Liberals across the West often imagine Canada as a political utopia: a tolerant land, welcoming to immigrants, where marijuana is legal and everyone gets free health care. But how accurate is that picture? In September, Canadian politics were upended when old photos surfaced of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing blackface. In June, the province of Quebec passed a law that would bar public employees from wearing religious clothing or symbols on the job.
In the wake of last month’s federal elections, in which Trudeau held onto the prime minister’s post but his Liberal Party lost the majority in Parliament, Deconstructed headed to Toronto for the Hot Docs Podcast Festival. There, Mehdi Hasan talked to two of Canada’s leading politicians. Ahmed Hussen is the immigration minister in Trudeau’s cabinet — an immigrant himself who arrived in Canada from war-torn Somalia in the ’90s. Jagmeet Singh is the leader of the New Democratic Party and the first Sikh to head a major political party in Canada. Hasan sat down with Singh and Hussen to discuss Canada’s reputation as a shining beacon of Western multiculturalism and whether it’s truly deserved.
Jagmeet Singh: One of the things that I’m so proud of is that young kids would come up to me from so many different backgrounds and say “Seeing you run for prime minister makes me feel like I can do anything.”
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to a very special episode of Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan. From the U.S. to the UK, from France to Australia, the Western world has been torn apart in recent years by bitter divisions over race, immigration and, yes, Islam. Canada has seemed to be the one hold out, resisting the rise of nationalists and populists, and praised, celebrated even, as a liberal multicultural utopia. But is it really? Or is there a darker side to America’s nice, northern neighbor?
I went to the Hotdocs Podcast Festival in Toronto to find out — and, in the wake of last month’s federal elections, sat down in front of a live audience with two of the most prominent figures in Canadian politics: former refugee turned Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen:
Ahmed Hussen: Opening your doors to people from around the world, it’s not just a nice thing to do, it’s a smart economic policy to have.
MH: And the Sikh leader of the New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh.
JS: While during the campaign we’ve seen the liberal party campaign like they care about people, they don’t govern that way.
MH: So does Canada — the land of free healthcare, legal marijuana, and lots of immigrants — really deserve its reputation as a progressive paradise?
If you’re not Canadian, you probably know at least one Canadian politician: this guy.
Justin Trudeau: Canada’s a country that was built by immigration. We know that this has been the story of Canada.
MH: Yes, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, son of iconic former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who took office in Ottawa with his Liberal Party back in 2015. The handsome, eloquent, youthful new face of Western progressivism.
Jeanne Moos: No, not Justin Bieber. It’s Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new prime minister in his prime.
Phil Gayle: Trudeau is seen as something of a political golden boy. He’s young. He’s charismatic. He’s effeminate.
Eleanor Clift: Handsome, charismatic, progressive. The new darling of the progressive world community.
MH: Fast forward though to September 2019.
Michelle Fleury: Many were shocked when pictures of the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerged showing him in blackface.
JT: This is something I deeply, deeply regret.
Newscaster: Yesterday, Trudeau apologized again after more images emerged.
Trevor Noah: Trudeau came out to apologize for one blackface and ended up admitting to more.
Newscaster: When pressed by reporters about just how many times he had dressed in black face, Trudeau refused to answer.
MH: The Trudeau blackface story got quite a lot of attention south of the border: it was simple, digestible, social-media ready, and completely intelligible to a U.S. audience given our own recent history of political blackface scandals — thank you Virginia governor Ralph Northam. And it hit the news just weeks before the Canadian federal election, in which the country had to decide whether or not Trudeau would hold on to the top job. An election story that didn’t get play in the U.S., though, was Quebec’s controversial Bill 21.
Newscaster: The government of Quebec passed a law this weekend prohibiting some public servants from wearing religious symbols on the job.
MH: Bill 21, passed by the Quebec provincial government back in June, imposes a “religiously neutral” dress code on state employees in the province. That is, it bans public workers in positions of prominence — school teachers, judges, police officers — from wearing hijabs or yarmulkes or turbans on the job. Which has left many residents of Quebec, especially Muslim women, feeling like they’re no longer welcome there.
Nadia Naqvi: We can’t simply put our identity on a shelf and come to our jobs. No, whether I wear my hijab or not, I’m still the same teacher.
MH: Bill 21 became a big issue in the election campaign during the Fall, and led to clashes between prime minister Trudeau and his rival to the left, Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, or NDP.
JT: I am the only one on this stage who has said “yes, a federal government might have to intervene on this.” You didn’t say that you would possibly intervene. You didn’t even leave the door open and that’s not —
JS: Let’s be honest for a second here. Every single day of my life is fighting a bill like Bill 21. Every single day of my life —
JT: So why won’t you fight it if you form government?
JS: Every single day of my life is challenging people who think that you can’t do things because of the way you look. Every single day of my life, I channel the frustrations of people who feel that as well. Many people across our country who are told they can’t achieve what they want because of how they look. I am running to become prime minister of this country —
JT: So why not act on your convictions and leave the door open to challenging it?
MH: Trudeau scraped back into office last month, but lost his parliamentary majority and will now lead a minority liberal government. He’ll need the support of the left-wing NDP which despite a lively and energetic campaign by its leader Jagmeet Singh, lost 15 of its seats during the election.
So last week, I went to Toronto to talk to Singh — the first Sikh and first person of color ever to lead a major Canadian political party. But first, I spoke to Ahmed Hussen. Hussen arrived in Canada in the 90s as a teenaged Muslim refugee from war-torn Somalia and eventually rose to become Immigration Minister, yeah, Immigration Minister in the Trudeau government. With a back story like that, who better to discuss Canada’s reputation as a seemingly shining beacon of western multiculturalism?
