Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
At first, I did not know what to expect from NDP leader Jagmeet Singh's memoir. Usually, I abhor political memoirs, especially, those written just before federal elections. For the most part, these books, which are often written by ghostwriters, are crass attempts to shore the brand image of politicians covetous of power. But since I knew so little of this man who has emerged from nowhere to challenge Canadians' image of themselves, I decided to invest a few hours of my time to see what is ticking inside the man who would be prime minister.
Since Singh was also launching his memoir at the Chapters store near my work, I decided to buy a signed copy from him a few weeks ago. It was an interesting experience waiting in line for the book signing. Most of the others in the line-up were of obvious South Asian heritage, and the highlight for most was the selfie with the young turbaned leader of the NDP. The noticeable absence of non-South Asian book buyers was a little disappointing, but Singh is still in his early days at the helm of the party, and there is time to broaden his political base. I passed on the selfie but took a minute or two to joke with Singh, who has a sharp wit and engaging manner. I told him that if he won the election, I would put my signed copy of the memoir immediately up on e-bay at triple the purchase price. He smiled broadly and said, “Great, this means that our destinies are intertwined!” This turned out to be an excellent prelude to the book where his deeply held Sikh belief that all human beings are connected and must work for the common good is a central tenet.
Religion, or better said, the Sikh philosophy is the linchpin of Jagmeet Singh's memoir, and this is a good thing. Certainly, Singh is not alone in grounding his political and social activism in religion. Tommy Douglas, the NDP's first leader, was an ordained minister and campaigned on the pledge to make Canada the “New Jerusalem.” Many of the old party stalwarts still believe strongly in the intersection of religion and social justice. So why not an NDP prime minister who wears the outward signs of his religious conviction: the turban, uncut hair, iron bracelet and ceremonial dagger? Fortunately, in Love and Courage, we discover the man behind the trappings of his religion, and there is certainly more than one dimension to his story.
If Singh's story was a novel, it would be a contender for the Giller Prize. In it, we follow the journey of an ambitious young doctor, Singh's father, from rural Punjab to Canada. Accompanying him is his open-minded, albeit religiously devout, wife. Their immediate task is the father's qualifying to practice medicine in Canada. Singh's mother becomes the family's main breadwinner while the father struggles to pass the tough Canadian exams, and then Singh is born in the midst of these efforts. The family must make the very difficult choice to send the toddler to be raised by the grandparents until Dr. Singh succeeds in re-qualifying and can start to earn a living as a doctor. Young Jagmeet soon returns to Canada and his father begins an almost fairytale climb up the medical ranks to become a Chief of Psychiatry in Windsor, Ontario. The family has found financial security and Singh, like other children of immigrants, quickly fits into Canadian society. There are a few minor altercations with the schoolyard bullies who object to his darker complexion but these are few. That is until Singh decides to let his hair grow out and begins wearing the patka, a cloth headcover to keep his long hair in place. This makes young Singh a target for racist bullying and he decides to learn martial arts to defend himself. Shortly after, his family life also begins to disintegrate as his now well-to-do and respected father falls into the trap of alcoholism and Singh is victimized by a predator. But enough with the spoilers!
Although Singh's myriad personal trials and tribulations make for a good story, the deeper messages in the memoir make the book exceptional. For me, what I appreciated the most was Singh's ability to demystify Sikhism, which is in its essence more a philosophy of unity and tolerance than a religion and indeed very similar to the humanism practiced by an increasing number of Canadians. In explaining Sikhism, Singh has made an invaluable contribution to the Sikh community in Canada, and for that fact to all Canadians. There are times, however, when Singh's points of view seem unduly influenced by the narrow experience of South Asian Canadians in Southwestern Ontario. This is especially the case of his perception of bias among that region's police services. As a national leader, he could do well by revisiting some of his assumptions and their relevance to the rest of the country, and I am sure that as he matures as a leader he may well do that.
Is Singh's memoir a recommended read? Yes, definitely if for no other reason than that the book will fast-track the removal of superficial assumptions that many Canadians may have of the NDP leader. Will it shore up the NDP's sagging fortunes? Hmm, maybe not. In any event, it is well written and engaging, and won't be going up for resale on e-bay regardless of the outcome of the next federal elections. And yes, Jagmeet, we are indeed all connected :)
Love and Courage is published by Simon and Schuster.