do you ever get nervous about alienating white Canadians?
I've never been afraid of taking on issues. The same way I'm not afraid of calling out systemic discrimination, I'm also not afraid of calling out inequality and the fact that inequality is growing in society and that affects everybody, regardless of race. Things like the housing crisis, which is a massive crisis and I want to call it a crisis, where people can't buy a house to live, they can't even afford renting a place to live. That's a crisis that's impacting everybody across Canada. I'm not afraid to call out things and that same spirit of being unapologetic and courageous applies to issues that affect everybody.

But take for example what went down with you on the CBC Power and Politics interview. You did that scrum where you said that line of questioning was problematic. And in turn we had people accusing of playing race card. So when it comes to calling out things that even happen personally to you, do you worry about getting labelled as playing the race card?
I kinda wanna say I'm not worried about nothin', I'm just out here trying to make things better. I think that as a public figure, I put myself out there so people can ask me anything they want to ask me. I also think it's appropriate for me to call out, this is the first day of me being elected leader of a national party, to ask me about something that happened when I was like five years old, I just didn't see how that related to me being the leader of a federal party. And I think that pointing that out is fair. At the same time, I would without hesitation denounce terrorism, violence, it's obvious that's something any leader, any Canadian would do. Why would he assume I would answer anything to the contrary, and secondly, is that something you would ask any other leader on the first day of being leader of a national or federal party? I was kinda shocked by it.

We've obviously heard a lot about sexual assault and people calling for reform to how the criminal justice system treats sexual assault. I'm curious what your thoughts are as a defense lawyer and how do you feel about the "believe all women" and "we believe survivors" phenomenons?
I believe survivors. That's for me as a political leader. I'm a political leader now and a community leader and that's my position. But there are some serious questions about how we reform the criminal justice system and I put forward some suggestions on how we can do that. There needs to be better mechanisms around the reporting of sexual assaults, so that it doesn't further traumatize survivors. I also talked about things like, there's training we need to see at a judicial level, where certain myths are being perpetrated in decisions, so that's a key area of reform. And the final piece, this is a bit mind boggling, but there were complaints raised to survivors with the RCMP, in the thousands, and the RCMP did not follow up with investigations, and I think it was reported by the Globe and Mail. And to me that's unacceptable. If there's a complaint raised there should be a follow-up investigation at a basic minimum starting point.

A lot has been written about you. This particular passage is from noted Canadian columnist Margaret Wente, and I just wanted read it to you and get your reaction to it.

"Mr. Singh's appeal transcends his party. His turbans are a brilliant (if unintentional) branding device. They make him stand out in a crowd. They mark him as exotic. Yet as soon as he opens his mouth, it's clear that he is as much a son of Canada as anyone in the room—not the wimpy, white-bread Canada of our past, but the dashing, muscular Canada we long to be. He's no trust-fund kid, like you-know-who. He's a self-made guy from the suburbs. He has the posture of a warrior—brash, worldly, fearless and also supermanly. Not a beta male, as Justin sometimes tends to be. He's an alpha, with a full luxuriant beard and a serious kirpan to match. Not so long ago, those accessories were a bug. Now they're a feature."

How does that make you feel?
On a real, real level. I think of myself as a 10-year-old a lot, that's my frame of reference when I think of younger Jagmeet. If I want back in time and said "Hey, 10-year-old Jagmeet, you're gonna grow up and in 30 years you're gonna be the leader of a national party." I'd be like "What are you talking about?" And if you told me there would be an article written like that, I would be like "What." I was made fun of everywhere I went, bullied, and the way I looked was ridiculed. So to tell a kid that got bullied a lot that in the future people are going to write glowing words about the exact things that you're bullied about, it's a bit surreal.

So you liked it?
I just thought it was a shock, it's a big shock to my 10-year-old self.

Did it feel like she was fetishizing you a little, though?
I mean, I think that's what the response has been. For me I more looked at it as the contrast to how I was perceived growing up and how in my adulthood I'm being perceived.

Does Margaret Wente have a crush on you?
I don't know.

Are you on Tinder? Are you single?
I can neither confirm nor deny that.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.