For anyone who still thinks that racism “isn’t an issue” in Canada, politician Jagmeet Singh—and his latest encounter in the House of Commons—is here to prove you wrong. On June 17, the leader of the NDP party was removed from the House after refusing to apologize for calling Bloc Québécois Member of Parliament Alain Therrien racist.
ICYMI, Singh was attempting to get all parties in the House to agree to a motion that recognizes the existence of systemic racism within the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, with the motion emphasizing that “several Indigenous people have died at the hands of the RCMP in recent months…” In addition, the motion asked Members of Parliament to support a review of the RCMP’s budget and to demand that the RCMP release all of its use-of-force reports. Therrien was the only MP (of 338) who refused to support the motion (the motion did not pass), and according to Singh, made a dismissive hand gesture while doing so—something that prompted the NDP leader to speak out.
In a press conference after the incident, Singh demonstrated the gesture he says Therrien made while objecting—waving his hand like he was waving away a fly or brushing off dirt—and says seeing it angered him. “In that gesture, I saw exactly what has happened for so long. People see racism as not a big deal, see systemic racism and the killing of Indigenous people as not a big deal, see Black people being the subject of violence and being killed as not a big deal, and in the moment I saw the face of racism. That’s what it looks like when someone dismisses the reality that people are going through.”
In the immediate aftermath of his comment in the House, per CBC, the party whip member for the Bloc Québécois Claude DeBellefeuille expressed her disapproval with Singh’s comments, saying: “I do not believe that a leader of a party can, here, treat another member of this House, call them racist because we don’t approve the motion that was just moved. The NDP unabashedly is treating the member of La Prairie as a racist person and this is unacceptable in this House.”
When Deputy Speaker Carol Hughes—who said she hadn’t heard Singh’s initial comment—said they’d review the record, the NDP leader doubled down on his comment, stating: “It’s true, I called him a racist and I believe that’s so.” When asked to apologize, Singh matter of factly said: “I will not.”
And apparently this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Singh was removed from the House for the duration of the day, for daring to call a fellow MP a racist.
And Canada, we seriously have a problem. Because for some reason, people are seemingly more offended by being called a racist then by the fact that we continue to live in a systemically racist country; and they’re *much* more concerned about being called a racist than with actually interrogating their actions and the reasons why they may have been called so.
Here’s why the reaction to Jagmeet Singh’s comments are so problematic.
ICYMI, Jagmeet Singh was addressing a *very* real issue
Regardless of whether or not respective MPs think that Therrien is, in fact, racist, what *is* undeniable is the fact that systemic racism within Canadian institutions—and within policing, specifically—is a very real and very serious issue. Singh’s comments and movement for this motion come amidst one of the largest global protests against police brutality in history, over the killings of Black citizens in Canada and the United States at the hands of police and amidst calls to defund the police. And while many Canadians may look to the recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States as tragic but indicative of a racism that’s only found south of the border, then they obviously haven’t picked up a history book or looked critically in their own backyard.
In Canada, police brutality and prejudice against minority communities is very much a real issue—and the stats are everywhere. In Toronto, in addition to being carded and surveilled at a higher rate, Black Canadians are 20 times more likely to be shot by police than other communities. And we have seen this in practice—repeatedly. In 2016, when off-duty police officers beat up Dafonte Miller so badly that he lost his eye. In April, when D’Andre Campbell was killed in Brampton, Ont. when police were called to his house for a domestic situation. In May, when Regis Korchinski-Pacquet was killed while Toronto Police Officers were in her family’s apartment, called by Korchinski-Pacquet’s mother to assist in taking the 29-year-old to CAMH for mental health support.
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And then there is the distinctly despicable way Indigenous people are treated in Canada. They too are killed at higher rates than other Canadians, not to mention the centuries of systemic abuse they have faced. Singh’s comments and movement for motion came just a few weeks after video dash cam footage was released of several RCMP officers in Alberta using excessive force and beating up Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam during a verbal dispute after Adam was stopped for having expired registration tags on his vehicle.
