Nabeeha Asim & Wali Ahmad
Canadian New Democratic Party leader and member of parliament Jagmeet Singh was removed from the House of Commons for having unapologetically called Bloc Québécois’s Alain Therrien, also a member of parliament, a racist. Singh’s comment came after Therrien became the sole vote against a motion to combat systemic racism in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) earlier this week.
Addressing the House, Singh highlighted the motion’s four main components, which consists of “reviewing the nearly 10 million dollar a day RCMP budget and increase non police investments in nonviolent intervention, insure that the RCMP is truly accountable to the public, releasing all RCMP incidents of “use-of-force” reports, and immediately launching a full report on the use-of-force by the RCMP including the tactics and the training that is given to them in dealing with the public.”
After Singh had explained the motion, Anthony Rota, speaker of the House of Commons, asked the House for consent to move the motion; in an almost unanimous crowd of “yeses”, however, Singh was shocked to hear one “no” from Therrien, who dismissed the motion with the wave of his hand. Angered, he immediately called Therrien out for being racist. Singh, seen as too emotional, was instantaneously marked down in value by Therrien’s political party for the “altercation.” He was also prompted by Rota and other Bloc Quebecois members of parliament to apologize, which Singh refused to do. Singh was then told to leave the House for the remainder of the proceeding.
Hours later, Singh provided a more detailed account of what had transpired and further described how he felt in light of Therrien’s dissent. “Why can’t we act, why can’t we do something to save peoples lives? We can do something, and why would someone say no to that?” Singh told the media. “I’ll be honest, I got angry, but I’m now sad.”
Reactions by the other party leaders were mixed. Prime Minister of Canada and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau took to the media to defend Singh. “It is not for me to criticize any Canadian, particularly the only racialized leader in the House of Commons, for making other people uncomfortable by calling them out for not recognizing systemic discrimination”, he said. “It remains problematic that the Bloc Québécois refuses to recognize systemic racism in the RCMP and this country.”
Singh, although touched by the show of support, implied that kind words are not enough. “We need to see action,” he said. “That’s what I’m calling for, concrete action to end the use of force and the brutality and the lives being lost.”
On the other hand, Yves-Francois Blanchet, Leader of Bloc Québécois, demanded a formal apology. Blanchet fears that having no severe consequences associated with Singhs actions will encourage “everybody [to] feel entitled to do the same”, claiming that Therrien’s dismissive hand gesture that resulted in Singh’s exclamation was “open to interpretation” and was not “explicit” enough for everyone to have understood.
Ironically, many Canadians have taken the view that the removal of Singh for his justified reaction to the dissent of a motion that combats systemic racism, is a racist reaction in and of itself. The call for a motion addressing systemic racism in the federal police comes in response to the heightened concerns surrounding racism and police brutality highlighted by the now-global Black Lives Matter movement. Singh highlighted that the creation of the motion was a result of the ongoing protests to fight racism, and that this issue is equally prominent in Canada as it is in the United States.
The removal of Singh from the House proceeding was essentially a move to silent a person with lived experiences of racism from speaking out about what many find to be a hard-to-accept truth.
This is not the first time that members and candidates of the Bloc Québécois Party have been under fire for racist sentiment. In October 2019, Canadian media outlets uncovered numerous Islamophobic and racist social media posts either created or shared by candidates running for the party. All candidates apologized for their comments, with Blanchet adding his own apologies “to the entire population of Quebec.” Blanchet and the Bloc Québécois Party have previously defended Quebec’s discriminatory provincial Bill 21 removing the right to wear religious symbols – such as the hijab, turban or kippa – in the province’s public service.
Therrien’s implied racist sentiment is not new in federal Canadian politics. In 2017, the House of Commons had passed the Liberal Party’s motion (M-103) condemning Islamophobia and “all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.” The motion asked that a governmental committee collect data on related hate crimes, and study the various methodologies that could effectively eliminate these issues. Although the motion was passed by a vote of 201-91, Many of those who opposed this motion were worried that it would “result in Sharia law being imposed in Canada” and had decidedly voted against it, despite the motion’s clear intention to combat systemic racism.
Therrien’s reaction to the NDP’s current motion shares uncanny similarities with reactions to motion M-103. The inability to vote in favor of a governmental action which explicitly aims to reduce and prevent systemic racism or Islamophobia undoubtably implies racist and Islamophobic sentiment. The only difference between then and now is that a racialized political party leader has effectively called out racism in the Canadian government – only to be penalized for it.