Yasir Naqvi is a man of many hats
By Ahmad Elbayoumi
As published on
Yasir Naqvi is a man of many hats.
He's an Ottawan. A centrist. A federal politician. A provincial politician — twice unbeaten, once defeated. A former top prosecutor. An erstwhile cabinet minister. A past Grit president. An international trade lawyer. A volunteer. A single father. An immigrant who settled in Niagara during his boyhood.
Ask him what he is, Naqvi will tell you one more: a foe of "the status quo." Fighting back against stagnancy is in the veteran's bloodline — and it's motivating his next big skirmish: running for the provincial Grit leadership.
Born in Karachi to two lawyers, there was never a snoozy moment in the Naqvi household — always under surveillance and always around hotshot activists despite living a "very comfortable" life. "Imagine late night meetings where political leaders show up in disguises, fake mustaches and wigs because they cannot be seen," he says during an interview at a local coffee bar in Mississauga.
"Mom and dad did not send us to bed. They let us sit and be part of this."
The age of ten marked a "profound" moment in his life — eventually serving as the impetus for his political career. Young Naqvi watched as his father bid farewell to the clan, knowing that he might not come home, as he set off to lead a march for democratization.
"We knew that he most likely wouldn't come back and he did not," the seasoned politician says, with his father captured, tried by the army and sent to nine months in jail two hundred kilometers away. The Naqvis still made the visit each weekend but what they saw was the fallout of his dad's brawl. "As a political prisoner, the man aged in front of our eyes," he recalls, emotional.
Looking back, it's a bit that formed the province's future chief legal adviser — and candidate in the doozy race for the Grit leadership. "I was shaped by my early experiences of living in a country where there was no democracy and seeing firsthand what it means to stand up and challenge the status quo," he explains.
Five years later, Naqvi left the motherland for Canada. His parents settled in Niagara and bought a motel during a grueling economic stretch that forced them to move into a two bedroom unit. "My bedroom was this little — not even a couch because I slept on the floor since it was uncomfortable," he described. "It was a used couch that we bought."
Despite the challenges the fam faced, Yasir's focus pivoted to education. He graduated with a degree in political science and life science from McMaster University while getting entangled in Grit politics — joining the provincial and federal party while volunteering in his riding.
It isn't all red for the Naqvis. While his mother and sister are staunch Liberals, his dad and brother are loyal Dippers.
"How are the dynamics?" we ask.
"I'm the red sheep of the family — and the successful sheep," he quips. "We live in a democracy and we accept the fact that we can pursue whichever political party we want to."
But with family endeavors, the Naqvis pull together. They're close — and don't let the politicking get in between. "I'm spending a lot of time on this campaign trail with my brother. He's much older than I am and has family and his own professional pursuits," Naqvi says. "I said to him the other day 'we haven't spent this much together in a long time' so it's really fun."
He then went on to study law at the University of Ottawa, before being called to the bar. He began practicing international trade law before landing at the Centre for Trade Policy and Law at Carleton. Before jumping into the political arena, he sat on the board of directors for the Centertown Community Health Centre and volunteered with the local food bank.
His entry into politics came from the top. Naqvi ran for the presidency of the provincial Liberals — and won. He oversaw the successful leadership race that propelled Kathleen Wynne to the party's top job after Dalton McGuinty's resignation. He later made the jump himself, quitting to carry the Grit banner in Ottawa Centre.
"I loved it. It was amazing," he says of his time at the Pink Palace, joining the party's super majority. "Every time I walked through those doors. I feel a chill. Good chill, right? This is my home. This is my country. I'm part of this institution. I'm helping change this institution, for better."
At the time, Naqvi sat on the Opposition side as Grits spilled over due to their supersized majority. "That's where I started my political journey," he says. He later joined cabinet — serving in a mishmash of positions on Wynne's front bench. His last act was at the province's attorney general.
"When I became the attorney general, I had the closest seats to the Premier and the Speaker. I liked to tell the pages that I started way back there," he recalls. "That's hard work."