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Trigger warning: Pictured is Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and injuries he sustained after being arrested by the RCMP recently. This is what police brutality looks like. This is what conflict escalation looks like. This is what systemic racism towards Indigenous people looks like. And it needs to end. Pretty words from Prime Minister Trudeau won’t cut it, he has the power to end this.
In an October 2019 interview with CBC, El Jones—a journalism instructor at the University of King’s College, who was speaking on racism in Canada—said: “It should be a factual thing to say that Canada is racist. Not only does Canada have a racist history, but Canada continues today to have racist policies.” So the idea that Singh was proposing a motion that’s necessity is very much based in fact, isn’t up for debate—as it shouldn’t be. As Singh reiterated in a press conference later that day: “Yes. I’ve said it really clearly. I repeat it really clearly: Anyone who votes against a motion that recognizes the systemic racism in the RCMP and that calls for basic fixes for the problem … is a racist, yes.”
And the RCMP is a great place to start when it comes to holding law enforcement to accountability, with its $10 million a day budget. (Yes, you read that correctly.) On a phone call on June 19, Singh tells FLARE, “With the RCMP, I want to start there because it is fully within the federal jurisdiction. So we’ve got the power to do something about it right away.”
And, FWIW, the Bloc Québécois has been called out in the past for questionable behaviour
Also not up for debate? The fact that the Bloc Québécois and some of its members have been called out for questionable—and sometimes racist—behaviour in the past. In October 2019, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet apologized on behalf of five candidates who were then-running to become members of the Quebec-based party after Islamophobic and racist social media posts were uncovered by media outlets. According to CBC, these comments and posts concerned numerous issues, but included: a 2013 incident in which one candidate praised France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a publication promoting secularism, while also commenting that they were worried women would be forced to either wear a veil to go grocery shopping or be throw in jail; another incident in which one candidate shared a baseless article about the intelligence of Muslim people; and yet another candidate who had reportedly shared several anti-Muslim messages and conspiracy theories on Twitter since 2016.
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The Bloc Québécois is also the only party to officially support Bill 21, a bill in Quebec which intends to eradicate religious symbols in most public sectors in the province. The highly contested bill came into effect in September 2019. While the bill is meant to apply to all religious symbols, as writer Lucy Uprichard pointed out in a November 2019 article for Chatelaine, it largely affects non-Christian women who wear scarves or veils, which activists and some lawmakers argue gives the bill “a distinctly xenophobic and sexist edge.” (To be transparent, none of the other parties outright oppose the Bill. While Singh has said that he will be a “champion” for those in the province who oppose the secularism law, and current PM Justin Trudeau told Hasan Minhaj in a September 2 interview that “in a free society, you cannot legitimize discrimination,” all have said they don’t believe the federal government should step in at this time.)
There’s something supremely off about punishing a racialized person for calling out racism
“I think it’s disappointing that an elected official in the House of Commons cannot call out racism when it’s happening without being removed and essentially losing their right to freedom of speech in that moment,” says Amira Elghawaby, a board member for The Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “It definitely speaks to a double standard in our democracy that protects those who want to uphold a status quo that is failing Canadians from a variety of backgrounds—in particular, Indigenous and Black Canadians.” And not only is Singh’s removal disheartening given the fact that he’s an elected official—but also because he’s a racialized man. As many online pointed out, of the current party leaders—who are all cis white men—Singh is the only leader who has actually experienced racism first hand.
NDP leader @theJagmeetSingh is the only federal party leader to experience racism first hand. Worth pointing out, every other party leader who says Singh was wrong in labelling someone or something as racist — their level of expertise on the subject is not the same. #cdnpoli
— Rosa Hwang (@journorosa) June 18, 2020
We as Canadians have seen this, predominantly through his run for prime minister, during which the party leader had members defect to another party—for fear that Canadians wouldn’t vote for a PM who wore a turban—and had a Montreal constituent casually tell him while shaking hands: “You should cut your turban off…. You’ll look like a Canadian,” in October 2019. At the time of the latter incident, Singh was praised for remaining “poised” in the face of casual racism, responding: “Oh, I think Canadians look like all sorts of people. That’s the beauty of Canada.” But the fact of the matter is that he shouldn’t have had to respond at all, because it shouldn’t have happened. Let alone, he shouldn’t *finally* be considered “prime minister material” only when he keeps his cool and bites his tongue in the face of racism—BIPOC people across industries have done that for far too long.
