Footage of an angry heckler attacking NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh should have us talking about racism, the media and our gut reactions.

In newsrooms, where I used to spend my time, there are some rare moments when you realize a particular story has penetrated the larger public awareness. Most of the time, things that reporters think everyone should care deeply about barely register in the real world. This becomes apparent at family gatherings or a kid’s sports practice, when you realize nobody’s heard of what you’re talking about. (“You mean you’re not outraged they’re about to prorogue Parliament?!”)

The gut-wrenching footage of a woman getting right up into NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh’s personal space at a recent political event, accusing him of being with the “Muslim Brotherhood” and supporting Sharia law — that’s one of those moments that reverberate throughout the country and beyond. It flooded Facebook pages, was retweeted by the likes of CNN’s Van Jones and Jake Tapper, was widely covered by the Indian media and so on.

This is a classic topic for “water-cooler” talk, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Of course, the whole situation was awful for Jagmeet Singh — who would wish it on anyone? But it happened, and it got all of us talking, and we should talk about it: in our classrooms, at work, at the dinner table. There are so many places the conversation can go. Here are a few — with one for political junkies thrown in at the end.

  1. Canada has lots to work on.

The woman in the footage, now identified as Jennifer Bush, didn’t hit Singh, but she essentially gave us all a slap in the face. Wake up, Canada: this is the hostility that people live with every day. Multiculturalism! Diversity! Inclusivity! We’re drowning in phrases and slogans, and messages from our politicians about how great this country is. But there’s ugliness in Canada, and it hurts our neighbours and friends — makes them feel unsafe and unwelcome. The part of the Singh video that stands out for me is toward the end, when he says, “You know, growing up as a brown-skin, turbaned, bearded man, that I’ve faced things like this before.” The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had a raft of concerns and recommendations for Canada at its meeting this summer, around such issues as employment discrimination, racial profiling and Indigenous land rights. (Read Avvy Yao-Yao Go’s column on the subject.)

  1. And yet, there are still things to celebrate about our country.

I’m singling out one community here for the sake of conversation, but let’s talk about the fact that the first turbaned Sikh member of Parliament was elected more than 20 years ago: Gurbax Malhi. He was followed by others, including such federal cabinet ministers such as Bal Gosal, Tim Uppal, Navdeep Bains and Harjit Sajjan, not to mention women such as Bardish Chagger and Nina Grewal. Palbinder Kaur Shergill, a turbaned Sikh woman, was recently named to the BC Supreme Court. Ujjal Dosanjh was premier of British Columbia. Ian Hanomansing, born in Trinidad of South Asian ancestry, is about to become a co-anchor of CBC’s The National. Jagmeet Singh could win the leadership of one of our three major parties. Indo-Canadians are part of the fabric of Canada, just as much as someone named Jennifer Bush.

  1. The damage that fake news, alt-right sites wreak

Where could Jennifer Bush have gotten the notion that Sharia law is coming to Canada? This idea really picked up steam when Liberal MP Iqra Khalid put forward a motion (M-103) condemning Islamophobia earlier this year. Websites such as the Geller Report, Rise Canada and the Rebel have been publishing articles and videos (the Rebel also ran a petition and events) about how the motion was a step down a slippery slope toward Sharia law coming to Canada, the argument being that trying to combat Islamophobia was a form of anti-blasphemy legislation. Lest we dismiss these sites and voices as irrelevant or marginal, consider that Conservative leadership candidates attended a Rebel event called to protest Motion M-103. What can we do about this? We can talk about supporting news organizations that have editorial standards, we can talk about the importance of diversity in Canadian newsrooms, and we can tell Facebook friends to stop sharing bullshit conspiracy theories.

  1. And why we need local newsrooms.

If the Brampton Focus hadn’t been at Jagmeet Singh’s event — live-streaming it, no less — we wouldn’t be talking about this episode. We need local reporters; they can’t be replaced by your next-door neighbour’s Facebook post. If you want to know how dire the situation is in Canada, check out Ryerson’s Local News project and its research on Canada’s local news poverty. By the way, the federal government has yet to formally respond to a major report it commissioned on the state of the country’s news media.

  1. Islamophobia

Maybe the best thing about Singh’s reaction to the angry crasher was that he didn’t tell her he was Sikh, not Muslim. As he said in a statement later, “My response to Islamophobia has never been ‘I’m not Muslim.’ It has always been and will be that ‘hate is wrong.’” Let’s talk about this: what if the situation had been different and the politician was Muslim? Would some Canadians have come out of the woodwork defending the “heckler’s” right to free speech? Probably, given the climate today. Iqra Khalid, the MP who brought forward the parliamentary motion, received a deluge of hateful messages and threats prompting police protection. Arguably, that story barely made a ripple in the Canadian consciousness.

  1. Reactions to people who get up in your grill

One of the most thoughtful Twitter threads I read about the footage was by Sheila Sampath, creative director of the Public, a Toronto design studio. As Sampath says, “If you come up to me in my place of work and start screaming racist things at me, I won’t respond with ‘I love you’ — I don’t.” How are racialized minorities in Canada and Indigenous people expected to grin and bear it? Why are some Canadians upset by less polite movements such as Idle No More and Black Lives Matter? Food for thought.

  1. Will the video propel Jagmeet Singh to the helm of the NDP?

This is one for the political junkies. There are certain moments when you can see someone’s true personality: travelling with them, seeing how they treat service staff, how they treat children, how they react under pressure. At an event during the 2000 election, someone threw chocolate milk all over Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day. Day, to his credit, didn’t get worked up. He sort of furrowed his brow, as if to say, “Dude, really?” But Day is like that: he’s a nice guy. One gets the impression that Singh is a solid person too. People are often guided by their gut and their emotions when they vote. This tendency could play in Singh’s favour when NDP members choose their leader.

Photo: Ontario deputy NDP leader Jagmeet Singh launches his bid for the federal NDP leadership in Brampton, Ont., on May 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette


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