'The face of racism': Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Québécois at odds over apology after NDP Leader calls MP 'racist'

Bryan Meler
Associate Editor, Yahoo News Canada

Tensions continued in the House of Commons between Jagmeet Singh and the Bloc Québécois on Thursday, a day after the NDP leader called Bloc MP Alain Therrien “a racist” and refused to apologize.

Singh directed the comment at Therrien on Wednesday after the House of Commons failed to receive unanimous consent to pass a New Democrat motion on systemic racism in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Singh said Therrien looked at him after voicing his disapproval, then brushed his hand to “dismiss” the motion, which the NDP leader described as "the face of racism."

"That gesture represents what racism is: that people don't matter, that their lives don't matter," Singh said to the Canadian Press.

"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."

The Bloc is seeking an apology from Singh, who was dismissed from the Commons’ normal sitting on Wednesday for refusing to apologize when asked to by the Speaker. They’ve also denied the use of the gesture that Singh described, which was not caught on camera.

When Singh on Thursday stood to ask questions in the Commons chamber during a meeting of the special COVID-19 committee, Bloc MP Claude DeBellefeuille objected, and asked Speaker Anthony Rota to not allow Singh to be recognized and speak because he still had not apologized.

Rota allowed Singh to ask his questions, since his expulsion happened while the House of Commons was sitting normally on Wednesday. Thursday’s sitting was under a special committee, therefore it operated under different rules. Despite the explanation, the three Bloc MPs who were present decided to leave the chamber as Singh began to speak. 

Before the special committee assembled Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the initial incident, while calling the Bloc Québécois' actions “disappointing” and “problematic.” Trudeau refrained from saying if he thought the action of the Bloc was “racist,” despite being asked multiple times.

“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 other people uncomfortable by calling them out for not recognizing systemic discrimination,” said Trudeau. 

“I think we need to recognize these conversations are going to make other 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. But yes, we are going to make some people uneasy with recognizing that things need to change.”

Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet wants Singh to face more than just a one-day suspension from the House of Commons if the NDP leader doesn’t extend an apology, which the Speaker said he’ll take into consideration. Blanchet suggested that Singh’s remarks were aimed at the entire Bloc, which has painted the party as discriminatory. It’s also led to accusations of racism on social media.

“If we allow a member or a party leader to insult another member, what will happen to all of us here? You'll have the right to insult your colleagues and you're only expelled for one day? This can't be the case,” said DeBellefeuille.

Singh said he has nothing to apologize for, after the encounter between himself and Therrien, who Blanchet says isn’t “racist” and instead “loves everyone.” The NDP leader also said that he didn’t mean for both political parties to be brought into the debate, but was instead speaking on a “racist” act by a single Bloc MP, according to the Canadian Press.

On Wednesday, the NDP leader had asked the House of Commons to recognize that systemic racism exists in the RCMP. Singh also asked all parties to join him in calling for a review of the force’s budget, while ensuring the federal police force is held accountable, since “several Indigenous people have died at the hands of the RCMP in recent months.”

It was initially unclear who in the Commons decided against the move, but DeBellefeuille spoke out in Therrien's defence, saying Singh’s words were unacceptable. Singh then doubled-down on his comments, and also refused to apologize after being asked to by the Speaker, which resulted in his dismissal.

"It's true, I called him a racist, and I believe that's so," Singh said.

When a Speaker finds an MP's words disorderly or offensive, they can ask the MP to "withdraw the unparliamentary word or phrase unequivocally." The apology is then accepted in good faith and the matter is considered resolved.

"However, if the member refuses to obey the directive of the Speaker to retract his or her words, the chair may refuse to recognize the member until the words have been withdrawn, or may name the member for disregarding the authority of the chair and order the member to withdraw from the chamber for the remainder of the sitting," according to the rulebook.

The RCMP has come under increased scrutiny in the past few weeks, especially after the release of a dashcam video showing Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam being punched and choked by officers.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki initially didn’t want to admit that systemic racism existed in the police force, but she corrected herself late last week. Trudeau has acknowledged that systemic racism exists in Canada, including in the RCMP, but not all leaders nationwide have come to the same conclusion.

”I think it remains problematic that the Bloc Québécois refuses to recognize systemic racism in the RCMP and in this country,” said Trudeau on Thursday. “The first step is recognizing that there is a problem so we can address it. It is unfortunate that they continue to resist recognizing the lived reality of millions of Canadians who are Indigenous or racialized.”

On Thursday, Blanchet said that systemic racism exists in some Canadian institutions, and that it “must be extracted.” The Bloc also noted that it was already supporting a study of systemic racism in police forces, including the RCMP, and wanted to refrain from drawing conclusions before the work started.

"It must be found and removed from our rules and institutions and behaviours. I believe that this exists. I respect entirely somebody that does not believe that. And it does not make a racist of such a person," he said. "I do believe it does exist and it must be addressed as an issue peacefully, calmly, respectfully, in order to improve what communities might be submitted to. Everybody is equal."