Then Naqvi was nixed.
With Team Ford surging to a majority and the Grits washed — for the most part — across the board, the veteran lost the stronghold red riding to by over ten points in a stinging defeat to NDPer Joel Harden. "Losing is never fun," he says. "I remember waking up the next morning and I got up as usual, very early with a big smile on my face," he adds.
But for him, the loss was a reminder of how it all started. "Government had just changed. There were no riots. Nobody was challenging the result. Police weren't waiting outside to arrest me because I'm now a member of an Opposition party. None of that."
The day after was "beautiful," he described. "People were literally walking up to me, people who had voted for me in the past and did not this time, thanking me for my public service," he reminisces. "It was just so civilized."
He took time away from the public eye to focus on his private life. Naqvi and his ex split soon after his defeat.
The political world can take a toll, he confides. "I realized that I was very neglectful to my family," a solemn Naqvi recalls. "I started getting a sense that my marriage may not be in as good of a shape as I thought it would be at that time. I really needed to realign myself and be a husband and a dad again — and to relearn to be those two. When one thing wasn't successful, being a dad became even more important."
Three years later, he was back at it.
His strong foundation in the riding helped him in making a comeback — running for the federal seat he held provincially.
He now has Queen's Park in his sights. But this time, don't call it a comeback because Naqvi is hoping to make a rebound.
After the provincial Grits' last two gruesome election cycles, Naqvi is gunning for the party's top job to oversee the "necessary transformation," he argues, the Liberals need to become a political party focusing on "practical solutions that will make people's lives easier."
"I was really devastated by the loss in the last election, more than the 2018 election," he explains. "I thought we would do better, I thought that we would be able to regain party status. It really highlighted to me the gravity of the work that needs to happen to transform our party."
Armed by a camp of key Liberal strategists and campaign operatives, Naqvi is hoping to win this battle — one of vision, cash, memberships and votes — to go onto the next: defeating the Tories.
"I did not get into politics to get comfortable," Naqvi says. "I was raised to do difficult things by parents who never took the easy path and who taught me that real leaders step up and challenge the status quo when it's needed," he adds. "The status quo right now is not working for people."
What does that status quo look like? Look around, Naqvi says. "Everywhere I go, every person I speak to in this province, they're telling me that they're struggling. Families are struggling to find family doctors and nurses. Young children are struggling in overcrowded classrooms, young people working two or three jobs and struggling to pay for the rent and groceries. That's the status quo right now. People don't feel that they're moving ahead."
Critics might say he comes with his political baggage, but Naqvi is quick to refute it. "I was part of a government that did a lot of good things in this province," the former Queen’s Park Liberal says. "I'm really proud of a government that brought in programs like full day kindergarten, that got rid of coal from our electricity system, and ensured pension safety. That's the kind of work we did. Me individually? All my work challenged orthodoxy and the status quo."
Is his experience an asset? Absolutely, Naqvi argues.
"I am the most experienced candidate in this race. I am the only candidate who actually has served in cabinet. I know how decisions are made," he adds. "They're not black and white but it's about making choices."
"I always talk about the fact that we did a lot of good things and I think we need to remind people of that but every government makes mistakes. I'm the first one to recognize the mistakes we made. In fact, I've learned from those mistakes and the key question is, how do you not repeat them?"
Naqvi is now turning his focus to policy — and he has a list. "It's about health care. For me, education is very, very important. Third is around economic opportunities and affordability. I will be talking about policy ideas — not to say that these are the policies that we're only going to work with because I want to empower party members to help me shape the precise policies — to demonstrate my compass."
And as the race heats up and with the membership cutoff less than a month away, the avid runner is hoping to run to the finish line.
"Who will your biggest competitor be?" he says.
A diplomatic Naqvi gives a corny answer — literally.
"This is a really good group to be part of," he responds.
"I'll say this: I keep saying to the team that if we could blend all of us into one, we'd get the perfect unicorn candidate."