MH: It’s a pleasure to be here in Toronto at the Hotdocs Podcast Festival for a special live edition of Deconstructed. We are talking tonight about immigration, Islamophobia, racism, multiculturalism, refugees, borders, all the good stuff with two very special guests, two of Canada’s best known Politicians. My first guest tonight is Canada’s Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees. He is a lawyer, an MP. He was former president of the Canadian Somali Congress. He’s a former refugee himself. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the honorable Ahmed Hussen.
Ahmed Hussen, welcome to Deconstructed.
AH: Thank you.
MH: Great to be here in your country, in your city. Congratulations on your very close to victory in last month’s elections.
AH: Thank you. That was a very, very close race between the third place finisher and the second place finisher so I didn’t have a lot of problems.
MH: It was a bit of a weird victory. You lost your majority in parliament. You lost the popular vote to the conservatives. You’re basically Donald Trump to the conservatives’s Hillary Clinton, aren’t you? I’m just saying in terms of winning power despite losing the popular vote. I’m just saying.
AH: Well, I think we have a strong minority government. I think the message we got from Canadians is that they expect us to work with everyone in Parliament, making sure that we tackle the very, very real issues that have preoccupied Canadians and we are the first to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, so.
MH: What went wrong for your party? Why did so many Canadians lose faith in Justin Trudeau, this once popular Prime Minister?
AH: I think look, I would say that — I’m very proud of the record that we’ve been able to achieve over the last four years. Of course, better is always possible, but I can tell you just the amount of stuff we were able to get done. I have seen it on the ground, you know, the number of children that we were able to lift out of poverty, the number of Canadians who are working now —
MH: I’m not disputing. I’m just wondering, why did that not translate into a big victory?
AH: It’s tough because, you know, it’s always a challenge when you are, you know, when you have a record to defend, you’re dealing with a lot of false information floating in the universe. You know, there was a guy sitting in Buffalo sending stuff to Canada, that was completely false about everything under the sun and the current structures that we have simply couldn’t do anything about that. So you’re dealing with —
MH: Is Canada more divided now than ever before?
AH: I think this election campaign was a very, in some ways it was uglier than I’ve ever seen. It was it was very divisive. And I think that it’s fair to say that everyone has had a role in that. I think now, you know, looking back it’s important for all of us to reflect on how we all contributed to that environment and how we can do better as a country.
MH: What is the plan now? You’ve ruled out a coalition government with the New Democratic Party, with the NDP. You talked about a strong minority government, isn’t that a contradiction in terms?
AH: No, it’s not. It just means that what Canadians expect us to do — Look, when you listen to Canadians, you can never go wrong. And what they’ve told us is we expect you to work with every parliamentarian in the House of Commons to make sure that you address the issues that matter. A majority of Canadians voted for strong action now against climate change.
MH: So, why not form a coalition to do that wouldn’t that be easier?
AH: Well, I think that you know, what matters is how you reach across the aisle and work on issues as they come along and work together to get things done. I think the majority of Canadians voted for Pharmacare. The majority of Canadians voted for an activist government that continues to invest in them. I think that we can agree with many of our friends across the aisle. I think that is the agenda that we’ve —
MH: You are going to be relying on your NDP friends across the aisle to get some of this stuff through?
AH: We’ll rely on all parliamentarians to get the job done, depending on what the policies are. But I suspect on a lot of these issues, for example, on Pharmacare, I think our NDP colleagues would be supportive of that because they also want Pharmacare to be done now and we had already started some of that work.
MH: I’ve got to ask about an issue that dominated a lot of the election campaign as one of the most senior and high profile black politicians in Canada. What was your reaction when that first image of Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister, your boss, appeared in blackface, which dominated global headlines in the United States? It was everywhere when I switched on the TV in the U.S. What was your reaction that day?
AH: Before I answer the question, I heard some laughter in the audience. It’s a very serious issue. I don’t think it was a funny issue. And I think it’s, you know, my first reaction was one of disappointment. The images were disappointing to me and to many people. I think that, from my perspective, and I, again, I can’t speak for anyone else. I can speak for myself. I took the time to reflect on this and to compare the images to the four years of my experience working with this individual and making sure that I was able to recollect and reflect on all the work that I had done with Justin Trudeau on engaging the black community, delivering unprecedented investments on black issues. I mean, the first sitting prime minister in Canada to acknowledge systemic racism as a reality in Canada, acknowledging and committing Canada to the UN Decade for People of African Descent. This is not an empty commitment. Once Canada signed on to the UN Decade for People of African Descent, it comes with deliverables that you have to deliver. I chose to look at that and —
MH: Did you do that in a vacuum? Or did he call you up? Did he talk to you?
AH: We had a conversation. He called me.
MH: What did he say?
AH: He was kind enough to call me ahead of the release of the images in the media.
MH: You had a heads up? You knew it was coming up?
AH: Yes, he called me shortly before and and you know, we had a conversation. And I can tell you that one of the things that I contrast with everything else that happens in this country is the fact that he exercised leadership enough to come out unequivocally to apologize to those who are hurt by those images, and to use that experience to do better on issues, the real issues of systemic racism that really need to be tackled in Canada. I think one of the things that I regret about the aftermath of that was how the media really focused on him and the images, which, I mean, there were —
MH: Three images, I think. Three images, right?
AH: But what I was hoping to happen after that was for us in Canada to finally have a long overdue conversation about systemic racism. You know, to ask ourselves, does the civil service of Canada for example, or the civil service of Ontario does it look like —
MH: So I want to talk about that tonight with you, but I just want to get —
AH: — Do our institutions and our corporate boards —
MH: And I want to talk about that with you tonight.
