Justin Trudeau has nearly another two years to prepare for the next general Canadian election. But one of his newest opponents is ready to take on the youthful 45-year-old Liberal prime minister in the political arena, or on a wrestling mat.
“I don’t think it would be in his interests though,” joked New Democratic Party (NDP) Leader Jagmeet Singh of a tussle. “It would just be too unfair for him.”
Mr Singh, the 38-year-old, Toronto-born son of Punjabi immigrants and turban-wearing bearded Sikh, made Canadian history last month when he was elected federal NDP leader on October 1 and became the first non-white head of a major Canadian political party.
He also has a 30-year background in martial arts, and includes training in Olympic-style wrestling, jiu-jitsu, taekwondo, boxing, Muay Thai and submission grappling in which he competed at amateur tournaments in Canada and the United States.
Mr Trudeau is no stranger to combat either. He competed in a pre-prime ministerial 2012 charity-boxing match where he trounced his thicker opponent, an Indigenous Canadian senator with a black belt in karate, in the third round. But Mr Singh, solidly built at five-foot-ten and 180 pounds, explained in his first interview with an foreign media outlet that fighting has been a lifetime passion for him.
His parents got him into martial arts to give him “self-confidence” and teach him how to defend himself after he was bullied at school for his brown skin and long hair, which on the day he spoke to The Telegraph on Parliament Hill was covered by a bright fuchsia-coloured turban.
“The discipline, the physical training and the skills you develop all give you a sense of confidence,” said Mr Singh, a vegetarian who speaks three languages fluently, including French and Punjabi.
That “fighting spirit” followed him through his career as a criminal-defence lawyer and as a politician in Canada’s largest province of Ontario where he served as deputy NDP leader and member of the legislature until his resignation in late October.
He said he fought for his clients and constituents against unfair laws, corporations or industries “taking advantage of people,” now hopes to emerge as the champion for Canadians when they are scheduled to head to the polls on Oct. 21, 2019 to choose their next federal government.
Mr Singh’s NDP is currently placing a distant third in public-opinion polls, trailing Mr Trudeau’s Liberals and the Official Opposition Conservatives led by Andrew Scheer, the 38-year-old, apple-cheeked former House of Commons speaker elected earlier this year to lead the Tories. However, Canadians view Mr Singh favourably according to an early December poll, so the new leader may help the NDP catch up with the competition.
In style, Mr Singh might also have an edge. Earlier this year, GQ magazine described him as “the incredibly well-dressed rising star in Canadian politics”.
During his Telegraph interview, Mr Singh was dressed in a well-fitted, Italian custom-made grey pinstriped three-piece suit with a strap across his chest holding the Sikh dagger called a kirpan. Since it was cold outside, he also wore socks, which he normally does not.
Mr Singh, like Mr Trudeau, also has a catchphrase. When the Liberals swept to victory in 2015, Mr Trudeau credited the win to the “sunny ways” of “positive politics.” Mr. Singh’s motto is “with love and courage.”
But the NDP leader – who doesn’t yet hold a seat in the House of Commons – hopes to demonstrate that he is the true progressive by instituting some of the key promises he said Mr Trudeau made but failed to deliver on, including ending Canada’s first-past-the-post federal voting system, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and instituting “tax fairness” for middle-class Canadians.
Mr Singh’s biggest perceived weakness is his lack of experience, which some say has shown in debates, and critics argue he will find the transition from regional and federal politics harder to navigate than he anticipates.
If he becomes Canada’s 24th prime minister in 2019 and Donald Trump is still in the White House, Mr Singh said that unlike Mr Trudeau – with whom the US president reportedly gets along – he would “stand up” to the Trump administration’s “attacks on important rights and Canadian interests,” particularly during the renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico.
“If our goal is just to get along on the surface, but have a trade agreement that doesn’t benefit Canadians and put the environment and working people first, then what’s the point of having a relationship unless you actually have results,” said Mr Singh, who added that he wouldn’t hesitate to confront President Trump personally.
“I’ve called out the misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia – the divisive politics of Trump, saying that’s not acceptable. That’s not the type of politics we need to see. We need to bring people together instead of dividing them,” he said.