COMMENTARY: Singh’s star turn — and the obnoxious Islamophobe who made it happen
“We don’t want to be intimidated by hate,” he said. “We don’t want hatred to ruin a positive event … So let’s show how we would treat someone with love. We welcome you, we love you, we support you … we believe in your rights.”
Those were the words spoken by NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh in an extraordinary exchange with a protester who confronted him at a recent campaign meet-and-greet in Brampton.
“Confronted” is … something of an understatement. The woman stood directly in front of Singh, her face inches from his, yelling puzzling statements and questions (“When is your sharia going to end?”), gesticulating wildly, screaming, “Don’t touch me” at Singh’s aides and refusing to get off the stage for almost four minutes. Throughout the episode, Singh not only remained calm, but exhorted the crowd to counter hatred with love.
I must confess that, when I first saw the video, my initial reaction was to wonder whether the scene was real. Singh’s response was so strong, the political cynic inside me wondered if the protester was a plant. Could anyone actually be as obnoxious as this person?
Regrettably, the answer is yes: The person in question is one Jennifer Bush, a supporter of RISE Canada, a group that stages anti-Islam protests in public squares and which most recently made headlines over a controversial meeting with then-Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch.
And while Bush eventually left Singh’s event, she didn’t let the issue lie. In a video filmed later that week at Fordfest, the annual barbeque put on by the Ford family in Toronto, she attempted to defend her actions by claiming that she was attacking Singh’s policies, not his person.
“I recognize the fact that he’s a Sikh and not a Muslim,” she said, addressing the obvious disconnect in her outburst. “I am not a racist. I strongly support Hindus, we work together on a regular basis to get political ideas moving … Colour, race, religion, they’re really not the point here.”
Yes they are. In other videos, Bush can be seen screaming through a bullhorn outside a public school that “anyone who believes the Qur’an, anyone who worships Muhammad, are dangerous people.” Racism is racism, whether it’s spraying bile at a single group or at ten. And trotting out the equivalent of the old ‘I have black friends’ defence to counter charges of racism? Yeah — that never, ever works.
As for the “Hindus” to whom Bush refers, they include RISE Canada’s senior adviser Ron Banerjee, who is described on the group’s website as a director with the Canadian Hindu Advocacy, which “has promoted Hindu interests and values, as well as organized rallies and events against Islamic and Khalistini Sikh terrorism.”
The group’s other senior adviser is listed as Dr. Bikram Lamba, described as a “renowned Sikh leader and intellectual.” In 2013, Lamba and Banerjee made headlines for issuing a press release in support of a ban on Sikh turbans by the Quebec Federation of Soccer and a prohibition on carrying kirpans (ceremonial Sikh daggers) inside the Quebec National Assembly. The release made reference to “Khalistani nationalists” who, the group claims, made false refugee claims to Canada and allegedly promote terrorist activities in Pakistan.
Notwithstanding the internecine foreign conflicts at play, and the peculiar motivations of RISE’s leadership, the incident at Singh’s event drives home an ugly truth: Racism is alive and well in Canadian politics.
You don’t see the Jennifer Bushes of this world standing on stage yelling at Niki Ashton, Guy Caron or Charlie Angus over their support for the anti-Islamophobia motion M-103. Yet RISE supporters have haunted Singh’s campaign since the beginning — when a man interrupted Singh’s campaign launch to accuse him of “bringing Sharia law to Canada.”
Why target Singh? Because enough ignorant people will look at his skin colour and assume he is Muslim? Because attacking him generates publicity for a group that otherwise would be stuck in the shadows? Because yelling at a white person wouldn’t inflame hatred in the same way? Or for some other, equally odious reason?
Maybe Bush and her friends at RISE Canada meant to hurt Singh’s campaign. They’ve probably done the opposite. Singh’s composure in the face of Bush’s verbal assault was the mark of a true leader — a stand-out moment in what has been a pretty lacklustre race.
A new poll, taken in the immediate wake of this incident, has Singh leading Angus and Caron by a slim margin.
While it remains to be seen whether the rally was a watershed moment in this race, it should be a wake-up call for Canada’s political class.
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