‘It would be right,’ I said, ‘to refuse to obey, if in India an
English officer or judge ordered you to take off your turban;
but as an officer of the Court, it would have ill become me
to disregard a custom of the Court in the province of Natal.’
— Mahatma Gandhi, An Autobiography
Two years ago this month Jagmeet Singh Dhaliwal won the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party, becoming the first visible minority politician to lead a national party of prospects in any significant western democracy. It will be remembered that in the federal election exactly a year earlier, the NDP had tenable hopes to form the government. In February of this year, the new leader took his place in the House of Commons and, two months later, with the writ for the next federal election expected to drop in five months, he published his autobiography Love and Courage. The memoir immediately took off for the top of Canadian non-fiction bestseller lists, and the reviews supported it.
An expected skeptic, the National Post, found little to complain about, calling it “surprisingly intimate…compelling and mercifully light on political pablum.” Reviewers who loiter about the centre of politics were more completely won over. The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson, a political chronicler long in the tooth, declared “it took real courage to write this book,” and “it is…a political memoir like no other” and “I have never seen its like.” The surprised and breathless tone of the reviewers can be explained as first impressions; the only reviews the book received came within a week of its publication. This gives us a third reason for a sober second opinion: here is a man in a contest to captain our ship of state, a politician cut from proudly different cloth, and his testament has had no careful reviewers.
The book is a brisk and engaging read of 300 pages, divided into three roughly equal parts on Jagmeet’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. (A note on names: Jagmeet says it is against the intent of his religion to use the name “Dhaliwal”, and “Singh” on the other hand belongs to every Sikh, so it names no one specific. That leaves us no choice but the handle Jagmeet, though it is unnatural and overfamiliar.) The narration may be almost entirely fitted into the interlacing topics of family, social life, and religion.
Family figures largest, and it is the expected set of characters: parents, siblings, and occasional appearances by uncles and aunts. They come alive openly and fully, sympathetically and without resentment. Characters are woven into a clear arc of story: the course of his father’s alcoholism and its ruinous effects. One of these effects is to throw Jagmeet, as eldest of three siblings, into early financial responsibility over his family. The reader has the feeling of a man who meets his obligations.
The social life of his formative years in Windsor, Ontario is illustrated through episodes with a Muslim best friend, sexual exploitation by a coach, and encounters with an ubiquitous bigotry. Though he chooses these themes, he does not paint himself in the meek colours of a victim. The pride he takes in his will and pugnacity is evident throughout, and he appears to bear his hardships without being overpowered.
The episodes march towards a therapeutic and then a political lesson. The therapeutic lesson is that grievances must be reviewed out in the open, otherwise they turn poisonous. The extension of this lesson to man writ large in politics eventually captures the narrative of the book. As one might expect from an autobiography of a party leader, the lesson goes on in the telling to become the foundation for his political life.
If family is the bulk of the narrative and the social dynamic leads to its culmination, religion is its keynote. Jagmeet settled into devotion early, and there is hardly a page that does not carry a reflection on the advantages of his piety. This is a singular and unexpected note in a political memoir and it goes partway to explaining the disarming of political commentators accustomed to politicians’ fakery. Take away Jagmeet’s role, and the memoir could find a market as a work of Sikh religious persuasion. Each problem is met with a pietistic cure. What is the driver of his father’s alcoholism? The waning of his faith. What was the beginning of his political work? Founding a Sikh collective in university, and organizing public grieving over the suppression of Sikh separatist militancy in a foreign state. What spring of thought will this politician drink from? To take a sample:
“The founding principle [of the Sikh way of life] is a belief in oneness – or Ik Oankar. It’s a belief that deep down we are all connected…A belief in the oneness of humanity means ensuring everyone has justice and fairness in their lives. If we are all connected, then injustice against one of us is injustice against us all.” (Page 17)
“As a Sikh, you have a personal spiritual journey. And that journey includes ensuring justice for all. It doesn’t matter if that person is a Sikh, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or atheist – the goal is to see everyone around us as one.” (Page 60)
And upon winning the NDP leadership, the closing thought of the book is:
“We had won, but our journey was far from over. On the road ahead, we would face many difficulties, but we would face them knowing one thing for certain: we are all in this together, because no matter what happens, we are all one.” (Page 306)
A political autobiography or a progressive programme with strong pietistic flavouring is by now an unfamiliar sort of thing, but it effectively recalls a profounder NDP history of egalitarian politics built upon religious perception.
