Jamil Jivani is the author of Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity.
The rise of Jagmeet Singh to Leader of the federal New Democratic Party last year was a testament to the success of Canadian multiculturalism. Mr. Singh is the son of Indian immigrants and studied to become a lawyer in Ontario before practising criminal defence law. He was elected to Ontario’s provincial parliament at a relatively young age to represent an area of Brampton nearby where I grew up. On his path to becoming leader of a federal political party, Singh energetically climbed over racial and ethnic barriers many assumed existed in Canadian politics.
Despite the history that has been made with Mr. Singh’s political career, the coverage of his leadership has resembled much of what my friends and I saw of Sikhs in news media and popular culture when I was a kid in the 1990s. Stories about Mr. Singh have been dominated by questions surrounding Sikh extremism. From Mr. Singh’s first day as leader, when CBC’s Terry Milewski asked about the appropriateness of Sikh temples treating the architect of the Air India bombing as a martyr, until more recent videos from San Francisco in 2015 that show Mr. Singh sharing a stage with Sikh separatists promoting violence, media coverage of the NDP Leader feels more like a throwback than ushering in a new age of Canadian politics. Things haven’t changed as much as we might have thought.
This treatment of Mr. Singh has also shown that some of Canada’s loudest voices have missed out on a lesson I learned growing up. Leaders such as Mr. Singh, who present an a positive moral alternative to the extremists they might share a stage with, are incredibly important to many young men seeking a national identity in Canada. As a kid in the 1990s, I saw young people around me struggle to belong in this country. Europe’s experience today with young men who grow up like I did shows how easily we can turn to extremist thinking.
To understand the danger posed by a short-sighted media frenzy such as the one surrounding Mr. Singh, Canadians would benefit from taking a look at the lives of young men such as me.
I grew up in a part of Brampton where almost all of my neighbours were recent immigrants to Canada or the children of recent immigrants. It was the 1990s and early 2000s, so we were part of a wave of families that helped grow Brampton and other parts of the Toronto area from small suburbs to booming cities in less than a couple of decades.
Most of my classmates in school were from among two of this country’s biggest minority groups: black Canadians and Sikh Canadians. I didn’t know at the time how important both communities had been in Canadian history. Sikh activists were at the centre of some of the country’s most important court decisions on matters of equality, while black activists were the face of many political and cultural battles. Despite these deep histories in the country, many of us growing up in the neighbourhood were trying to figure out what our identity was in this place our parents were still adjusting to, living in houses younger than ourselves and attending schools staffed by teachers who didn’t understand us. We had to figure out what it meant to be Canadian and if we could be Canadian while also being black, brown, Sikh, Caribbean, Indian and/or African.
News media and popular culture had an outsized influence on us, as they do on many young people. For me and other black men in the neighbourhood, there were plenty of examples of black men we could look to every day: The beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, the O.J. Simpson trial, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, 2Pac, Biggie, Chris Rock, BET, the NBA and other political and cultural influences dominated the airwaves. My black friends and I looked to these stories in the absence of local, homegrown role models in our still-developing neighbourhood.
From the limited exposure we had to black Americans, we pieced together some sense of what it meant to be black men in Canada. Those around us who also learned about black men from news media and popular culture – our teachers, police officers, security guards, politicians, store clerks – were similarly influenced by the stereotypes and negative associations about black men that they were exposed to.
Canadian civil-rights lawyer Anthony Morgan, who also grew up in Brampton, not far from me, believes being in the shadows of the United States affects our national identity in Canada by making it harder for us to deal with problems in our own country. We become too reliant on the United States for guidance, less self-determined. “Some might respond: ‘Toronto is not New York and Canada is not like America when it comes to these things.’ True,” Mr. Morgan says, “but acknowledging the difference doesn’t dismiss the fact that anti-Blackness is borderless. … Not only is anti-Black racism real here [in Canada], but it is forcefully denied when you try to point it out.”
Conversely, Sikh and Indian men were mostly absent from the news media and popular culture we were exposed to as kids. I remember going to the homes of my Sikh friends and seeing that they had bought satellite dishes that picked up Indian television channels. They saw so few people on television here who looked and spoke like them that they sought out entertainment from elsewhere. When Indians and Sikhs did appear in Canadian media, they were cast as taxi drivers or store clerks such as Apu from The Simpsons. Even worse, Canadian media outlets often connected the Sikh community to terrorism. When we were growing up, Sikh terrorism was a topic of discussion in Canada because of the 1985 Air India bombing.
A well-known Sikh Canadian, the former amateur boxing champion Pardeep Singh Nagra, has expressed exasperation at the continuing struggle to find a place in Canada. “At what point do I get freed and get to be seen as Canadian? … As long as I am not seen as a Canadian, my existence here offends people because of what I choose to wear.”
Nav Bhatia, the famous “superfan” of the Toronto Raptors basketball team, has talked openly about how one-dimensional representations of Sikhs in North American media have affected him, even though he’s a highly successful entrepreneur. “I went [to a store] to fix my cellphone,” he told the Toronto Star, “and this Caucasian guy, I overheard him saying, ‘Honey, I have to go, my cab is here.’ I guess he assumed I was a taxi driver, because I wear a turban and I have a beard.”
What’s at stake in these interactions between newcomers, their children and their new surroundings is more than hurt feelings and the passing on of stereotypes. These interactions also shape our national identity and determine whether we look within our borders for guidance on how to be good people – or we look elsewhere.
