On Wednesday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh tried to push forward a motion that would: address systemic racism within the RCMP, review the use of force by officers, review the RCMP budget and boost funding for healthcare workers to de-escalate situations. The motion which seemed to have the support of the House, that is until there was a faint objection from Bloc Québécois House Leader, Alain Therrien.
The following happened off-camera, but Singh insists Therrien made eye contact with him to gesture him off, and he retaliated by calling La Prairie MP a racist.
“It’s true, I called him a racist,” said Singh, while addressing the speaker of the house.
Singh was promptly removed from the House, but he did leave on his own merits. In a press conference that took place moments after leaving the floor, he addressed the media.
“I was angry at the moment and I stand by it, in that moment, I saw the face of racism,” he said.
After seeing the events unfold as they did, Hamilton Centre MP and NDP Caucus member, Matthew Green agreed with the leader of his party.
“If you are upholding or holding back advances against anti-racism, that is in of itself inaction and a part of systemic racism. And it’s racist,” said Green.
Green details the behind the scenes of what happened leading up to the motion being denied and Singh’s response. It’s often customary that a party will give advance notice if they will support a motion or intend to block it, but that’s not the case with the BQ, according to Green. He had previously tried to pass a motion to ban hate groups from using public spaces, but it was blocked by the BQ.
“I can’t say that I was shocked because it was the second time that they’ve done that and it’s part of a pattern,” he said.
Moreover, the rhetoric of not calling out racism and instead trying to create a divide of race and ethnicity seems to be the nature of Quebec politics in this day and age, according to Green.
“It’s consistent with a lot of the rhetoric and leadership that we’re seeing in Quebec at this very moment,” he said.
Not only does Green agree with Singh’s handling of calling out racism in a blunt and necessary way, he feels the BQ has consistently pushed the concept of an ethnostate by not focusing on the issues of people of colour within Quebec.
“I think he held honesty in what he said, and in that honesty, the Bloc Quebecois are scrambling. They have relied on the silencing of people of colour in their province,” he said.
Systemic racism in Parliament
When Parliament was founded in 1867, it was made up and designed at the time for white men who represented a very white Canada at the time. Over 150 years later, while there is more diversity in the house in this current day and age, it doesn’t change history or even the current day’s structure, according to Erin Tolley, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto.
“Admitting that systemic racism exists means people who have benefitted from these institutions that they’ve achieved what they have not because of their merit or greatness, but because these systems were created to propel them to success,” she said.
When Tolley evaluated the situation as it unfolded, she noticed how there was more focus on what Singh did, but few comments on Therrien’s behaviour.
“The tension immediately shifts to the hurt feelings of the white person who received the comment in the first place,” she said.
“We focus on the calling of the act of a racist as a distraction from actually doing something about the root problem,” she said.
In her eyes, Tolley thinks there are two ways to call out racism, the first being in a blunt manner, and the other option to skirt around the issue to avoid hurting a white person’s feelings. She thinks that Singh took the right course of action in calling out Therrien’s lack of support.
“It’s important to name racism, to call it out and say it's racist and not to protect white fragility and skirting around the issue by not calling it what it is,” said Tolley.
When asked why Therrien would pushback on a topic of this nature, Tolley wasn’t sure as the MP has not answered any requests from the media to speak. Tolley thinks anyone who fails to understand the RCMP’s clear systemic racism, something which both the Prime Minister and RCMP Commissioner, Brenda Lucki, have admitted exists, is failing BIPOC at this moment.
“If you can’t realize the ethos, processes, procedures, structures that are based into the RCMP from it’s foundation are of racial hierarchy, you just don’t understand how institutions work,” said Tolley.
In respect to other BIPOC people being marginalized, Tolley highlights the challenges two Liberal MPs, Celina Caesar-Chavannes and Iqra Khalid went through between 2015 to 2019. Caesar-Chavannes ended up quitting the Liberal Caucus, citing many problems within the structures of how the government operated on her way out. She said oftentimes she’d be asked for her credentials, mistaken for another Liberal MP or not thought of as an MP.
Khalid on the other end faced a myriad of pushback while trying to introduce a bill to condemn Islamophobia in Canada. Every single Conservative MP besides Michael Chong and Bruce Stanton opposed the bill, but it still ended up being passed.
“Just looking at the numbers doesn't address institutional structure or the experiences that those people have when they’re in the institution, which for many can be an inhospitable place,” said Tolley.
Writer Robert Jago has highlighted at least seven incidents in the House of Commons in instances where white Parliamentarians have previously called each other a racist. No one was ever expelled from parliament. Green added that the house is not the place of civility that is described, and the BQ’s assertion that Singh’s actions were unbecoming.
“Anybody who’s ever attended Question Period in person knows there is no decorum, insults fly around all the time, there’s heckling,” he said.
What Singh was trying to achieve
In an interview on CTV Power Play on Thursday, Singh reiterated his stance on Therrien. In the same interview, Singh said his intention with putting forward the motion was to hold the Conservatives and the now-governing Liberals accountable for creating these structures to uphold systemic racism.
“The whole goal of this was really to push the Prime Minister of this country, Prime Minister Trudeau and push the government to actually do something, it’s not about an opposition party,” he said.
Reporters lobbed up similar questions to the Prime Minister about Singh’s actions in the House, but he did not take the bait.
"In regards to what Mr. Singh said, it is not for me to criticize any Canadian, particularly not the only racialized leader in the House of Commons, for making people uncomfortable by calling them out for not recognizing systemic discrimination," he said.
Not only did Trudeau not criticize Singh in any fashion, he said these are part of the tough conversations the country needs to have in order to make real change.
"I think we need to recognize that 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.
As Tolley sees it, there’s instances of racism that are called out all the time that go viral on social media, and this was a moment in time for the BQ to be on the right side of history, but the narrative has shifted.
“We’ve seen individuals behaving in a racist way, but the much more insidious way that racism plays out is within those institutional systems. This entire discussion has prevented any of that, it’s completely about that individual interaction between two MPs,” said Tolley.
Focus shifting away from Therrien
When Tolley listened to Singh’s media availability following his expulsion, he was asked at least three times if he stood by calling Therrien a racist. Even in his interview on CTV Power Play, the host, Evan Solomon talks about the bigger issue, but continued to solely focus on Singh’s use of the word.
“Rather than framing the story around Jagmeet Singh being the first leader of colour to stand up and focus on these issues of systemic racism, they’re framing it as a white MP being called a racist,” she said.
The problems within the media are ones too familiar to Green, who as a Black MP has been interviewed countless times about calls to defund the police and to speak on racism within Canada.
“I’ve done probably 40 or 50 interviews over the past two weeks and some of these interviews I’m still being asked the question of ‘does racism exist in Canada?’” said Green.
Green thinks the media has played a hand in holding up the current power structures because they’re predominantly white, and argued that while Singh has been put on trial, Therrien has avoided speaking to media.
“The mainstream media is complicit in maintaining the status quo of power structures within this country, they always have been,” he said.
While his MP and party did not support Singh’s motion, BQ Leader Yves-François Blanchet admitted on Thursday that some Canadian institutions are rife with systemic racism.
"It must be found and removed from our rules and institutions and behaviours. I believe that this exists," he said.
The BQ leader says he thinks Singh’s suspension should be extended and his punishment should match his actions.