AH: I don’t think the media did that. The media didn’t do that.
MH: I guess partly because it wasn’t just one image, it was three images. Did he tell you that when he called you up, there were multiple images? Or was it just the first one?
AH: No, he look —
MH: I mean, he really committed to blackface. I know it’s not funny, but it’s very weird that there were so many images.
AH: No, again, as I said, you know, it’s human to err but it takes a leader to own up to the mistakes and to apologize to those who are hurt by those images and to commit, sincerely to learn from that experience and double down on more work against systemic racism. That’s not something that I’ve seen in a lot of other instances in which that has happened.
MH: And his reputation is being rebuilt, do you think? Has he done enough to win back trust?
AH: Well, I think from again, from my perspective, my engagement to the black community after that and knocking on doors with my own constituents and some of the young folks that I spoke to, they chose to focus on the record. They said, you know, we want him to come back because he’s been the most progressive prime minister. And he’s taken a clear stand against racism and intolerance and bigotry in this country. And so, we are going to judge him on his record and we want him to come back. That’s the sense that I got.
MH: When I last interviewed you, it was late 2017. It was Donald Trump’s first year in office. It was your first year in office. Have things got better or worse on issues around race relations, immigration, these kind of — the debate about “populism,” and nationalism? Not just in Canada, but across the west from your vantage point, have things got worse?
AH: I think we’re at a point where, you know, it’s not that monolithic, right? When you’re talking about immigration, when you’re talking about responses, by countries refugee issues, there is the national noise and then there are amazing leaders at the municipal level and community leaders in places like France and Italy, who are really, really open to opening their hearts and their homes to the most vulnerable. So we gotta give those folks credit as well. Some of the most amazing creative work on refugee integration and providing homes to the most vulnerable is being carried out by cities around the world. They’re meeting to work together on those issues. And they are working with Canada in many ways on that. And that’s what I choose to focus on.
The other thing that I want to tell your listeners is, we chose, you know, every country has the right to decide on their own immigration policies. But we wanted to prove in Canada, that you can — that, first of all that, you know, welcoming others, and opening your doors to people from around the world is not just a nice thing to do. It’s a smart economic policy to have, that it is in your best interest to actually attract the best and the brightest from around the world and actually allow everyone to contribute including refugees. Secondly, that you can avoid the temptation to fear monger your way to power and build walls and instead choose to do the difficult thing to trust your fellow human being and build bridges for the world and having a smart and open immigration policy and win elections. And you know what, in Canada, we’ve done that. And I’m proud of that fact. We wanted to take an unapologetic opposite approach to those who build walls to others and we’ve proven that it can work.
MH: You have been praised globally for your welcoming stance on immigration. Back in 2015, Justin Trudeau grabbed headlines by turning up at the airport to personally welcome Syrian refugees. I think 40,000 came in after that. But some would say that Canada’s changed. And I want to see what your take on that is, that actually the Canadian — Not just Canadian public opinion on refugees has changed but even the government that you’re the immigration minister in has toughened up its attitude. Earlier this year, I believe your government asked the United States government to amend a 15-year-old border treaty, the Safe Third Country Agreement between your two countries. Why did you do that?
AH: When you say we’ve changed that’s news to me because in 2018, Canada welcomed the most refugees in the Western world, more than the United States of America, a country that has 10 times our population.
MH: I mean, if Trump’s your benchmark it’s not the greatest achievement.
AH: It’s not just Trump. It’s England. It’s France.
MH: Fair enough.
AH: I’m talking about the G-7.
AH: Canada, the generosity of Canadians —
MH: So why are you trying to amend this treaty that refugee groups and others in this country are criticizing you for.
AH: I’ll come back to the Safe Third Country Agreement in a second. But the generosity of Canadians has actually increased towards refugees —
MH: Even though I’m seeing a poll saying 57% of Canadians, according to a recent poll, said they didn’t want the country to take in any more refugees.
That’s a scary number.
AH: There was a poll. There were some issues with that poll, but there was a poll last week that showed that 64% of Canadians do not think that we take in too many immigrants.
MH: Okay, 77% of polls are made up.
AH: That’s a snapshot in time.
MH: We have different polls, which is why we shouldn’t rely on polls.
AH: Look, first of all the 40,000 Syrian refugees, we were able to do that from November 4, 2015 to February 29, 2016. We’ve since welcomed a total of more than 60,000 Syrian refugees.
MH: So, I’m saying people are giving you credit for that. I’ve given you credit for that. All I’m asking is people are saying they’re detecting changes, and they’re pointing to, for example, this treaty with the U.S. where you’re saying to the U.S., you take these people back. They’re not going to come and claim asylum here.
AH: Oh, the treaty has always been there. This is a treaty that was signed in 2004. I want to make it clear, it’s not a treaty that is designed to deny asylum, absolutely not. In fact, Canada, one of the things that I’m very proud of is in the last four years, we have made sure that we have abided by our international obligations to protect the most vulnerable, that, you know, when you talk about the messaging in the past, we’ve kept up the principle that, you know, if you’re facing persecution and you need protection, Canada will provide that protection for you. So the treaty is about the the orderly management of asylum seekers on both sides of the border. You know, it’s a 14-year-old —
MH: But you’re pushing for it to be hardened up for the Americans —
AH: No, look, we talk about a lot of things.
MH: I mean, it’s called a Safe Third Country Agreement. Do you believe a country where the President puts kids in cages and tries to build a moat filled with snakes and alligators is a safe third country for refugees?
