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“We must be clear,” Jagmeet Singh told reporters, just before he did the exact opposite.

What followed was a confusing series of statements about how he had no regrets about the past, but will, of course, do things differently as a federal party leader than he did as an Ontario MPP, though it’s not clear precisely how, but he wants to keep meeting people.

The scene was a scrum with reporters at the close of the NDP’s Wednesday caucus meeting. Mr. Singh had one job, or at least he should have had one job: to make a clear statement about his past attendance at events that included pro-Khalistani separatists who advocated political violence, and put the whole business behind him. To move on.

That is what New Democrat MPs wanted. They were lined up behind Mr. Singh during his scrum, stiff smiles painted on their faces. Parties use MPs as backdrops nowadays, especially when everyone knows they have spent the past few days complaining about their leader. The MPs must have been agonizing over Mr. Singh’s inability to say the simple, clear things that would put this little controversy to rest.

In the end, Mr. Singh got to the right substance: He said he won’t attend any events if he knows that there will be someone there advocating political violence. But he dodged questions for nine minutes before that and, along the way, confused his listeners.

Jagmeet Singh affirms his stance against political violence after videos emerged showing him at events where people promoted Sikh independence and violence. But the NDP leader says he supports the right to discuss “self-determination.”

The Canadian Press

For a moment, put aside exactly what moral or policy stand Mr. Singh should have taken. He might have chosen among two or three, but he managed to express none clearly.

The issue behind this is that Mr. Singh attended and spoke at events where advocates of political violence spoke or were lionized during the time that he was an Ontario MPP.

At one 2015 “sovereignty rally” in San Francisco, Mr. Singh sat in front of a poster of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the militant Sikh leader killed in the Indian army assault on the Golden Temple in 1984; at another 2016 event in London, the co-founder of the British-based National Sikh Youth Federation, Shamsher Singh, endorsed the use of political violence as a “legitimate form of resistance.”

Mr. Singh has argued that he only attended events where others spoke. He has drawn a legitimate distinction between those who support separatism and those who support political violence.

The problem is he didn’t speak up to condemn political violence when it was being advocated in front of him.

It was one thing when Mr. Singh refused in a CBC interview in October to condemn Talwinder Singh Parmar as the mastermind of the 1985 Air India bombing. (He did recently.) Then, Mr. Singh could ask why a party leader who is Sikh was being quizzed about a terror act from decades ago. In London, Mr. Singh didn’t speak out against people advocating violence in the same room.

Open this photo in gallery:

Mr. Singh samples maple syrup during a visit to a sugar shack in Saint-Jerome, Que., on Wednesday.Ryan Remiorz

The lack of clarity now fuels the notion that he’s reluctant to draw a clear line through Sikh diaspora politics, even when that’s what his job in federal politics requires.

Does he regret attending those events in San Francisco? No, he told reporters Wednesday. But having said that, Mr. Singh added, he has different responsibilities as a federal party leader than he did as an Ontario MPP.

So what will he do differently? “We must be clear,” he said, before adding that he never attended an event “where the goal was to advance political violence.” Again, he said he had different responsibilities as leader of a federal party than he did as an Ontario MPP.

It’s like he was trying to suggest he will do things differently, but not. Pressed again on whether he will choose events more carefully, he said as a federal party leader, he will go to events in Atlantic Canada, and other regions, which he wouldn’t do as an Ontario MPP. He said he would not go to events in San Francisco. It was pointless digression.

Politicians obfuscate. Except the job here was obvious: to clarify, and move on. Mr. Singh didn’t. He might have expressed a regret that he didn’t speak up against advocates of political violence in the past; he certainly should have said simply that he will avoid events with such people, and condemn endorsements of political violence. But he was reluctant to be clear.

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