And on June 17, Singh did the *opposite* of his October 2019 encounter; spoke out—and was promptly chastised, demonized and told he was wrong for doing it.
It exhaustingly on brand for Canada that @theJagmeetSingh, a racialized man in leadership, is excepted to apologize for speaking the truth about racism while MP Alain Therrien is not held accountable in Parliament.
Thank you for speaking out Jagmeet. https://t.co/iQbRapVkzw
— Farrah Khan (@farrahsafiakhan) June 18, 2020
The way that Jagmeet Singh is demonized and dunked on by Canadians is a reflection of the white supremacy that runs rampant in this nation
Only in a racist country does a brown man get ejected from parliament for insisting that the denial of systemic racism is racist.#cdnpoli
— michael (@_queerio) June 17, 2020
But the thing is, that you don’t get to decide whether or not your words and actions have hurt a member of a marginalized community, or whether or not your comments and actions are microaggressions. And to dictate that Singh was wrong perpetuates a continuing trend of silencing the voices of BIPOC people trying to speak out against racism. “I think this is the typical gaslighting of minority communities that we experience all the time when we’re trying to bring up issues of systemic discrimination,” Elghawaby says of Singh’s removal and the reaction to his comments. “Whether it’s in our workplace, whether it’s in our justice system or policing or whatever public institutions that we engage with that we are often dismissed.” And, Elghawaby says, that by rejecting this silencing, and calling out racism, “[Singh] really spoke to that frustration that many Canadians feel of consistently being told: ‘this is not the time to raise this issue. This is not the right moment for us to examine this; and no, it’s not because we’re racist, but because…’ whatever excuses are being offered.”
Not only that, but the reaction to Singh’s comments speaks to the prevalence of white fragility. Coined by author Robin DiAngelo in her 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, the terms encapsulates “how little it takes to upset white people racially.” In a 2019 interview with Teaching Tolerance, DiAngelo expanded on the phrase, telling the outlet: “We white people make it so difficult for people of color to talk to us about our inevitable—but often unaware—racist patterns and assumptions that, most of the time, they don’t.” This is because, as the author outlines, bringing up racism often ends up punishing the racialized individual. “They’re going to now have to take care of the white person’s upset feelings. They’re going to be seen as a troublemaker,” she says. “The white person is going to withdraw, defend, explain, insist it had to have been a misunderstanding.” Which sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
Because Canada—and some Canadians—are fragile as heck when it comes to their identity as the great white North, because it’s an identity that’s predicated on the notion that Canada is accepting and multicultural. Our country is sweet and the people say “sorry” a comical amount! Racism isn’t a thing here, right? But it’s an issue that people seem to be more upset about the fact that they’re called racist then they are willing to actually look at and interrogate their actions. And it’s an issue that the House of Commons is in a bigger uproar around an MP being called racist than they are about citizens *still* being called the N-word and killed because of their race. Because how is anything supposed to actually change?
we're about to have a 48 hr news cycle debating whether you can call a person racist aren't we
— Olamide Olaniyan (@olapalooza) June 17, 2020
And making this about Singh distracts from the *actual* issue
That’s another reason why making this issue entirely focused on Singh—as opposed to discussing Therrien’s reasoning behind voting ‘no’ when it comes to the RCMP—is problematic; because it distracts everyone from the actual issue: which is the fact that there is systemic racism within Canadian institutions, including policing, that needs to be addressed—because marginalized Canadians are dying.
Here we are again, going down the distraction rabbit hole, instead of discussing the actual issue.
We have to stop Canadian institutions from maiming, murdering and destroying the lives of Indigenous & Black people.