Having said what the book is, let us consider what it isn’t.
It is not a chronicle of inner life. The book is outwards-facing and the inner life is secured by religious sureness, unperplexed. If he lacks fitness for a situation – when he is a child, for example – the lack of fitness is temporary. Pain does not cause doubt or reveal weakness.
Nor does the book describe an intellectual path. There is very little argument inside, or any story about curiosity or dilemma and how arguments are constructed, then rejected or embraced. Good and bad are clear and unmixed: here on the right side stand his mother Harmeet, his supporters, and above all his religion, and in the darkness over there are alcohol, India, and the bigotry hiding in men’s hearts. In the chapters on his years at the University of Western Ontario, where we’d expect to read about formative intellectual struggles, we hear about friendships and activism, but virtually nothing about what he read or studied. The book vaguely tells us of his intention to study biology, and Wikipedia fills in with the information that in 2001 he earned a B.Sc. in that subject.
Nor is there much evidence of curiosity on cultural, historical, or political subjects. He tells us briefly of his fondness for language as a door into a culture, but the only languages he turns out to mean are Punjabi and French, and the culture he means is religious poetry on the one side, and Canadian singer Roch Voisine on the other. A reader will not doubt the depth of his attraction to the former. If he also has any attraction to the main English tradition, from Spenser and Sidney to Eliot and Orwell and the endless polychromatism in-between, we do not hear anything about it.
The only history he reviews are faraway episodes on British India and the suppression of Sikh militancy in free India. There is also a transparent piece of pandering on the struggles of the Québécois (who as victims of British perfidy and as minorities in their own nation are, apparently, on the template of the Sikhs and much akin to them). If his dive into Canadian statesmanship springs from a love of the national story, he does not talk about it.
If not nation, then surely at least party? But for a leader of the NDP, the memoir is surprisingly free of any reflection on the NDP – not its history, not its mission or theory, and though he walks in their shoes, not even its leaders. The narrative shows political life thrust upon a surprised Jagmeet not far out of law school (at Osgoode Hall in Toronto) by well-meaning friends. He wins a seat in the Ontario legislature in 2011 and in 2015 he is deputy leader of the provincial NDP. Federal leadership, when it comes, does not crown a career of NDP activism.
The inspiration and source of Jagmeet’s action is entirely within Jagmeet’s own predicament; it does not owe a debt to the broader stream of Canadian public life. It is as if the NDP were joining its history to his, not the other way around. Here, then, is a second way in which it is “a political memoir like no other”: it is sincere and lacks the genre’s false notes, but it also does not venture to own and carry forward truths learned from the story of nation, culture, or party.
How does Jagmeet understand his predicament? To put it baldly, that he is a good and noble man in a world that tends to flow in the contrary direction. The strongest counter-flow, so he tells us, is racial prejudice. The book’s title, Love and Courage, names his strategy to face the world’s wrongs. Of courage in particular there is a progress through the book’s pages. Let us take up the cure – courage – before we consider the condition – racial prejudice.
What does Jagmeet mean by courage? He tells us that as a child he was small but, tested against constant hostility, also brave. On the cusp of his teens he began studying oriental fighting arts. These he studied for use in the field, but when he uses them in the course of a day at his private secondary school in Michigan, the response is not positive. He switches to wrestling and orients towards self-development and confidence through competition. As any reasonable adult, he comes to set aside violence, but the pugnacious spirit remains and has been transformed into advocacy. He understands this spirit operating within him to be courage. In the closing chapter, courage is revealed as the broad personal resource he sets against the two main challenges of his narrative.
The first challenge is his father Jagtaran Singh’s alcoholism. The habit arises during Jagmeet’s childhood, brings abuse and negligence into the home, degrades a medical career, and causes loss of profession, bankruptcy, and family break-up. The lesson on courage is not drawn at this point, however, but a few years later. For Jagtaran Singh rediscovers personal purity through religion. He cleans up, earns back the trust of his profession, and is admitted back into the family home. For Jagmeet, the lesson here is that, “It requires courage to take risks on the people you love.”
The second challenge is self-oriented and the lesson aims at a profounder truth: “It takes courage to love yourself when you’ve been told your whole life that you’re ugly, or dirty, or a terrorist.” The profounder truth then turns into a political purpose, for although courage is a desirable quality in a person, the adversity that causes it is not a desirable quality in a polity: “It takes courage to stand up to hate.”