In the large amount of writing done about the Islamic State’s success recruiting young men in Europe since 2015, one of the more helpful terms to emerge is “in-betweeners.” Appearing in The New York Times in 2016, the term was defined to include “young adults whose identities have not yet solidified,” and whose “uncertainty makes them vulnerable” to extremists. Research from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, found that most jihadis from Belgium and France are in-betweeners: not immigrants but also not completely integrated into their country of birth.
French philosopher Pierre Manent, who teaches at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, has also observed in-betweeners are especially vulnerable to the influence of jihadis in France. Prof. Manent views the growth of jihadist groups in France as the result of young French Muslims’ estrangement from the country of which they are technically citizens.
My neighbourhood in Brampton was a land of in-betweeners. We were in between our actual homeland, Canada, and some imagined version of where our parents and our cultural identities come from. Sure, many of us fell into some of the traps that await lost young men who don’t find their way: dropping out of school, wasting years in prison, engaging in petty crime, smoking drugs in our parents’ basements with little else going on. However, we didn’t have sophisticated, well-organized extremist groups such as the Islamic State preying on our vulnerabilities as in-betweeners, turning one side of our identity against the other.
That my neighbourhood didn’t have the danger of an IS lurking on our soccer pitches or basketball courts doesn’t mean Canada is immune to the kind of extremism that thrives in the land of in-betweeners. Perhaps the most valuable thing we can learn from Europe is that national identity can be fleeting. It’s second- and third-generation Europeans who make up the bulk of the continent’s jihadi recruits, not newcomers. How a generation of young people experience their country will shape how attached they are to it, whether their parents and grandparents reconciled the different sides of their identities or not.
Our treatment of Mr. Singh reveals we are concerned the NDP Leader might have extremist views or at least tolerate them. But we aren’t concerned about the extremist views that Mr. Singh himself provides a positive moral alternative to. Or, at least, we aren’t concerned enough to avoid tearing him down and diminishing the positive impact he can have in our country.
Certainly, it’s fair game to ask Mr. Singh and anyone else who has the privilege of holding political office in Canada about his views. It’s also fair game to ask Mr. Singh about his foreign-policy positions regarding one of Canada’s key allies, India. In the process of doing so, though, we can respect him as a person who is invested in Canada’s laws and our democracy. We can say it’s good that he attends rallies and other events where young Sikh men will benefit from seeing that fighting for your community doesn’t require violence. We can allow Singh to stand tall amongst our in-betweeners and promote a national identity that includes them as Canadians.
Mr. Singh isn’t the only recent example of a leader among us being torn down for associations with extremists, despite providing a positive moral alternative to the extremists we claim to be concerned with. Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, who is also the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, has routinely been criticized for his past involvement with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam (NOI).
Last month, Mr. Ellison was compelled to denounce Mr. Farrakhan again because of reports that both men attended a 2013 meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. As with other times his name has been linked to Mr. Farrakhan’s, Mr. Ellison was torn down by many of news media’s loudest voices for his supposed tolerance of extremists.
Mr. Ellison is, however, undoubtedly a positive moral alternative to Mr. Farrakhan’s brand of politics. He left the NOI to pursue a less divisive way of fighting for his community, one that includes building coalitions with Jewish Americans rather than disparaging them as Mr. Farrakhan does. Mr. Farrakhan seems to recognize Mr. Ellison is a threat to him, providing an alternative for the base he wants to recruit. Weeks before the most recent flare-up of controversy about Mr. Ellison’s associations with the NOI, Mr. Farrakhan accused Mr. Ellison of being manipulated by Jews and “the white man.”
Treatment of Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor of psychology, shows our tendency to tear down leaders isn’t limited to minority communities. We also tear down those reaching out to young white men who are targeted by extremists promoting a race-based national identity. Prof. Peterson, who came to prominence in 2016 for opposing a bill concerning transgender pronouns, has a growing base of supporters online that he recognizes as mostly male.
In a January, 2018, interview with the CBC’s Wendy Mesley, she asked him about a picture he had taken while holding a banner containing noted “alt-right” symbol Pepe the Frog and about his tweets offering discounted online courses to members of the so-called alt-right. Googling Prof. Peterson’s name and “alt-right” turns up plenty of other instances where he is casually labelled as part of the movement.
Nonetheless, Prof. Peterson offers a positive moral alternative. In his rejection of identity politics on the left, he also rejects identity politics on the right. He tells young white men that the answer to people organizing around minority identities isn’t to instead organize around whiteness. He argues we are not in a zero-sum game in which races compete as factions and rely on violence and hate to win. Prof. Peterson’s answer is to embrace individuality and encourage young people to work on themselves. Whatever you make of his “12 rules for life” – the subject of one of his books – they are undoubtedly inwardly focused and push people away from a race-centred view of the world. Prof. Peterson’s threat to white extremists is summed up well by leading “alt-right” figure Richard Spencer’s public criticisms of Prof. Peterson. Mr. Spencer says one of the reasons “Peterson hit a wall” and “became shallow” is he “refused to confront the racial issue.”
Mr. Singh, Mr. Ellison and Prof. Peterson are three men whose names rarely appear together. What they have in common though is that they have the potential to help young men resist extremists en route to developing positive national identities. They’re examples of men who have spent time among extremists, either while growing up or in their professional lives, and have paid a cost for doing so. They have gotten mud on them by doing real work with the young men who need them and mud thrown at them by people on the sidelines looking on in judgment.
I grew up in a land of in-betweeners. I’ve seen in my research how quickly extremists can take root in such land. And I’ve refused to take national identity for granted because I know it’s something that must be fought for at each generation. Because of that, I can’t tear down Mr. Singh, even if our politics don’t necessarily align. I know how valuable he can be to our country.