OTTAWA — Jagmeet Singh is no stranger to thinking on his feet — or to racism.
Now considered a top contender in the race to replace federal New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair, Singh was a law student when he spotted two police officers cycling up the steep hill leading to Casa Loma, an imposing mansion-turned-museum in Toronto.
Curious as to whether they would be able to make it all the way up, Singh decided to watch their journey.
The police officers ended up approaching the young, brown-skinned man wearing a turban, told him he was staring, and demanded identification.
This incident, recounted to the Huffington Post, was not the first or only time Singh had been stopped by police, but it was a time when, educated and empowered by his legal studies, he said he informed the officers of his right to say no.
He walked away. It did not work.
Singh returned to his car and the police stopped him again, telling him he would now have to provide ID under the Highway Traffic Act.
“In that moment it hit me,” Singh posted to Twitter in July as he unveiled his leadership campaign plan for a federal ban on racial profiling.
“I had achieved academic (and) professional success yet I was still made to feel like there was something wrong with me.”
Now, Singh, 38, is getting noticed around the world for another quick-witted response to racism, as he remained calm in the face of a woman ranting and heckling about Muslims and sharia law during a recent campaign meet-and-greet event in Brampton, Ont.
Once again, the way Singh, who is Sikh, reacted did not stop the unpleasantness, but it did reveal much about him — including, thanks to a video gone viral, to a global audience that had never before heard of the popular Ontario NDP MPP for the Greater Toronto Area riding of Bramalea—Gore—Malton.
“It’s that raw, unscripted moment where you see a true leader’s qualities and characteristics,” said Robin MacLachlan, a former NDP staffer who is now vice-president at Summa Strategies.
Known for his advocacy against the controversial police practice of carding, as well as the fashionable attire that landed him an interview in GQ magazine, the spotlight Singh is often seeking seems to be getting brighter.
Singh was born in the Scarborough area of Toronto to Dr. Jagtaran Singh Dhaliwal, a psychiatrist, and Harmeet Kaur Dhaliwal, a teacher, who had immigrated from Punjab.
The family eventually settled in Windsor, Ont.
“I had many fond memories of my childhood in Windsor, spending time with my friends, cycling through the streets,” Singh, who was unavailable for an interview, wrote on his leadership campaign website.
“But it was not always easy. Like many others who stand out, I was picked on because I had a funny sounding name, brown skin and long hair,” he wrote. “I faced a lot of bullying at school and often felt like I didn’t belong.”
The need to defend himself sparked a life-long interest in martial arts, Singh wrote, but this familiarity with discrimination is also what prompted him to study the experience of the Quebecois.