I hopped out of the car and hustled up the concrete stairs toward the rec centre doors. Before I reached them, though, a woman in a black T-shirt stopped me.
“Oh, hey,” she said, casually puffing a cigarette. “Are you headed upstairs?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Can we ask you questions?”
“No, during the event.”
“Yes, you’ll be able to ask questions.”
“Okay,” she said, and stepped aside.
As soon as I got inside, Hannah Iland, my campaign tour director, spotted me and escorted me to the ballroom. “Heads up,” she said, “there’s a local TV station that wants to broadcast the speech so we need you to carry two mics.” She led me to the doorway. “We’ll announce you in a few seconds,” she said.
I peeked over her shoulder and scoped out a room filled with the bright faces of so many loved ones, and people who I had grown to know well over the past six years as a politician. I also caught a glance of the emcee, Gurkiran Kaur, the woman I was going to ask to marry me as soon as this crazy campaign was over. Hearing her introduce me to my supporters made the moment – and our future plans – all the more special.
When I walked onstage, the applause was overwhelming. Gurkiran handed me the two microphones with the signature affectionate look she gives me – a twinkle in her eye, a wink without winking. While trying to keep our relationship private so as not to cause any distractions from the campaign, we’d perfected our own sign language, a way of exchanging positive vibes without being overt about it.
I returned her glance and tested the mics on the crowd. “Wow, this is amazing,” I said, taking a moment to try to pick out my parents in the crowd of a hundred. “First question, does my voice carry better this way, or – ”
“It carries great,” called a voice too clear to be from the crowd. I looked to my right and noticed the same woman who’d stopped me outside. She was striding over so quickly that her pace and proximity to me took me aback. As she spoke, her hands waved wildly and her head jerked from side to side. Her stream of words poured so fast I had a hard time grasping them.
“Hi, my name’s Jennifer, I asked about a questions process, there isn’t one, so I’m asking you now – ”
“Hold on, one second, hold on,” I said, squeezing out the words between hers. I turned to the audience and tested the microphones again so that I could figure out what Jennifer wanted.
She stepped closer, head tilted, angrily pointing up and down. “We know you’re in bed with sharia,” she said.
Of course, I thought. This wasn’t the first time in my life I had been confronted with Islamophobia, or suggestions that there was something wrong with me because of the way I looked, or fears that I was a terrorist or terrorist-sympathiser.
“When is your sharia going to end?” she asked, wagging a finger in my face.
I’d encountered hecklers like Jennifer (many of whom were worse) throughout my life. In fact, several months earlier, the media scrum for our campaign launch had been delayed by a similar incident.
In that moment, I purposely didn’t explain to Jennifer that I’m Sikh, not Muslim. Though I’m proud of who I am, throughout my life, whenever I’ve been faced with Islamophobia, my answer has never been “I’m not a Muslim,” because hate is wrong, no matter who it’s aimed at. When it comes to stop- ping fear and division, all of us, no matter who we are, have to stand together. History has shown that if you allow any sort of hate to take hold, it spreads like fire, burning people for their race, gender, economic status, or sexuality.
Jennifer kept ranting. “We know you’re in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood. We know by your votes,” she yelled, still inches from my face. She disparaged Muslims and me, associated me with Islamic extremism, and said I didn’t support women’s rights, growing increasingly hostile with each new accusation.
I wasn’t worried for my safety – much of my life has been spent disarming aggressive people, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it – but I was worried that she’d ruin our celebration. So many people on my team had worked countless hours behind the scenes, in offices, and on doorsteps, but hadn’t had a chance to come to our gatherings before that day. They and the many other supporters in the room deserved better than having their optimism derailed and drowned out by bigotry. I feared they’d walk away with a bitter taste in their mouths.
I knew I had to cool Jennifer down and respond in a way that made the room feel positive again, but the chances of turn- ing it around slimmed with every second she seethed. When two campaign volunteers approached Jennifer and tried to shepherd her away, one of them gently touched her back. Jennifer spun around and snapped at him. “Don’t touch me!” she screamed. “Don’t anybody touch me, or I will contact the police immediately.”
There were rows of phone cameras pointed at us now. Great, I thought, YouTube’s about to blow up with an angry white woman shouting down a turbaned, bearded politician and threatening to call the police. I could sense the audience’s unrest, too, and I began to worry for Jennifer; I feared someone in the audience might direct their impatience or anger at her. I didn’t want that negativity to dictate the day. I wanted us all to remember why we were there, why we were doing this.
The reason was spelled out in two languages on orange signs all around me, but it didn’t sink in until I caught the eye of my bebey-ji – my mom – in the crowd. She looked at me with that calm wisdom that’s always there. I could see just a hint of encouragement, too. Suddenly, I remembered the lesson she’d repeated so many times to me: “Beta” – dear – “we are all one. We are all connected.”
Thanks to my mom, the right words finally came to me. “What do we believe in?” I asked the room. “We believe in love and courage, right? Love and courage!”
A dear friend of mine who runs a creative agency had helped develop “Love and Courage” for the campaign, but to me, it was more than just a slogan. When my friend presented the idea to me, I felt those two terms captured more than just my motivation, more than just my journey – they perfectly encapsulated the lessons life taught me, my values, who I am, and the way I try to live my life.
“Love and courage.” I repeated it until the crowd echoed the message louder than I could with the microphones. They chanted and clapped so powerfully that it seemed to surprise the heckler, who spun around with her arms up, cheering along. Did she not understand why the room was chanting?
“We believe in love and courage,” I said to everyone. “We believe in an inclusive Canada where no one’s left behind.”
It was in that moment that I finally looked Jennifer in the eyes. She wasn’t intimidating or scary at all. She was just a fellow human, one who maybe had been hurt or had faced hardships, or for whatever reason had grown resentful of people who looked different from her. When I saw that, I wanted her to know that I loved her. That we loved her. That we welcomed her and that she belonged in our version of Canada, too.
“As Canadians, do we believe in celebrating all diversity?” I asked the audience. “Give a round of applause for all diversity.” As the crowd applauded, I felt truly blessed that our supporters were living our campaign message, rather than just putting it on signs and in hashtags.
I was proud that everyone in the room had met hate with love. It was the courageous thing to do.
While Jennifer went on about my fictional ties to extremism, I countered with, “We welcome you. We love you. We support you, and we love you. Everyone in this room loves you, we all support you, we believe in your rights.”
Excerpted with permission from Love & Courage: My Story Of Family, Resilience, And Overcoming The Unexpected, A Memoir, Jagmeet Singh, Simon & Schuster.