AH: That’s an easy answer.
MH: Is it an easy answer?
AH: That’s an easy answer to say. I mean, our position on that is very clear. I think putting children in cages is absolutely wrong.
MH: No, is it a safe third country?
AH: It is absolutely unacceptable.
MH: Is it a safe third country?
AH: Look, you know —
MH: It’s simple. Is it a safe third country?
AH: The difficulty, Mehdi, is you’re asking me questions and you know, these questions need answers that are well thought of. The United States — You want a yes or no answer, no?
MH: Yes, I do.
AH: The fact is the United States, the Safe Third Country Agreement obligates both of us to monitor each other to make sure that we have analysis on our domestic asylum system. That analysis is ongoing. A lot of the measures that the U.S. administration has announced have not been implemented yet. Some of them are being challenged in court. You know, there’s a very strong robust debate happening in the United States. And it’s not for Canadian immigration minister to determine what the American policy should be. But what I’ll say is, we’re monitoring that situation closely, but we are committed to making sure that we abide by international obligations. And the Safe Third Country Agreement actually places a duty on Canada to monitor the United States to make sure that they’re doing that as well.
MH: Okay, we’re running out of time. I just want to say it’s not just in Trump’s America where there are hate crimes on the rise or white nationalists marching in the open. Here in Canada, you had a horrific terrorist attack in the mosque in Quebec in 2017. Hate Crimes, I believe increased by 50% between 2015 and 2017. I believe the number of hate groups according to one study is like 300 right now. How much these numbers concern you?
AH: Oh, very much so and in fact, I think one of the things that I was very much concerned about, we all were, was that we didn’t want the election that just passed to give life to those who would peddle fear mongering and try to turn Canadians against newcomers and immigrants and refugees. And I’m so happy by the fact that my faith in Canadians, the fact that Canadians have, the resilience of Canadians to that kind of fear mongering.
MH: But what do you, as a government, are you taking concrete steps to fight white nationalism?
AH: For sure, of course, I mean, we have taken a lot of steps which I can’t all get into now, but we strengthened the investments to protect houses of worship. We have made sure that you know we work with our partners to hold social media platforms to account for some of this hateful —
MH: And it’s easy to identify kind of, the white nationalist threat. My always worry is that even among some liberals, it’s not just kind of, right-wingers who are blind to what’s going on, there’s a sense of not quite getting how bad things are getting for minority communities. For example, Muslims in a country like Canada today. Do you view Bill 21 in Quebec, this so-called Religious Neutrality Law — which bans the wearing of religious symbols, including, of course, the hijab, among others, by judges, teachers, civil servants — do you view that law to be Islamophobic?
AH: Any state that tries to tell people what to wear, especially when they wear what they’re wearing because of their faith is basically — The state has no business telling people what to wear.
MH: But do you think that law — What I’m wondering, do you think that as a Muslim minister in the federal government —
AH: I don’t agree with that law.
MH: I get that you don’t agree with it. I’m saying was it driven, do you think, by anti-Muslim animus?
AH: That will become clear based on what happens in the court.
Audience member: In your opinion!
AH: Because there are many folks in Quebec —
Audience member: Answer the question!
AH: Who are using the opportunity to protect the charter rights as they should. And we’re looking at that, but you know, the state has no business telling people what to wear.
MH: But it is an example of an example of Islamophobia, is it not?
AH: It’s an example of the state trying to tell people how to practice their religion.
MH: But why? But why? Because of Islamophobia.
AH: I’m not sure what motivates the government of Quebec —
MH: Not just the government. A lot of people pushing it, you must say some of them are Islamophobes, even if not all of them are?
AH: Well, I mean, there are folks who support measures against Muslims. You just have to look at my Twitter page or Facebook comments to determine that. There will always be that you know, small fraction of folks in our society who are Islamophobic. That’s a fact.
MH: Will your government be taking action to stop the bill?
AH: So basically right now because the matter’s before the court there are folks who are challenging the matter in Quebec’s courts and Justin Trudeau is the only federal leader and our team is the only team that has left the door open for intervention at the right time. And we’ve taken a clear position against that law.
MH: We’re way over on time but I want to ask one last question. You are a black Muslim, former refugee from Somalia who came to this country I believe age 16 years old. You have risen to become minister of immigration of all titles. I often say you can’t make this stuff up. Do you think this story of yours could have happened in any other western country or do you believe it’s a Canada specific story?
AH: I think it’s a Canada specific story and I think it’s because Canada is the only country in which five individuals from the audience or an organization, a private organization can sponsor a refugee, a refugee family. We’ve had that program for the last 40 years. And as a result of the Canadian privately sponsored refugee program, we’ve been able to welcome 350,000 people into Canada who otherwise wouldn’t have had protection. Now, if there’s one thing that I wish I did more is to export that Canadian model to the rest of the world because I think there’s many communities in which they would love to have that framework.
I don’t think Canadians are any more generous than French people or Germans or Americans. But I think, you know, when an American watches a refugee crisis and sees horrific images, they don’t, you know, the best thing that they can do is maybe donate the next day to the American Red Cross. They don’t have any other framework to help those individuals to get them to safety. But what a Canadian can do is get off their couch, get together with four other Canadians and sponsor that refugee. That’s an amazing, amazing Canadian invention. And I think if there’s one thing that really drives me crazy about Canadian modesty is we should be less modest and celebrate that and export that to the rest of the world.
MH: We’ll have to leave it there. Ahmed Hussen, thanks for coming on Deconstructed.
