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ANALYSIS: Behind-the-scenes with Jagmeet Singh as the brownface story broke

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Friday he wants a private conversation with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau because he doesn't want the conversation to be "used as a tool in his exoneration."

About a hundred New Democrat supporters were crammed into a Toronto candidate’s office for a townhall with Jagmeet Singh when the Time Magazine story broke.

The majority of the room was made up of people of colour. Less than half of those who live in the Humber River Black Creek riding have English as a first language, according to the 2016 census.

The story emerged at 6:32 p.m. Singh was taking questions from the floor. Reporters, campaign staff and cameras were squeezed around the edges of the standing-room-only space. Traditionally on the Singh campaign, the NDP leader goes straight into questions from the media when he finishes taking those from the public at townhall events.

READ MORE: Trudeau apologizes after 2001 brownface photo published by Time Magazine

Reporters whispered to each other as they scanned the story. Singh was scheduled to take questions in just a matter of minutes (the scheduled time was 6:50 p.m., but the event had begun a few minutes late).

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And there was no way Singh had seen the story yet — or the photo.

So when those media questions began, a reporter asked Singh for his reaction to the breaking story, being sure to mention the Prime Minister’s Office had confirmed to Time it was indeed Trudeau in the photo.

A photo showing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, second from right, at a 2001 costume party — his hands and face blackened with makeup — was published by Time Magazine Wednesday.
A photo showing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, second from right, at a 2001 costume party — his hands and face blackened with makeup — was published by Time Magazine Wednesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - TIME Magazine

There were murmurs in the crowd — this was shocking news to about a hundred people here, too.

Singh took a moment to think. He paused for a few seconds. Then he said it was “insulting” and “troubling” and Trudeau needed to answer for it. He spoke about the act of dressing in blackface in general as making a mockery of people. The room applauded. In a situation difficult for a few reasons, Singh struck the right tone.

WATCH (Sept. 18, 2019): NDP leader Jagmeet Singh comments on Trudeau brownface photo from 2001

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh comments on Trudeau brownface photo from 2001
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh comments on Trudeau brownface photo from 2001

A few minutes later, the event ended. Outside, Singh spoke to supporters as reporters gathered reactions from people who had attended. There was word Trudeau would address the incident on the plane later that night.

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Singh might speak again, reporters were told, depending on what Trudeau had to say.

Unlike the Scheer and Trudeau campaigns, reporters ride the same bus as the NDP leader. There is a door that can block off the back third of the bus where Singh and most of his team sit, but they make a point to leave it open for the vast majority of the time.

On the bus ride between the Toronto event and the hotel in Mississauga, that door was closed.

READ MORE: How the Trudeau brownface bombshell hit the Liberal campaign media bus

The Trudeau press conference on the plane began just minutes after the NDP bus pulled up to the hotel, at 8:11 p.m. It lasted until 8:25.

By 8:18 p.m., as Trudeau was still speaking, the media was told Singh would speak on camera sometime after Trudeau was finished.

Singh was in his hotel room watching Trudeau address his actions. Some of his team was there, others were watching outside on the curb in front of the hotel with some members of the media. Singh made a number of phone calls, one of which he later told the media prompted him to come back out and address the public.

Media are generally given a workspace on the road known as the filing room. Given a lack of visual options in the pitch dark at an airport hotel, it was decided the Singh comments would take place in that small room.

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Tensions were high as tables were moved around the small space to facilitate the best setup. NDP staffers on the road were on the phone with headquarters back in Ottawa, unhappy with the options available.

The NDP doesn’t travel with a branded backdrop, common for political leaders. Many photo ops on the NDP campaign are held in front of the bus, the wrapped orange NDP logos and images of Singh acting as the backdrop.

The hotel space was stark and beige. The lights on the wall were awkward. This was national television. But there was no choice.

Meanwhile, after Trudeau had finished, most of the NDP team was gathered in Singh’s hotel room. He was quiet for a long time. The team had conversations about what he was going to say. But they didn’t rehearse or discuss exact messaging. No one knew exactly what he was going to say.

At 9:20 p.m., Singh addressed reporters for about five minutes.

WATCH (Sept. 18, 2019): Jagmeet Singh delivers emotional reaction to Trudeau brownface photo

Jagmeet Singh delivers emotional reaction to Trudeau brownface photo
Jagmeet Singh delivers emotional reaction to Trudeau brownface photo

“When I responded earlier I hadn’t seen the image itself. Seeing the image — it jarred me,” he began.

He was emotional in his address, but he was also calm and measured, saying he was speaking out for all those who would be affected by seeing the image of Trudeau. It’s those people, especially young people, whom he was speaking to.

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“You might feel like giving up on Canada. You might feel like giving up on yourselves. I want you to know that you have value. You have worth. And you are loved. And I don’t want you to give up on Canada and please don’t give up on yourselves.”

READ MORE: Racism can become a political flashpoint — advocates say it needs to be a conversation

In taking a couple of reporter questions, he became choked up when talking about his decision to speak publicly.

“I got a message from a friend who reminded me that there are a lot of people out there that couldn’t do that. That couldn’t fight back. That didn’t have the ability to do that.”

His voice cracked and his eyes were glistening. He paused for 11 seconds before finishing his thought.

“They couldn’t. They couldn’t do it themselves. And I think it’s going to hurt to see this. It’s going to hurt them a lot.

As he spoke, campaign co-chair Marie Della Mattia, standing by the cameras, also began to cry.

“What he said really got to me. We’d had an emotional conversation earlier,” she told Global News.

“His honest emotion affected mine. And I felt the pain of his friend just like he did.”

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In the hours and days that followed, Singh was praised for how he handled everything. At numerous media availabilities that followed, he stuck to the same message: he didn’t want to focus on Trudeau, rather the people who would be hurt by what happened.

It turned out the beige hotel backdrop didn’t matter at all.

Abigail Bimman is an Ottawa-based correspondent for Global National.