NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says he believes the gesture a Bloc Quebecois MP made toward him wasn’t aimed at him personally, but dismissed the lives of Indigenous and Black people who have been victimized by police.
Singh says Bloc MP Alain Therrien made a brushing-off hand gesture after refusing the necessary unanimous consent for a motion he wanted to present Wednesday on systemic racism in the RCMP – a movement Singh described as “dismissive” and “the face of racism.”
The exchange was not captured on House of Commons cameras Wednesday; Singh described the gesture in a news conference afterward.
“That gesture represents what racism is: that people don’t matter, that their lives don’t matter,” Singh said in an interview Thursday.
“It was symbolic of what we’re up against when we’re trying to challenge systemic racism … Policing that has caused violence and death to Indigenous and Black people needs to stop and that’s why that gesture to me represented exactly what Indigenous, Black and racialized people feel every day – that they do not matter.”
Singh’s accusation that Therrien is a racist boiled over into a second day of tense exchanges in Ottawa Thursday as Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet defended his MP and called the charge “stupefying” and misguided.
He also suggested he felt Singh’s remarks were aimed more broadly at his party, and he called for Singh to apologize for painting his party as discriminatory. He said the Bloc Quebecois had been fielding accusations of racism on social media since Wednesday afternoon.
“Mr. Singh is a good person, I always thought that and I still think that. He somehow dropped the ball and I hope he will take it back,” Blanchet said.
House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota had barred Singh from returning to the chamber Wednesday after the NDP refused to apologize.
When Singh stood to ask questions during a meeting of the special COVID-19 committee in the Commons chamber Thursday, Bloc MP Claude DeBellefeuille objected, asking Rota not to allow Singh to be recognized and speak because he still had not apologized.
Rota said he would take time to consider this, but allowed Singh to ask his questions, as the expulsion happened while the House of Commons was sitting normally on Wednesday, not as a special committee, and therefore operates under different rules.
At this, the three Bloc MPs who were present in the House of Commons got up and left the chamber as Singh began to speak.
Singh now says he never meant to bring political parties into the debate, but rather was speaking about what he called a “racist” act by one individual Bloc MP.
If there are political parties to blame, Singh placed that responsibility on the two parties that have been in power in Canada for the last 153 years.
“Systems can only be created by parties that are in power and as far as I know there are only two parties that have ever been in power in Canada and that’s Conservatives and Liberals,” he said.
“They built the systems that we’ve identified have systemic racism.”
In his motion, Singh was asking the Commons to recognize there is systemic racism in the RCMP and to call on the Liberal government to review the police force’s budget, ensure the Mounties are truly accountable, examine the Mounties’ use of force, and boost non-police spending on mental health and addiction support.
The Bloc has said it was already supporting a study of systemic racism in police forces, including the RCMP, at the Commons public safety committee and did not want to draw conclusions before the work had even begun.
When asked about the situation Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it is not for him to criticize the only racialized party leader in the House of Commons when a question of racism arises.
“I think we need to recognize these conversations are going to make people uncomfortable. But it has been the lived reality of racialized and Indigenous Canadians for far too long and we need to continue to move forward in a way that attempts to bring people together,” he said.
But Singh says Trudeau is the one with the power to take bolder action to eliminate discrimination and racism, especially within the RCMP – something he says U.S. President Donald Trump is moving faster to address.
Trump signed an executive order Tuesday following weeks of protests since the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, that would encourage better police practices in the U.S. and establish a database to track officers with a history of excessive use-of-force complaints.
“(Trudeau) said some nice things about the stance that I took, but he’s in power. He’s the prime minister, he doesn’t need to take a knee, he needs to do something … When President Trump is beating Prime Minister Trudeau in acting, that to me is problematic.”