MH: That was Ahmed Hussen, Immigration Minister, member of parliament, member of the liberal government. My next guest is also a member of parliament, is a former criminal defense lawyer, a martial artist and the first person of color and Sikh to lead a major Canadian political party. Please welcome the leader of the New Democratic Party, the NDP, Jagmeet Singh.
JS: Thank you.
MH: Jagmeet Singh, thanks for coming on Deconstructed.
JS: Thank you.
MH: You ran what even your critics concede was a rather brilliant campaign, a charismatic campaign. The polls show that you won the debates, the leaders debates, some of the polls showed that you were the most popular of the three party leaders, major party leaders, and yet you ended the election with fewer votes and fewer seats than you did four years ago. What went wrong?
JS: I think a lot of people voted out of fear. I think that was a big challenge for us. There was a lot of momentum. And I want to give credit, I mean, I tried to do my best in the campaign, but I want to give credit to the fact that our goal in the campaign was to make it about people. And I’ve met with so many Canadians that have so many fears and worries, a lot of young people that are worried about the future of the planet. And our goal was to make sure that the campaign reflected the stories that we heard from people. And I think that was the success of the campaign. It wasn’t really me. It was really the focus on people.
MH: But when you say the success of the campaign, clearly as a campaign, as something to witness and behold, yes, but when you come out 15 seats fewer than you had last time round. You got a massive applause when you walked in here, people in Toronto like you, you won not a single seat in Toronto.
JS: (to audience) You couldn’t clap to that one, right? You were getting ready to clap.
MH: But I’m just asking about the disconnect. There seems to be a disconnect. You must see that on your travels.
JS: Yeah, a couple of things. I mean, we are, I’m proud of the fact that we are funded by people, by the love of people who believe in a brighter future and who want to dream big. The other parties have a lot deeper pockets. They’re establishment parties, the old boys club. They’ve got a lot more money than us. And in the last week of the campaign, they were able to drive home a message of fear to make people afraid to vote the way they wanted, and we saw a lot of results where people really were hoping to vote a certain way. And they changed their mind up until the last moment because they were afraid of conservatives. And I’m hoping that in the future, I know people are afraid of conservatives, I’m afraid of the fact that they want to cut. I get that. But I don’t think in life you can achieve anything big or meaningful, if you do things out of fear. The only way to change the world is to do something out of hope. That’s what I hope.
MH: But here’s what’s interesting, just as some context for our global audience listening in. The Liberal Party, we were just talking to Ahmed Hussen didn’t win a majority. They are forming a minority government. They’ve ruled out a coalition with your party, but you’re still in a good position as a kind of kingmaker because to get legislation through as Ahmed Hussen was just telling me. They will need NDP votes on economic issues, climate change, issues where your party and his party are much more aligned than the conservatives are. So that puts you in a pretty good position. What are you hoping to get out of that?
JS: Well, one thing is that while during the campaign, we’ve seen the Liberal Party and liberal Prime Ministers campaign like they care about people, they don’t govern that way. And so my job is going to be —
MH: Hold them to account.
JS: Yeah, my job it’s not, it’s not that mean, if we had relied on what they said during the campaign, it sounds like we agree on a lot of things. But the reality is they don’t govern that way and they haven’t governed that way. So I’m really going to fight hard. I don’t believe that their centrist approach is going to solve the housing crisis. It’s not going to solve the problems.
MH: Given that, are you disappointed that Trudeau ruled out a coalition? Would you quite like to be in a coalition?
JS: Well, my goal is I don’t really care the form that it takes. I care about the results —
MH: But if you’re a minister and you and your people have ministers in government, you get to exercise more power. That’s just the reality.
JS: To me, it wasn’t the format —
MH: Also, if you were foreign minister, I could get to see you and Donald Trump have a meeting which would be fun, just for me.
JS: I have that martial arts training, so I should be alright.
JS: But in all seriousness, I mean this very seriously, I was open to any format to be able to deliver on the things that matter to me. So I believe in not just talking about Pharmacare, I want to make sure that there’s a national single-payer, publicly-funded Pharmacare for all which is not what the liberals have said. They’ve said that they care about some sort of Pharmacare. They haven’t said that they’re willing to take on the pharmaceutical industry.
MH: You sound a bit like a certain senator from Vermont back where I live. Have you spoken to Justin Trudeau since the election about what the plan is going to be between your two parties?
JS: So we’ve had one phone call and that was the night of the election, and I congratulated him on the campaign and he congratulated me, and we have another meeting that’s scheduled for next week.
MH: Okay. That’s going to be the main meeting.
JS: That’s going to be the meeting. I think, I hope.
MH: You won’t need your martial arts training at that meeting.
JS: Hopefully not.
MH: Talking of phone calls. I’m just picking up a discussion I was having —
JS: Should I sit back?
MH: Whatever you’d like.
JS: I wanted to be engaged though but okay, I’ll sit back too.
MH: Okay, we’re nice up close and personal. We’ve both worn our deodorant, I hope. Talking of phone calls, an issue that I raised with Ahmed Hussen, the blackface controversy that grabbed global headlines and global attention for good reasons and bad. I believe that he spoke to you on the phone about that because I asked Ahmed Hussen about his phone call, obviously, slightly different position. He’s a minister in his government. What happened between the two of you when he rang you up about that?
JS: So we had a lot to talk about, about the phone call in the first place. And when it was offered, I didn’t want my phone call to be a part of a PR campaign to try to exonerate himself from what I don’t have the power to exonerate him from. It’s Canadians that would decide whether they accept his first or second apology, whether they believed him or they believe there’s a certain Mr. Trudeau they see in public and a certain Mr. Trudeau that’s in private that does very different things. That’s up to Canadians to continue to make that decision.
