Image: jagmeetsingh/Instagram/Screenshot

Jagmeet Singh showed some uncharacteristic anger on Wednesday afternoon, and, as a result, got himself booted out of the House of Commons.

The NDP leader says he prefers to act out of love, not aggression, as a rule. He would rather convince those who disagree with him — even those who might push back against him merely because of the way he looks — than confront them. 

But a Bloc Québécois MP’s rude gesture pushed him too far.

It happened when Singh introduced a motion in the House that proposed concrete steps to deal with what it described as the systemic racism of the RCMP. 

To get leave to consider such a motion requires unanimous consent, and there was a voice vote seeking that consent in the House. All members called out “yea,” save one, says Singh: the Bloc Québécois’ Alain Therrien.

The Speaker of the House did not hear Therrien’s dissent at first, so the Bloc member made a point of repeating it, accompanied by, as the NDP leader describes it, a dismissive gesture. Singh says Therrien sneered at him and contemptuously waved his hand as though swatting a fly.

It was that arrogant action that got Singh’s goat. He turned to Therrien and told him, bluntly, that he was a racist. 

There was a kerfuffle on the House, and a bit of back and forth. Ultimately, the Speaker deemed Singh’s language to be unparliamentary and asked him to apologize. When the NDP leader refused, the speaker told him to leave the chamber, at least for the rest of the day.

Motion would have RCMP release all use-of-force data

Following the incident, Singh told a news conference — where he was, at times, visibly emotional — he does not believe he owes Therrien an apology. The NDP leader said he continues to believe that both the hand gesture and the act of turning thumbs down on the RCMP-related motion were racist behaviours. 

The Bloc’s whip, Claude DeBellefeuille, issued a news release claiming Singh had defamed Therrien and demanded an apology. DeBellefeuille said Therrien voted nay because there is a parliamentary committee tasked with studying racism in the RCMP and the Bloc does not want to prejudge its work. 

There has been much chatter about whether the word racist was justified and whether or not Singh should apologize. But the controversy is over an NDP motion dealing with a matter of intense current concern. And so, it is important to know exactly what Singh and the NDP wanted Parliament to consider. 

Here is the motion, in full. It is worth the minute and a half of your time it will take to read it:

That the House recognize that there is systemic racism in the RCMP, as several Indigenous people have died at the hands of the RCMP in recent months, and call on the government to:

1.  review the nearly $10 million per day RCMP budget and the RCMP Act;

2.  increase non-police investments in non-violent intervention, de-escalation, and   mental health and addiction supports;

3. ensure that the RCMP is truly accountable to the public;

4. release all RCMP incidents of use of force reports and the associated settlement costs; and

5. immediately launch a full review of the use of force by the RCMP, including   reviewing the tactics and the training that is given to RCMP officers in dealing with the public. ​

At his news conference, Singh told reporters he does not think a committee study of the urgent issues facing the RCMP would be adequate, in light of recent events.

Earlier this month, in New Brunswick, RCMP officers and the local town of Edmundston police killed two Indigenous people, Rodney Levi and Chantel Moore, in situations where crime or suspicion of crime was not a factor.

In Moore’s case, officers were supposed to be conducting a wellness check. In Levi’s, someone had called the RCMP to report an “unwanted person.” It turns out that Levi was not an unwanted intruder at all, but was rather a “welcome guest” at a barbecue in the home of his pastor, Reverend Brodie MacLeod.

Both victims suffered from mental illness. In both cases police officers should have engaged in what would have been, in effect, psychiatric social work, not coercive law enforcement. Neither victim had broken any law.

The RCMP’s version is that the officers believed the two Indigenous people were wielding knives and were so lacking in any other skills to deal with people in distress that they simply shot them, multiple times — enough to kill both of them.

A culture problem for the RCMP

There is at least a strong possibility there is something wrong with the culture of a police organization where this sort of use of force can happen, so casually and so often. In these two cases, and in many others, officers had been called upon to help people, but instead killed them. 

The use of deadly force in these circumstances cannot possibly be the most effective solution, when there are so many other ways to de-escalate cases of mental and emotional distress. And it is hard to believe that RCMP officers would have behaved the same way in dealing with people who were not members of a visible minority group. 

There certainly appears to be an institutional culture issue at play here. That is the culture Jagmeet Singh wants to see changed — and sooner rather than later.  

The NDP leader hoped Parliament would act decisively, that it would, with one voice, encourage the RCMP to learn about practical, non-violent means for dealing with people in distress. 

The tangible calls to action in Singh’s motion, such as requiring the RCMP to release all incidence-of-force reports, are reasonable and practical. It is well within the power of the federal Parliament to demand them of the federal police force.

The governing Liberals were willing to go along with this NDP initiative, and so, perhaps surprisingly, were the official opposition Conservatives. 

It is not clear whether or not the Bloc had determined a collective position on the motion at the outset, or whether Therrien forced his colleagues’ hands, and, in effect, made policy on the fly. Once the vote happened, however, the Bloc closed ranks and fully endorsed Therrien’s thumbs down.

The larger context for the Bloc might be an aversion to the phrase “systemic racism,” even when applied only to one police force. 

Quebec Premier François Legault has said, more than once, he does not believe systemic racism exists, at least not in his province. There are individuals who hold racist views and behave in a racist manner, but the institutions of the state are not racist, the premier asserts. 

The Bloc leader, Yves-François Blanchet, has said much the same in the House, and on social media many Quebec nationalists have been weighing in vehemently in a similar vein. 

Jagmeet Singh’s motion does not mention Quebec, and the RCMP does not act as a provincial police force in Quebec (nor in Ontario or Newfoundland) as it does in seven provinces. Still, the word systemic might be enough of a red flag for the Bloc that it would never be able to support any measure that explicitly recognized its existence.

Whatever happens with his need to apologize or not, Singh has already tried to turn the conversation away from his verbal scuffle with another MP to the issues his motion addresses. 

He would do well to keep trying, before there are other unnecessary deaths at the hands of trigger-happy police officers.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: jagmeetsingh/Instagram/Screenshot

Editor’s note, June 18, 2020: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the New Brunswick RCMP killed both Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi. In fact RCMP officers killed Rodney Levi, while local Edmundston police killed Chantel Moore.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...