Jagmeet Singh defends speaking at Sikh separatist rally in 2015

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh arrives to speak to reporters in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is defending a decision to speak at a Sikh separatist rally in 2015 where the stage he spoke on reportedly featured a portrait of the leader of a militant extremist group.

The news of his attendance at the event in San Francisco, Calif., and the presence of the photo of the extremist on stage was first reported Tuesday night by the Globe and Mail. Following questions from media, Singh posted a statement on the NDP website saying he condemned terrorism but felt he had a responsibility to speak about human rights abuses in connection with the 1984 raid by India police on Sikh militants occupying the Golden Temple in India’s Punjab province.

READ MORE: Statement from Jagmeet Singh, Leader of the Federal NDP

Three hundred people were killed in the raid, including the leader of the group behind the occupation, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

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It was his portrait that was displayed on the stage where Singh spoke at the rally in 2015.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau weighs in on Quebec legislature kirpan ban, Air India bomber posters

“While there, I spoke directly about the pain in the community and my own path to learning about my heritage. When faced with the knowledge that your relatives were targeted for who they were, you are faced with the question of how to respond,” Singh said in the statement posted Wednesday.

“My response was to embrace my identity and work harder to stand up for human rights and not allow the voices of the marginalized to be made silent. That is a lesson that has helped me to empathize with the struggles of others.”

WATCH BELOW: Jagmeet Singh says he will continue to denounce acts of violence – including Air India bombing

Click to play video: 'Jagmeet Singh says he will continue to denounce acts of violence – including Air India bombing'
Jagmeet Singh says he will continue to denounce acts of violence – including Air India bombing

He also appeared to criticize attempts to “oversimplify” the matter but did not elaborate.

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“I encourage all those facing these tough questions not to fall prey to rage and violence, but rather to embrace your truth and move forward with love and courage. Admittedly, this is not a simple or easy process, but attempts to oversimplify these experiences will not advance the cause of reconciliation.”

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Before resigning his seat as a provincial MPP to run for the leadership of the federal NDP, Singh led an effort to get the Ontario Legislature to recognize the 1984 raid as a genocide.

READ MORE: Sikh nationalism will overshadow Justin Trudeau’s trip to India: expert

The Ontario Liberals adopted that push in a motion of their own and officially did so in 2017.

Singh has advocated for the federal government to do the same.

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It is not the first time Singh has courted controversy for refusing to denounce the glorification of extremists by some — but not most — members of the Sikh community.

In an interview with CBC’s Power & Politics last year, shortly after he was elected leader of the federal NDP, Singh was asked whether he denounced the celebration of Talwinder Singh Parmar.

COMMENTARY: Jagmeet Singh needs to brush up on basic communications strategy

Parmar, killed by Indian police in 1992, is widely considered the mastermind behind the 1985 Air India bombing which killed 381 people.

During the trial of others involved in the attack, the Crown, defence and judge all agreed that Parmar had orchestrated the bombing. A subsequent commission of inquiry came to the same conclusion.

But while Singh called the attack a “heinous massacre,” he did not denounce the few who glorify Parmar as a martyr.

“I don’t know who’s responsible [for the Air India bombing] but I think we need to find out who’s responsible, we need to make sure that the investigation results in a conviction of someone who is actually responsible,” he said.
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During a trip to India last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a different tone.

“I do not think that we should ever be glorifying mass murderers and I am happy to condemn that,” Trudeau said at the time.

However, he did not specifically state whether he would avoid attending any events in the future where photos of individuals like Parmar or Bhindranwale are glorified.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer also said he and his party members denounced the glorification of all forms of extremism and added Scheer does not and will not take part in such events.

“Mr. Scheer does not go to events or rallies held for the purposes of glorifying violent extremists,” said his director of communications, Jake Enwright.

Global News also asked the Prime Minister’s Office whether Trudeau will refrain from attending events in the future – particularly, during the 2019 election campaign – where photos of individuals like Parmar or Bhindranwale are glorified.

A similar request was sent to a spokesperson for Singh.

Neither party has provided a response.

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