MH: Especially black Canadians.
JS: Yes, absolutely, for racialized Canadians, black Canadians, particularly given the pernicious form of anti-black racism and how prevalent that is. It’s up to Canadians to make that decision.
MH: So what did you say, is that what you told him?
JS: So what I said is that I would not make the discussion public in any way because I didn’t want to be used as a tool to try to make up for what happened so I kept the conversation private.
MH: Okay, let’s talk about race and racism. Your story’s a pretty unique one. Your parents are immigrants from India. I believe your mother came first and then sponsored your dad. Is this true?
JS: It’s true.
MH: Your dad put out an ad saying he was looking for an Indian woman living abroad to marry him. That’s bold.
JS: Yeah, the way people rolled in the past is pretty interesting.
MH: Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. Your great grandfather was an Indian revolutionary.
JS: Yes, he was.
MH: Wow, and then you this turban-wearing, Sikh son of immigrants become leader of one of Canada’s four major parties at the age of 38. Growing up experiencing racism, growing up experiencing, I believe, physical attacks in school, because of the way you looked, did you ever think this would be possible?
JS: Never, never. I imagined a lot of things as a kid. I was kind of a dreamer. But I didn’t imagine, if you would have asked me — I always think of my kid, my childhood self as a 10-year-old. So if I think of a 10-year-old Jagmeet, if you would have asked me, would I ever be able to run as a prime minister or what a prime minister would look like? I would never have thought myself. And in this campaign, if I can tell you one of the things that I’m so proud of, is that the amount of, the times that young kids would come up to me from so many different backgrounds and say, seeing you run for prime minister makes me feel like I can do anything and that was amazing.
MH: So, that’s the positive side of it. They’re clearly seeing you as a positive impact, no doubt about it. You’ve risen to the top. But a lot of people aren’t happy seeing you in that position. They don’t feel comfortable seeing you in that position.
JS: Who’s that?
MH: I’m about to ask you who that is. Don’t worry. There was a moment on the campaign trail when a man in Montreal, in Quebec told you to cut your turban off to look more Canadian. And he said, because in Rome you do as the Romans do, and you responded without missing a beat, “This is Canada you could do whatever you like,” with a smile. It’s a great line, but I do wonder how do you keep your cool in situations like that? Because I would have just said fuck off. How did you go “Oh, this is Canada. You can do —” That’s why I’m not a party leader and you are. But I’m just wondering what goes through your head at times like that.
JS: Thank you for saying that story.
MH: I mean, don’t do that.
JS: No, no, I wasn’t planning to, but it’s good. You caught me off guard with that, that was funny. Okay, so for me, a couple of things, I faced far worse than that in my life growing up not just once, you know, multiple times throughout my life, I faced far worse than someone giving me a suggestion of the way I should look. I faced a lot more physical, threats and then actual physical violence. So it wasn’t hard to not keep my cool because there was a time in my life when I used to respond to aggression and violence with my fists to defend myself. But I realized like, that wasn’t going to change someone’s mind. At the end of the day, if I fought someone to protect myself, sure, I protected myself but I didn’t win over somebody. And I realized, if in my position, I’ve got you know, years of training as a lawyer, I’ve been a leader. I’ve been involved in politics. I have a platform and I can use it to hopefully win over people and I’m thinking at the end of that conversation, that gentleman walked away thinking you know, he’s a nice guy, confident, firm. I told him I don’t agree with him. But I feel like the goal should be for me, in my position. I don’t think this is something that everyone can do because everyone’s got a different position. But my goal is to win over the hearts and minds of people. And I know you can do that with love. You can do that with compassion, and finding a shared connection.
MH: I’m glad you said that, because some people so often misinterpret it as you’re saying that the burden is on minorities to, you know, win over racists and bigots. That’s not the case. You were in a different position. There was another moment like that. There was another clip of you that went viral around the world back, I think it was in 2017 when a woman came up to you at a public forum and started shouting Islamophobic abuse at you. “We know you’re in bed with Sharia,” she said. Sharia. We know you’re in bed with them. I literally think she thought it was a person. “We know you’re in bed with the Muslim brotherhood,” she said and again, I think she thinks it’s a group of guys who you’re in bed with. At no point though, serious point, at no point in that whole exchange while she’s screaming and ranting abuse at you, at no point do you say I’m not actually Muslim, you dumb racist, Why didn’t you say that?
JS: You know, for me, I’ve been, I mean, as you can imagine probably, with as beard and a turbaned person, I face a lot of Islamophobia. People can’t, you know, don’t know the difference. And I’ve always wanted to make it clear that if I would have said, “Hey, I’m not a Muslim,” I would be suggesting in a way that it would have been okay to do that if I wasn’t Muslim. So for me, in the face of Islamophobia, my answer has never been nor will it ever be “I’m not a Muslim.” My answer will always be that hate is wrong.
MH: And a lot of Muslims, both globally and in Canada appreciated that stance of yours and to be fair, it’s a stance that a lot of Sikhs in public life who have been abused have adopted, and I can only speak for myself as a Muslim, it’s something that I appreciate very much. And a lot of Canadian Muslim admirers of yours, I know appreciated that. But here’s the thing, that was 2017, right? Before I came here, I messaged a bunch of Muslim friends of mine in Canada, across Canada. I said I’m interviewing Ahmed Hussen, Jagmeet Singh, what should I ask them? I’m not an expert on Canada. Literally every single Muslim friend of mine messaged back, all fans of you, people who like you, and they all said “You gotta ask him about Bill 21.” You gotta ask him about this very controversial “Religious Neutrality Law,” which prevents civil servants, people in positions of authority, I think from wearing religious symbols.
