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 and drove his desire to learn French, which he speaks alongside English and Punjabi.
Singh became a university activist, then a criminal defence lawyer who often worked with community groups before friends and family encouraged him to make the leap into provincial politics, getting elected in the 2011 Ontario election.
Joe Cressy, a Toronto City Councillor and long-time NDP organizer, said the path Singh has followed to politics informs both his policies and his persona.
"It's a harder road to walk," said Cressy, who has cast his ballot for Singh. "But it also speaks to a different perspective on many of the issues that we're facing. So, whether that's the immigrant experience and access to the job market, whether that's as a racialized person and how you're treated, whether that is as a suburban representative — something that's very rare in the NDP — and what it means to speak to everyday voters."
It also means different challenges, including what was captured in that now-famous video.
"For a lot of politicians, and especially the privileged white politicians, of which I am one . . . people are yelling at us because they don't like our policies," said Cressy.
"In that situation, somebody was yelling at him because he was a man of colour and thus must be a Muslim and a bad one at that," said Cressy. "His willingness to respond not just with grace, but to use it as a teaching moment, I think speaks to him."
The NDP will reveal the results of the first ballot Oct. 1.
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Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press