Racism and vitriol at Liberal and NDP events has Jagmeet Singh worried about Canada

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says he still feels safe knocking on doors in Canada, despite protesters yelling racist slurs and threats at recent Liberal and NDP events. But he’s worried about growing divisions in the country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau canceled plans to attend a Liberal party fundraising dinner in Surrey, BC., this week, citing safety concerns after a large group of protesters were heard yelling racist comments at South Asian volunteers.

The incident comes just a couple of weeks after Singh says he was verbally harassed at a campaign stop in Peterborough, Ont.

Sight spoke to As It Happens guest host David Gray about what he sees as a worrying trend in Canada — and why he still has hope. Here is part of their conversation.

What does your experience in Peterborough — and now the threats at this Liberal fundraiser in Surrey — tell you about the state of Canadian politics right now?

I’m in the community very often meeting with people, walking the streets, chatting with folks, and lots of folks come up and talk to you about the things that they appreciate that’s going on, the things that we’re doing to help them with dental care and pharmacare. I do get people that raise concerns and worried about what’s going on at the federal level.

So it’s still, I think, very healthy. But these two incidents that you’ve brought up — the Peterborough with myself and what happened in Surrey — are examples of some troubling trends.

I feel, in both circumstances, these are folks that are of the [Ottawa] convoy kind of ilk and don’t want to engage in conversation, [and] just want to create disruption. That’s troubling because I feel like it creates threats to my staff and my team, who I’m worried about.

I’m not worried about myself. I’ve dealt with worse scenarios — more intense, more violent — in my life before politics. But I am concerned about how that will also discourage maybe new people, young people, coming forward in politics, thinking, “That’s not the life for me. I don’t want to deal with that type of aggression.”

WATCH | Justin Trudeau talk about the unruly crowd and its impact on free speech:

Trudeau says nobody should be intimidated for supporting a political party

The prime minister comments on the protesters yelling racial slurs at an event he was forced to cancel.

You said your experience in Peterborough would rank among your worst experiences. What do you mean by that? What happened?

I would say the worst experience for me politically, but not the worst experience in my life by any means.

What happened in that moment was that these weren’t people that wanted to chat or have a conversation. [They were] aggressive, throwing out expletives, and someone yelled out, “I hope you die.” And just that type of intensity and anger and not a willingness to want to actually engage.

I even asked somebody, you know, “What are you trying to say? Is this the way you want to approach this?” And it was just a lot of screaming and yelling.

That, to me, is not dialogue, not a healthy way to raise a concern. People should be angry if there’s a decision that they think is hurting a family or their community … but when it gets to the point where it’s just yelling out words to hurt or to create discord or threats of violence or aggression of that nature, that’s not healthy for anyone.

Who or what is fueling that behaviour?

In Peterborough, I can say very clearly they had signs in support of the convoy. So this is that convoy sort of folk that don’t have any real intention of providing constructive feedback or a desire to make a point that will change a policy. They’re just kind of expressing broad, untethered anger.

What I do know that’s happening separate from that in Canada is a real concern about the cost of living and affordability. And as that increases, people will get more and more frustrated and angry as they see billionaires making huge profits, oil and gas companies making record profits, while Canadians feel like they’re being gouged at the pumps. That type of unfairness will lead to real frustration and anger.

Video posted to social media show protesters shouting at Singh and following him to a vehicle after a campaign event in Peterborough, Ont. (Freedom Through Unity – Peterborough/Kawartha/Facebook)

I appreciate the points you’re making. But I don’t want to lose the thread on what or who is driving some of the violence and the anger you’re seeing. You said after Peterborough that there is “a responsibility that politicians play who purposely flame these divisions or purposely spread misinformation.” Can you elaborate?

That is something I feel like we can approach. A similar issue [is] when we see online hate and how that online hate can radicalize people. And the outcomes are very dangerous. There could be violence. There could be death. And we’ve seen that in cases where online hate radicalizes people to commit acts of violence against marginalized communities like Muslims in Canada.

Similarly, the folks in the convoy are really basing their anger and frustration on a lot of conspiracy theories, a lot of misinformation. And there is a clear responsibility on the part of political parties and leaders to not incite that type of misinformation or inflame that type of division.

When you talked about politicians fomenting this kind of anger in Canada, who are you talking about?

We’ve seen Conservatives brazenly embrace the convoy in Ottawa. And the Ottawa convoy was very clear in their intent…. They were bent on undermining and disrupting our very democracy.

So the politicians, the Conservatives and others that supported this type of group, are emboldening groups that are creating a climate of violence and divisiveness that is unhealthy and that is designed to disrupt our democracy. And that’s absolutely, unequivocally wrong.

Let me go back to a point you made earlier. I know you’re out on the campaign trail again. You’re campaigning for the Ontario NDP calling for action on affordability. Is it really possible to address violence and racism by making it easier for people to pay for groceries and gas?

I feel like, yes.

The climate that allows for people to be divided is one where people are already struggling and feeling frustrated. And then it is easy to find a scapegoat and to say that the reason why you can’t find a good enough job to buy your groceries, or the reason why the cost of living is going up, is because of all these new immigrants as a dog whistle type of argument that would incite division.

When there is more frustration, when there’s less prosperity and there’s less opportunity for everyday folks, when there is more inequality — all of those things are breeding grounds for someone to come along and to exploit that frustration and use it in a way that creates more divisions, and pits people against each other instead of actually isolating the real problems, the inequality driven by more wealth concentrated into fewer hands, [and] corporate greed. That’s where we should be placing our anger … in creating policies that will actually lift people up, [like] more universal social programs.

That is a really important tool to acknowledge the climate of inequality and the frustration that comes from not being able to live a good life are absolutely conditions that allow for more division to grow.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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