Unlike Justin Trudeau and the immigration minister was just speaking to me about this — The Trudeau government says that they will leave open the door to intervene to prevent Quebec from carrying this out in full and maybe discriminating against Muslim women and others. You’ve said you will not intervene. You want to win over hearts and minds, your previous answer. A lot of Canadian Muslims, do you understand why they feel kinda like Jagmeet Singh, who was their big champion, threw them under the bus on this issue?
JS: I don’t want them to feel that way. And I could start off by saying I think it’s horrible, that the law is heinous, it’s wrong. It’s saying that what people sometimes think in their hearts and minds that it’s okay to discriminate someone. They’re legislating to say, “Yeah, it’s okay. We’re going to actually make a law that does that.” So, it’s absolutely wrong. I want to be clear on two things. First off, I do have a legal background. There is a court challenge right now, that court challenge is a very important court challenge and I don’t want to interfere with the court challenge. What Mr. Trudeau has said is that at some stage, when a matter is appealed, it will get to the Supreme Court. And at the Supreme Court stage, all prime ministers as a matter of status quo, as a matter of fact, would evaluate the law and look at it before it moves ahead. I would do that as well. But what I want to make something really clear is —
MH: But would you prosecute a case with the government, with the federal government take up a case against the provincial government on this issue? Yes or no?
JS: That’s not the format and that’s not how it would happen. The way it would happen is the federal government would be an intervener on the case if it got to the Supreme Court level. And whether or not at the Supreme Court level, the government, the prime minister would be involved. All prime ministers, myself included would absolutely take a look at that and see what we could do. That’s something that should happen.
MH: So you’re saying there’s not a distinction between you and Justin Trudeau?
JS: No, there’s not. But what there is a distinction is every single day that I campaigned in Quebec and I was in Quebec all the time, I was asked this question every day. And in a province where the vast majority believe it’s okay to discriminate people based on this ground, the vast majority of Quebecers think it’s okay. If that law is challenged, and it is turned back, you still have a province that thought it was okay to discriminate people based on the way they look. That is not enough to fight the law. That is not the only way you can fight this type of problem. I go to Quebec and say hey, I wear a beard and a turban, yes but I believe in the climate crisis and I want to fight it. I believe in a woman’s right to choose. I believe in LGTBQ communities rights to have same sex marriage, right? But that’s changing people. So in Quebec, we had one of the most popular —
MH: But if you lived in Quebec and you wanted to be a public defender in court, you couldn’t do that wearing that turban.
JS: That’s horrible. That’s wrong.
MH: So, what are you doing to change that legally?
JS: My point is this if you’ve got a law that’s supported by the mass majority of the population of that province, and that law’s struck down, it’s not going to stop another law coming forward. The only way you can stop something like that from ever happening again is to change the people, the way they think.
MH: Yeah, but it’s both, isn’t it? Martin Luther King said, you’ve got to do both. You change the law and you change people.
JS: Absolutely, you got to do both. Right now, there is a court challenge.
MH: There’s a case of a Sikh teacher, I came across who had to leave Quebec before the start of the year because she said, I want to teach and I can’t and she’s moved to British Columbia.
JS: It’s horrible. She is someone who grew up in Quebec.
MH: She will say to you while you’re trying to change hearts and minds, I’m having to leave my place where I live and work.
JS: Well, she’d be right to say that.
MH: She needs action now.
JS: She does and that’s why there’s a court challenge right now. And so, for the federal government to get involved, it wouldn’t happen right away. It would happen in a year’s time or more. So right now there’s a court challenge. It’s happening right now. There’s no reason to interfere with a court challenge that’s happening right now. Once that court challenge is successful, the matter is done. If it gets to the Supreme Court, all prime ministers should look at all the challenges that go to the Supreme Court.
MH: What do you say to your critics who say the reason you didn’t take a stronger position on this is because you didn’t want to antagonize people in Quebec, and it didn’t work anyways. You lost 13 seats in Quebec.
JS: It’s true. It’s true. We did. I believe in antagonizing people when you need to. You got to be willing to do that. And I took strong stances against a lot of folks including the president of the United States during the campaign. I believe it’s important to fight back. But I also believe it’s important to make sure you win over people. Right now there’s a court challenge. It’s already happening. There would be nothing to expedite that right now. There’s no legal framework to do that. While the court challenge is happening, I don’t want to sit back on my hands. I’m going to Quebec and telling people it’s wrong.
MH: Fine, so you’re saying it’s wrong. One of the ways to win hearts and minds to defeat racism is to call racism racism, to call out what it is. I asked the immigration minister if he believes that the bill is driven by Islamophobia, do you believe Islamophobia is the or a driving force behind Bill 21?
JS: Well, let’s break it down. It’s certainly discriminatory. It’s certainly discriminatory and it’s going to disproportionately impact of Muslims. Absolutely. So it’s a form of discrimination. And it’s specifically targeting people predominantly who are Muslim. They’re going to be most impacted, as well as Sikhs and Jewish people. What’s the foundation behind it? In Quebec, a part of it is there’s a backlash against religion. There’s certainly Islamophobia that has impacted decisions that people make and whether that was a driving force, I don’t know. But Islamophobia is very alive and well across Canada. It’s something we’ve got to fight, and it’s something that has influenced our society for the negative and we’ve got to fight it.
MH: And do you think you’re winning the battle against racism, against Islamophobia in Canada right now? Hate crimes fell this year for the first time after five years of consecutive rises.