We’ll set aside the political purpose and ask, How is courage represented? Jagmeet understands courage as a psychologically enabling condition, and what it enables is the work of an underlying and prior moral certainty. Just so love – love of others or love of self – which in trials becomes full of doubt, through courage regains its sureness. This is how love and courage are bound up: love followed through engenders courage, and courage in turn does the work of love.
But this same moral certainty that for him is a condition for courage becomes a chokepoint that extinguishes his ability to exercise a different sort of courage. For if there is one thing Jagmeet has shown himself utterly incapable of, it is the courage for independent and free thinking. The sufficiency of what and who he is for where he finds himself and what he intends to do is never a matter of question. He assumes the justice of ancient, ancestral grudges as readily as he wraps his turban, and seems unworried either that the picture may be partial, or that there may be fundamental principles to learn in the new world untaught in the traditions he grew up in.
On the latter, surely it were a question worth asking, whether the peace his parents moved to Canada to enjoy is built upon a different foundation from the systems that hold sway in the place they left. Surely that enquiry, at least, is necessary – infinitely more for a man who is contesting to be guardian of that peace – even if he eventually were to arrive where he began. But Jagmeet, morally sure and sufficient, shows no sign that this enquiry even occurs to him, and we may assume that no squaring of Canada with Rawls or Hobbes or Aristotle is required once the great light of We are all connected breaks.
On the issue of partiality, the drama played out in the first scandal of his leadership. In October 2017, the CBC’s Terry Milewski invited the newly minted leader to condemn the perpetrators of the bloodiest terrorist atrocity in the history of our nation, the bombing of Air India Flight 182 by Sikh terrorists in 1985. Two-hundred-sixty-eight Canadian lives were extinguished, among them 82 young children, in the largest airplane-borne mass-killing until September 11, 2001.
Unable to contemplate that a virulent strain of his own pietistic tradition could cause the slaughter of innocents, Jagmeet declined to identify and condemn the perpetrators. From what followed it was clear he did not attempt to conceal and provide cover for them. But it was equally clear, and more damning, that he simply had never put any objectivity between himself and home-spun truths about the ancestral Khalistani cause and its heroes, to arrive at the inevitable conclusion that Canada had become unwitting host to terrorists waging a foreign insurgency with Canadian casualties.
We might wonder how the several waves of victims from that Khalistani undertaking failed to achieve recognition under the broad, loving embrace of We are all one. We offer the counterpoint of the Sikh lawyer and newspaper editor Ujjal Dosanjh, later a politician who became premier of B.C. and federal Liberal cabinet minister. In the year of the Air India bombing Dosanjh shone a public light on the extremists, and his courage gained him a cracked skull from the murderous attack of a Khalistani with an iron pipe. We note that Jagmeet, before he became a provincial NDP politician, took the lead in aggressive community organizing against Dosanjh, and we might wonder what kind of courage that was.
At this point, we should introduce a word and a sacred principle. The word is “racialized” and it imposes the construction that every off-white Canadian begins and abides in an unshakeable appearance of alterity or weirdness, and that this weirdness is in counterpoise to the many invisible privileges and advantages of the non-off-white Canadian. The sacred principle is that the testimony of the racialized cannot be denied, least of all by the non-off-white. With this sacred principle in view, we read the top item in Jagmeet’s list of reasons he entered public life:
“I thought about facing racism throughout my life, and how it taught me what it’s like to feel as though you don’t belong. Young Black men, Indigenous youth, new Canadians – so many people were routinely made to feel they didn’t belong, and although each person’s experience was different, I could relate to some of that pain.” (Pages 296-297)
We round out the trinity of racialized and racial testimony with the concept “belonging”. There is less dogma and more depth to this term, and Jagmeet to his credit shows a preference for analysis through the lens of belonging over that of racism. What does Jagmeet mean by “belonging”?
We first hear it discussed in the context of his decision as a child to adopt the traditional Sikh headdress. His father does not agree, and of this father we read:
“Many mornings, as I had breakfast before school, I’d often see him strut out the door donning an overcoat and English brogues that he had polished the night before. My dad couldn’t control the colour of his skin or his country of birth, but he could control what his wardrobe said to the world, so he made sure his clothing never gave anyone a reason to think he didn’t belong.” (Pages 56-57)
There is some pathos to this account, mixed with mild chiding at a parent’s choice the child sees as flawed. Jagmeet’s own posture is more defiant. The few visceral stories of childhood racial shaming are not meant to generate pity – we have already considered his willingness to fight – but to establish his right to speak about racialized experience. Each of the stories bottoms out in the lesson of, approximately, “I was made to feel like I didn’t belong.” Here we note two things about his view of belonging – that it is a feeling, and that it is dependent on others – and we take each up in turn.
