Jagmeet Singh is leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party. His campaign to become the country’s next prime minister made international news — in part because of his progressive politics, and in part because of his appearance as a practicing Sikh. In 2019, Singh became the first racial and religious minority to lead a major political party in Canadian history. He remains one of the highest-ranking politicians and most prominent faces in Canada.
His radical vision of equality for all isn’t an act to garner votes. It derives from his deep-seated belief that everyone deserves equal access to human rights. He traces this to his Sikh upbringing, and particularly, to the idea of our interconnectedness — ik oankar. It’s a powerful vision and one that has so much to offer our world today. You can listen to the full interview on my new podcast, Spirited. Listen on any of the major podcast apps: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
Simran Jeet Singh: What's at you core? What drives you as a person?
Jagmeet Singh: At my core is this idea of Ik Oankar, that we are all one. We're all inextricably linked and connected. It is something my mom taught me and something that I really look to when I'm trying to figure out a problem or trying to solve something. I look at it through the lens of we're all connected, we're all in this together. How can we then move forward?
Singh: Can you tell us a little bit about your spiritual formation and how you grew up?
Jagmeet Singh: I grew up pretty heavily influenced by my mom. She's the one that introduced me to spirituality and taught me these concepts of connection and oneness. Then, I delved into it on my own. I really started studying and reading about Sikh spirituality and philosophy and I was getting bullied a lot at the same time. I was faced with some really difficult times at home with my dad who was struggling with alcoholism as a kid, and I was a survivor of sexual assault. So all these struggles, pains, and trauma that I was facing — my way out of that really deep and dark kind of place was through spirituality, through meditation, and through finding a way despite all of these experiences that made me not want to love others and not want to love myself, to find a way to build a deep well of love for myself and for others. And that came through this idea of connection, of oneness, of meditation to build up an unconditional love for everyone.
Singh: Are there any teachings within the Sikh tradition that you draw on for those difficult moments?
Jagmeet Singh: I remember my mom told me about this idea of chardi kala when as a kid and she, whenever I asked her how she was doing, she would respond with the phrase chardi kala. When she asked me once, she asked me how I was doing and I said, I'm in chardi kala. She asked me why and I didn't expect her to ask anything. I wanted to figure out if I understood what it meant so I said, “Oh, cause you know I'm feeling good, I'm feeling in a good mood.” Then she kind of shook her head and said that's not chardi kala. Chardi kala is rising spirits in the face of hopeless odds. It means in the face of difficulty, that you find the courageous optimism to push forward. I was floored by the depth of that.
Singh: I'm interested to hear how these big philosophical concepts come into your life and in your politics? How does your Sikh worldview inform what you believe as a human being?
Jagmeet Singh: It’s very much informative. It’s the founding principles for my political thoughts as well. I really believe in the common good that we are better off when we take care of each other. I believe very strongly that if someone else is struggling or facing poverty or economic insecurity, that I am also facing it. So, if I help the people around me, I'm helping myself. It’s why I believe in things like universal health care and expanding it so that everyone can get access to it no matter who they are. It's why I believe in tearing down barriers to education. I only got to where I am because folks before me had invested in public education so that it was affordable and now it's been eroded.
I believe in justice for the first people, this land, the indigenous people, and it's because they're also me and I am them. We're connected and I feel like they deserve the same basic human rights that everyone else enjoys. That’s why I fight for clean drinking water and the planet and why I care about fighting the climate crisis. The spiritual belief and the oneness of all things also applies to the planet, to the trees, to the air, to the water, to all living life forms that share the planet with us. So, I believe we've got to be stewards of the environment as well. It's all connected.
Singh: Do you ever feel the cost of idealism and the cost of standing by principle? Do you ever wonder if it's worth compromising?
Jagmeet Singh: My idealistic principles are a core part of who I am. It’s not really worth doing the work I do unless you do it for a reason. There's a bit of a political joke, in the context of politics in Canada, that if I was just pursuing power for power sake, I'd become a liberal because they are exactly that. They’re a political party that doesn't really hold to a core value. They kind of just move with the times and don't really have decision making that’s based on core principles. Whereas I really believe that there's certain core things that we should always be pushing for. It might not always be popular, but hopefully in time we can convince enough people that it's the right way to go.
I really am an optimist and I think that I can convince people eventually that we can make decisions that are in the best interest of people, we can get elected, and we can get them done and people will live a better life because of it.
Singh: What is your hope for the future? What would you like to see in this world?
Jagmeet Singh: [What} I'd like to see is the politics where we put people first and we take care of each other. I want to see that across the world. I want to see that we build a world where we're making people a priority. So, we're asking the wealthiest to pay their fair share. We're investing in services for families and people that need health care and education. I want us to transform the economy. So, we're not building wealth at the cost of the planet, but we're building prosperity that's shared and that is sustainable. So, we can live in harmony with the place that we call home.
I want to see young kids have hope in their eyes instead of worry and despair about the crisis of climate. I want to see people treated with dignity and respect no matter where they are. From the first people of this land to new immigrants, I want to see everyone given the rights and dignity that they deserve. These are just some of the things I’d like to see. Justice and fairness for all.