JS: I think that there’s a lot more to do. And I think on this point of hate crimes, one thing that’s really important, I think it’s not been talked about: The reason why I think that people can be exploited to target people based on the way they look has a lot to do with economic inequality. When people are poor, when people are struggling, they can’t find housing, they can’t pay their bills, they can’t pay for their medication and someone comes along and says, “You know what? You know who’s to blame? Those new Canadians, those immigrants, those refugees. They’re stealing your jobs.” That can happen in a context when people are struggling. But when there is economic justice, when we actually make sure housing is affordable, when we tackle the inequality, it takes away the argument that it’s used to exploit people. So, I think economic justice and inequality are the root causes of a lot of the division that happened in society.
MH: We’re almost out of time. We’re almost out of time, but you mentioned new Canadians. Let’s talk, something I wanted to bring up in the previous interview. We ran out of time. But we do need to bring it up. Let’s talk about indigenous communities, First Nations, who still face so much discrimination, racism, marginalization. What is the duty of Canada’s leaders towards First Nation communities, actual concrete, demonstrable responsibilities?
JS: Well, first off, clean drinking water, that should be a basic human right. The fact that in 2019, it isn’t and the fact that with the wealth and the technology that we have that the vast number of indigenous communities that don’t have clean drinking water is a shame, equal access to funding, education, child welfare. Right now, as we speak, Minister Hussen’s government, Mr. Trudeau, is appealing a Human Rights Tribunal decision that said that indigenous kids should get equal funding. And one of the things I called on Mr. Trudeau to do just last week is drop the appeal, basic justice —
MH: Isn’t their argument that we support the compensation, we just don’t agree with the timeline?
JS: There’s no argument that when the Human Rights Tribunal puts forward a well-founded argument that indigenous kids equal deserve equal funding, and this is the way to achieve it, that shouldn’t be appealed. That should be something that governments say we are going to do whatever it takes to make sure that kids get equal funding. That’s just a starting point for justice.
MH: It’s easy to criticize the government. What about the public, the electorate, obviously you’re a politician, you can’t kind of, call out voters but Canadian society as a whole, the Canadian public at large, do they understand the responsibilities that they have and the duties and obligations they have towards indigenous communities?
JS: I think they do. I think a lot of Canadians, you heard some applause in the room today. Canadians get that it’s wrong, that the first people of this land have faced historic injustice, continue to face injustice. And I think you’ll find that there’s a consensus that Canadians believe the first people of this land deserve equality, deserve justice, deserve dignity, and those are basic things that we should be able to deliver.
MH: Let’s say there’s another election in a couple of years and I believe minority Canadian governments have a two-year average tenure.
JS: You’ve done your research.
MH: A little bit, a little bit. What will a Jagmeet Singh-led NDP do differently in a couple of years to prevent a rerun of 2019 where you run a good campaign but don’t get a good result? What lessons have you learned?
JS: Hopefully raise a lot more money. I say that in jest, but I’m serious. We had a great campaign and a lot of momentum, a lot of folks that were excited. And then I mentioned that last week, just to give you a framework, we spent 9 million in the campaign, and both other parties spent close to 30 million. So we were outspent tremendously, massively. And on the last week, the other parties probably spent our entire budget in the last week alone on advertising and we couldn’t get our message out there in the last week. And I think that hurt folks. I take that responsibility in the sense that I want to make sure Canadians can dream big. They can believe that they don’t have to settle for less and I know I can do that.
MH: But how much — you were hugely popular and you brought lots of people to the party but as I said, you were also divisive in the eyes of some people, people who say, well, we’re not comfortable with someone who looks like that running for prime minister in places like Quebec, even one of your own MPs, I believe, said you inflamed certain tensions amongst certain right-wing voters. What do you do about that? That’s not something you can fix overnight, at least?
JS: Well, I would say, this is what I would say, and I would say it again and again, is that, you know, maybe I faced some challenges because of the way I looked and the way I look, I continue to face challenges, but it’s not different from a lot of people that face challenges based on their gender. I know a lot of my dear friends face challenges in the workplace and advancement because of their gender.
MH: Come to the U.S., they’ve still never elected a female president.
JS: I mean, we haven’t really either. We had a female prime minister, but she wasn’t elected. So we’ve got a long way to go too, but there’s people that they face barriers because of the color of their skin, because of their sexuality, because of their many things that determine who they are. And I hope people see in me someone that’s experienced some of that. And believe me when I say I’m committed to building a country where people are celebrated, and no one faces barriers for who they are.
MH: And if between now and the next election, Andrew Scheer the leader of Canada’s conservatives, which won the popular vote last month.
MH: Wow, didn’t win the popular vote here at Hotdocs. If he comes to you, and says, Jagmeet, let’s do a deal. Let’s together try and bring down this liberal government, would you be open to that?
MH: Never? Under no circumstances could you see the NDP and the conservatives working together to end Justin Trudeau’s time in office?
JS: The thing is that the conservatives as they’ve put out their values, they’ve especially with Mr. Scheer, he’s not been clear on his position for a woman’s right to choose, on the LGTBQ community. He has made it very clear in his platform that he would cut services, all the opposite to what I believe in. So I don’t see any circumstance where I can work with the conservatives now.
MH: We’ll have to leave it there. Jagmeet Singh, thank you for joining me
on Deconstructed. And thank you, everyone in Toronto, here at the Hotdocs Podcast festival. I love doing Deconstructed here. We should do it more often. Thank you so much. Goodnight.
MH: That’s our show! And before we go, a special shout out to 12-year-old Hamza who I met in Seattle last weekend and who says he listens to Deconstructed every single week. Thank you very much, Hamza. And thank you to you all for listening. Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at [email protected] Thanks so much!
See you next week.