Service to community important to provincial NDP deputy leader Sara Singh
December 19, 2018
Family means everything to provincial New Democratic Party (NDP) deputy leader Sara Singh.
So much so, that the word is tattooed on the inside of her forearms.
In May 2017, Singh lost older brother – Marcus – to cancer 11 days after his 37th birthday. Just a few weeks earlier, she had decided to contest her first election.
She was devastated beyond belief.
“To lose somebody that was such a support through all the things that I have pursued in life and then to take the biggest leap in my career without him was very difficult, not just for me, but the entire family,” said Singh who last July won the Brampton Centre riding by 89 votes and became the first female of Indo-Caribbean background to be elected to the Ontario legislature.
Withdrawing from the nomination race crossed her mind.
“There were times when I wondered if I could still do it,” the 33-year-old doctoral candidate said. “My other siblings, however, reminded me our brother wouldn’t want me to give up. He wasn’t a quitter and I couldn’t let him down. That kept me going. He was one of the people that really understood the choice that I made in terms of the party I chose to run with.”
Singh’s parents – like many newcomers in the 1960s and 70s – still feel indebted to the Liberal Party because they believe that late Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau opened Canada’s doors to immigration.
Urmela arrived from Guyana in the early 1970s as a seven-year-old and lived in the Chalkfarm Drive community in North York for a few years before settling in Brampton. Her husband of 35 years – Jasvir – fled the Punjab insurgency as a teenager just before the end of the decade. They co-own Jas Supermarket in Brampton
“My parents were Liberals and I grew up been told that is the party I should possibly align myself with,” Singh noted. “I didn’t quite feel I was a Conservative as they are a little bit too right-leaning for me and many of the things they represent don’t fit with my ideologies. I never prescribed to one party or another.”
Singh was turned on to the NDP six years ago after meeting with the party’s former Ontario leader Stephen Lewis who also served as Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations.
They met while she was a teaching assistant for Lewis who is a professor of distinction in Ryerson University’s faculty of community services.
“He really inspired me and that is when I realized that the perspectives that I held really aligned with the NDP for the most part,” said Singh. “Through him, I was able to find my voice and find what I felt like was a place in the party. I remember Stephen saying, ‘We need women of colour and we need innovative and bold thinkers to get out there and change the direction of our province and politics frankly’. That really got me thinking and made me feel like I should do this.”
Lewis lit the spark and former Ontario NDP deputy leader Jagmeet Singh, who is the party’s federal head, convinced Singh to become a party member.
“When I told Jagmeet that I didn’t know if I wanted to get involved in politics because it can be dirty and you are basically putting your life on the line, he said, ‘I know it seems like a very dirty world that we operate in, but there is opportunity to do meaningful things here that you wouldn’t be able to do if you don’t get involved’,” she recalled. “That’s when the seed was planted. I realized that if you want to change the game, you have to be a player and not a spectator.”
About 14 weeks after her surprise win, Singh was appointed one of the party’s two deputy leaders responsible for connecting with voters in the Greater Toronto Area. She is also the attorney general critic and a member of the justice policy standing committee.
“The last few months have been an interesting experience in the legislature,” she said. “It has also been humbling as you literally are in the church of democracy every day and I get to sit at the altar. That is something to be behold. It has also been a learning opportunity for me as a first-time member after my first election campaign. I didn’t expect to win. I went into this just trying to learn how the process works and how we can better serve communities. It has been a very steep learning curve.”
With the Ontario legislature on winter break until February 19, Singh will use the time away from Queen’s Park to connect with her constituents and put in some work on her doctoral thesis that she plans to complete by the end of 2019.
The research looks at how to create more inclusive post-secondary educational opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities so they can get the skills training they deserve to be independent.
“The research I am doing is very relevant to the work I am trying to do in the legislature in terms of advocating for rights of persons with disabilities and looking at ways we can improve access to programs for them so they can do things on their own and be successful,” said Singh who completed the Jack Layton School for Youth Leadership program at Ryerson in 2015. “There is always something I can fall back on after politics.”
Singh’s interest in disability issues was fuelled by a younger sister who has Down syndrome.
“As a sibling, you have a very different experience in walking with your close family member and helping to support them,” she pointed out. “My sister, who is 27, has taught me so much about myself and the world that we operate in. That really inspired me to apply a lot of my advocacy towards helping individuals with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual disabilities, to be included in our society.”
As a result, Singh volunteered as a board director with Brampton Caledon Community Living and later Community Living Ontario that support and empower people with intellectual disabilities.
She is also a member of the City of Brampton’s Art & Culture Master Plan steering committee.
Having grandparents and parents who are civic-minded made it easy for Singh and her siblings to make giving a habit.
“At a young age, we were told we should find a way to be active and serve our community,” she said. “My maternal grandmother (Camal Kissoon is a George Brown College social work graduate) returned to Guyana in 1992 after retiring from the provincial government and started a shelter for vulnerable children and women (Camal International Home) in Berbice. We helped to stock barrels and do whatever we could to assist the less fortunate. We understood there were bigger issues than the ones we face at home.”
With a bilingual specialized honours in political science from York University’s Glendon College, Singh completed her Master’s in international development studies at St. Mary’s University in Halifax.
She chose St. Mary’s because the program offers students a unique opportunity to combine critical thinking and real world practices through dynamic courses aimed at understanding and challenging the world’s more pressing problems. Its global and interdisciplinary approach prepares students for a range of careers and experiences with international, national and local organizations.
“It was while doing my Master’s that the social activism took form,” said Singh. “While it really came through those experiences with family and even my religion and own faith that inspired the service to humanity side of the work that we are doing, I think it was going to Guyana and India and doing research in those places that really was, for me, an eye-opener. That motivated me to want to do more. Through the work I was doing, I also noticed that young people weren’t engaged in the movement to create change.”
That was the signal for Singh to co-found ‘Broadening Horizons’ which uses arts-based education and youth leadership training to educate, empower and inspire young people to address social justice issues. A younger sister – Navprit Singh – manages the non-profit organization.
One of 73 newcomers to Queen’s Park, Singh said her election victory is a major achievement for young racialized woman.
“It’s also huge because it means that we have a voice that is going to represent what Blacks and other under-represented communities care about,” she said. “It is going to be a challenge to ensure that this government hears the voices of the Black community, but having people like me and other caucus members mean we do have that representation and the face of politics is changing. To be just a small part of that change is humbling.”
In her very limited spare time, the young politician enjoys creative writing, painting, biking and spending quality time with her family.
“After my brother’s passing, I recognized how important those moments at home are and I don’t take them for granted,” said Singh who still resides with her parents and other siblings. “I watch movies with them and occasionally do a Netflix splurge and binge. With such a demanding schedule, you could burn out if you don’t take some time for yourself.”