THAT should be the take-away. https://t.co/QdtkEOeDJ6
— Jared A. Walker (@JAWalker) June 18, 2020
As writer and activist Desmond Cole pointed out in a June 18 tweet, this tactic might actually be intentional. In response to a tweet from political journalist Rosemary Barton, who, quoting Bloc leader Blanchet, wrote in part, “But as our whip explained if the leader of the House doesn’t take serious action and the NDP refuses to apologize for the insults, this means anyone in the House can say whatever they like,” Cole tweeted “just wanna remind everyone that this started with jagmeet singh moving a motion to recognize racism within the RCMP, publicize RCMP use of force reports and settlement costs, and reviews RCMP use of force…toni morrison told us the very serious function of racism is distraction.”
just wanna remind everyone that this started with jagmeet singh moving a motion to recognize racism within the RCMP, publicize RCMP use of force reports and settlement costs, and review RCMP use of force
toni morrison told us the very serious function of racism is distraction https://t.co/xeCPpckhOh
— negro frolics (@DesmondCole) June 18, 2020
And it just sets a bad example
While the silencing of BIPOC people on issues of racism is, unfortunately, not new, Elghawaby was still surprised by Singh’s removal from the House of Commons, primarily because of the precedent it sets for Canadians *outside* of Parliament—both oppressed and oppressors. “Calling someone out for racism is important and it’s not about heckling,” Elghawaby says. “It’s actually about calling out actions that could potentially and are leading to further harm of Canadians. So if someone can’t call out that action in the House of Commons, then where does that leave the rest of us who are consistently calling out systemic racism and discrimination in our day to day?”
For elected officials, Elghawaby continues, it’s imperative that they understand that their actions don’t only matter for their constituency, but that it sends a signal to the entire population. “So right now where we do have very active far right groups in this country, very active, racist hate groups who are seriously looking to harm communities [and] reject any responsibility of systemic racism in this country…the last thing we need is for politicians to basically almost give a green light to the idea that systemic racism is not an urgent, necessary issue that we need to address right now.”
While Singh tells FLARE that in this context, he believes what he did was right, he wants to make one point clear—this is much greater than him and one MP. And, while he notes that “change is uncomfortable,” in respect to the reaction from those in the House of Commons and Canadians who are taken aback by being labelled racist, we shouldn’t be getting hung up on the label itself. “I’m more interested in the change than in the label. And if people are struggling with the label, I don’t want that to be our goal,” he says. “I don’t think as a movement the goal is to name people as racist; I think the goal is to tear down racism; meaning how do we build a place where we can all live our best lives? I think everyone wants to live their best lives and they want to see their neighbours, friends and the people that live in our community all live their best lives. And there is a challenge for that—and it’s this systemic racism in policing that [allows] our neighbours to be mistreated simply because of who they are. And that needs to stop. I want to focus more on the goal and the outcome rather than in the label, because if the label is going to catch someone up, I think that we miss out an opportunity to actually bring in some real change.”
Moving forward, Elghawaby says for Canadians generally, it’s no longer enough to just “not be racist.” “It’s absolutely necessary that folks understand that you are either racist or anti-racist,” she says. “There’s no in-between anymore. People are not accepting an in between. Either you are going to help solve the problem; and if you’re not going to help solve the problem, I’m sorry, you are part of the problem.” Because this isn’t just an issue of a scuffle in parliament. “This is not a matter of quote unquote procedure. It’s not a matter of a policy here or there,” Elghawaby says. “This is a matter of life and death for Indigenous peoples in Canada [and] for Black people and racialized people in this country.”
Since his removal from the House of Commons, Singh says that he’s received an enormous amount of support, with marginalized Canadians reaching out to thank him for saying something and refusing to apologize for challenging systemic racism. “I can’t apologize [for what I said] because it would be a betrayal of all the people who have been told that they don’t matter who now feel someone stood up for them and told them that they matter,” Singh says. “And I would not do that to those people.”
FLARE has reached out to the Bloc Québécois for comment. The story will be updated with their response