Of course belonging is a feeling, what else could it be? In a different, physical context, when we ask of a thing in relation to others, “Does it belong?”, we mean, “Does it pick up their pattern and is it continuous with the members of the collection?” Among things, belonging is a relation between a unit and a group, and the human use works in a parallel way. In human terms, belonging is a relationship between a person and a culture. Certainly belonging is a feeling, but it is a feeling based on an underlying observation, an observation which is less a matter of feeling and more a matter of fact. Underneath the question, “Do I feel like I belong?” comes the question, “Do I in fact belong?”
We may approach the issue in a different way, and ask about the source of the feeling of belonging. For Jagmeet the feeling is caused by the generous disposition of other people, and he insists that one expects that generosity by right. But anyone conscious of belonging at some depth knows how poor an account this is. The obvious error is that belonging is a relation between a person and a culture of a place, not a person and the opinions of other people. Yet Jagmeet allows the primary person-place relation to be almost entirely eclipsed by the mediating element of other people and how they’re disposed.
This leads to a more fundamental, qualitative error: the feeling of belonging is internal, given, and persevering. It is as if a magnet in one’s mind attaches one to a place. (The metaphor is from my nine-year-old daughter, who has given me permission to use it and much else in the discussion here.) It is not, as Jagmeet understands it, external and contingent. The deeper that attachment, the more robust its immunity to the hazards of any chance person’s good will.
The third error is a misunderstanding of the relation between belonging and right. For Jagmeet, belonging to a place is a right that is owed generally, whence it follows that whoever denies the feeling to another is refusing an obligation to extend a right. This is why talk about belonging runs like a bright red thread through the pages of his book – having framed belonging as a right, his basic instruction in politics is to see to it that the right is upheld.
Just so, his signal moments in politics all orbit the right to belong. At the outset of his federal voyage, and what pushed his boat decidedly into the water, a heckler demanded to know why he’d allow Islamic sharia law to compromise the rights of Canadian women. The book discusses the episode at length and explains the fault in her clumsy, misdirected anger as generating a feeling of not belonging. And what is said to underlie her anger? She herself feels she doesn’t belong. More recently, what is the specific evil in having as Prime Minister a man whose most urgent, abiding desire is to dress in costumes? That it robs vulnerable people of the vital social bath of belonging. And in what is surely a departure for the NDP, even the degradation at the core of poverty is glossed as alienation of the right to belong.
But as a matter of fact, the right joined with belonging does not have the character of an obligation placed upon others. Belonging arises organically out of lifelong acts of giving yourself over to a place and a culture. Out of the fact of belonging flows the feeling that one has a right to a place – to participate in the fullness of its life, to enjoy it and to guide it. As a matter of lived experience, it is this inward-originating but outward-flowing positive right that is attached to belonging. It is not an artificial construct based on a mistaken idea about the vulnerability of belonging and attempting a cure by force – the exaction that everyone be provided with belonging. What kind of belonging would it be, after all, if anyone could come along and cancel it by denying you their validation?
And what kind of belonging is it that can easily be granted out of an act of generosity? Such quick belonging is as quickly lost. As well, it is a denial of the immigrant’s felt reality. He perceives his difference as a fact, not as an outrage committed by the ill-intentioned. He knows the breach is healed over time, that the adjustments he must make are awkward, even embarrassing – like Jagtaran Singh’s carefulness in dressing – but not without their dignity. That embarrassment is honest coin for a peace he has been invited to enjoy, but is not yet his by right. The process begins in pain but ends in belonging, and there is no fatal harm or contradiction in it.
But a fatal harm and contradiction is exactly what we find in the Canadian bien pensant’s eagerness to obliterate the discomfort of the process. He solves the problem of belonging by denying that there is anything much to belong to, and thereby does more than make a nonsense out of the desire to belong. He deprecates the power of his culture, the culture on which rests the peace he enjoys, the peace that the immigrant has arrived to flourish under. Just so Justin Trudeau, the apotheosis of the Canadian bien pensant, says, “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.”
