It was September 2017 when Jagmeet Singh, campaigning to lead Canada’s federal NDP party, was getting ready to speak to a room packed with supporters in Brampton, Ont.
Just as the event was about to start, a woman came bursting into the room. Some of his supporters tried to confront her, but she yelled over them, accusing Singh of importing Sharia law to Canada.
“When is your Sharia going to end?” the woman shouted, referring to traditional Islamic law.
Singh is Sikh, but he didn’t stop the woman or correct her. Instead, he said, “We don’t want to be intimidated by hate. We don’t want hatred to ruin a positive event. … So let’s show people how to treat someone with love.”
WATCH: Jagmeet Singh, NDP leadership candidate, responds to racist heckling
Video of the event went viral and the incident took Singh by surprise.
In the days following the woman’s outburst, Singh said he was approached by a friend asking him if he had prepared for that moment.
“I said, ‘No, no, I never prepared for it. I didn’t expect that to happen,'” Singh said.
“They said, ‘Well, is that really true?’… ‘What about your whole life? You experience things like this, I assume?’ and I thought for a second, you’re right actually. I’ve actually experienced a lot of things similar and a lot worse and so I have prepared for that moment throughout my life.”
Singh, 39, went on to be named leader of the federal NDP. But the September 2017 incident wasn’t the first time he dealt with discrimination. He remembers when he was young, other children would call him dirty because of the colour of his skin.
“The first time I was called dirty and it was because of the colour of my skin, I felt it was so incredibly unfair because it was something I couldn’t change,” he said.
“It literally makes you feel like you’re just living your life — you’re existing here in this world in this society — but there’s something that’s just not right about you.”
WATCH: Most recent hate crime statistics, social media reaction to #FirstTimeIwasCalled
Global News anchor Farah Nasser spoke with Singh about this experience, as well as other times he’s faced discrimination as part of #FirstTimeIwasCalled — a series of interviews with high-profile Canadians about the first time they experienced racism or discrimination and how that experience affected them.
“For me, I’ve been faced with Islamophobia throughout my life. And for me, it’s never been right,” Singh said.
“The answer has never been I’m not Muslim — the answer for me has always been, hate is wrong.”
Altercations with other children sometimes became physical.
“People would come up to me and want to fight me because I looked different,” he said.
“[They’d] pull off my turban and pull my hair — I had long hair — and just become very aggressive and confront me aggressively so I had to defend myself.”
WATCH: Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh speaks about #FirstTimeIWasCalled
Singh was born in Scarborough but grew up in Windsor, Ont., and earned his law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto before working as a criminal defence lawyer.
In October 2011, Singh was elected to be the NDP MPP in Bramalea-Gore-Malton riding outside of Toronto after a failed run for a federal seat earlier that year. He was re-elected in 2013 and appointed the provincial party’s deputy leader in 2015. In October 2017, he was chosen to be the federal NDP leader.
Singh said some of his early encounters with racism and discrimination help shape the slogan for his campaign.
“’Love and Courage’ was a slogan I used in my campaign, but it was more than just a slogan, it is really the way I live my life,” he said.
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