It is the Canadian bien pensant upon whose knee Jagmeet has learnt his ideas; no serious reader of Indic traditions can possibly think otherwise. Jagmeet may do without the disguises and self-congratulatory grovelling of a Trudeau, but his turban is just as Canadian. No true foreign-grown, hard-baked Khalistani buys the bien pensant’s nonsense that belonging is a matter of peer acceptance rather than inherited right to a place. One only has to consider how doggedly that vanishing class of Indian clings to the glory of a 19th century kingdom and a right that supposedly arises out of it.
Accommodation is a two-way street, but the immigrant’s passage is by far the harder side. The host society owes the immigrant equity and fair-dealing. This is legal and institutional space. When we climb down to the daily commerce with the felt reality of culture, here the immigrant must inevitably find the society resistant. This resistance comes from the tenacity of belonging and the right to a place and a culture among members of the host culture itself. Culture works along organic lines and trades in terms of what is familiar. As such it produces casual, everyday interactions that fall well short of rigorously legal standards of equity.
This is the stuff produced from the resistance of culture that Jagmeet repeatedly mischaracterizes as racism. Here let us be clear: racism is a settled doctrine of race, not an all-too-human attachment to what is familiar. But a settled doctrine of race, we submit, is rare in Canada. And we do not hesitate to call out the real racists for the vile haters of the moral substance of human beings that they are.
The growth of what is familiar is itself a highly imperfect process, and works through channels of appearance and community reputation. This is a known reality, and it explains why community leaders generally accept to keep a close watch over how their communities are perceived. It is a reality, however, that Jagmeet refuses to accept. For him, it is an injustice that the immigrant must labour under the weight of a community reputation. Just so, he finds racism in the cloud cast over the Muslim community after 9/11 and the Sikh community after the Air India bombing. He complains at length that the judgment over a community does not rigorously fit every particular.
This is certainly true, but the truth is partial and useless. A reputation is the inevitable judgment passed on an outside community that has not yet been absorbed through bonds of familiarity and love – and a reputation is hardly ever entirely unearned. It is, moreover, the first approach to just such an absorption, and the only mechanism through which absorption occurs. Not an instrument of racism, a community reputation is instead an attempt to measure how and whether a culture that begins from a different place may be absorbed, without losing that most precious fruit, the inherited peace.
We are now but a handful of days from the verdict of the 2019 federal election. What do we make of the man Jagmeet Singh Dhaliwal? With his autobiography read, what does it tell us of the politician? There is much that is impressive in his charisma, whole-heartedness, and optimism. Political careers do not always take flight on such worthy wings, and in the daily media chew over political trajectories Jagmeet’s fortunes are considered to be rising. The rise comes as a surprise to a media confused by the sudden appearance of a turbaned man in the front rank of politics, and unable to take his measure; it has come as less of a surprise to some of us not constrained to walk in the media’s footsteps.
His autobiography both disperses and confirms the surprise. By its nature an autobiography will walk a life into the light, and Jagmeet is not a dissembler. But this same lack of pretend, grown from a thoroughly religious impulse, has given us a book that defies the conventions of the genre, and cheats the media of the goods in which the trade of political commentary is generally carried on.
The rise and fall of politicians’ fortunes are matters of the moment, do not hang on their freedom from contradiction, and are not our business here. The charismatic surface may carry the day in electoral politics, but the surface wraps around the real matter of culture, and in the domain of real things la vérité se venge – truth takes its revenge. We have attempted to swim beneath the engaging surface of Jagmeet’s narrative and investigate two currents of thought operating there.
First, as we understand it, the courage of a working statesman lies in his capacity to keep his own counsel and discern at their true worth the endless claims of right that clamour for satisfaction. The courage of a statesman rests on the autonomy and effectiveness of nearly the only tool he has – his judgment. What Jagmeet offers as courage is naïve moral certainty fortified by lack of curiosity, insensibility towards cultural obligations, and errors about social forces such as racism. It is not the courage of a statesman, but nearly its opposite – the pugnacity of an activist.
Second, we explored the workings of Jagmeet’s basic premise in politics, the idea of belonging. In place of the rootedness from which both the right and the obligation of politics arises, he offers the doubtful idol of the warm social bath of peer acceptance. The shallowness of his analysis may well linger as the strongest aftertaste of the narrative. On the basis of this highly artificial framing of belonging, Jagmeet has repeatedly pressed home his advantage as a racialized man. Once the theatre of the election is past us, the irony of this newest sort of privilege will surely be something to savour.
Gaurav Singhmar is a tax accountant who lives in Edmonton.