The man who became the public face of a September defection of NDP supporters in New Brunswick is suing NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and prominent party veteran Charlie Angus for defamation, claiming the two accused him of being racist.
And the party is pushing back, arguing the claim “has no merit.”
In a statement issued on Tuesday, a lawyer for Jonathan Richardson — formerly a member of the NDP executive in Atlantic Canada — said Richardson would not be making any public statements about the suit but claimed that Singh and others defamed him by claiming the defection was motivated by racism.”
“The NDP, its Leader, and other prominent members turned to the media and social media to say the move was due to racism,” claimed Ryder Gilliland, a lawyer with DMG Advocates LLP.
“At no time did Mr. Richardson or any individual involved mention race as a reason for leaving the party. They mentioned that Mr. Singh never came to New Brunswick as part of a larger declaration.”
However, Richardson was specifically quoted by the Canadian Press on Sept. 3, the day he announced the claimed defections, as saying that race had been cited as a major concern by potential voters and recruits to the party, and that he raised those concerns to the election planning committee.
“The racism card came up a lot — especially in the northern part of the province,” Richardson was quoted as saying.
“I knew this was going to be a major issue and I did bring that to the election planning committee. That, you know, there is going to have to be some discussion about race. Because it wasn’t going well.”
Richardson was also quoted as saying that potential candidates had been hesitant to run for the NDP in New Brunswick because they did not think voters there would support a party lead by someone wearing a turban.
“That was probably a major… reason that they felt people wouldn’t want to vote for them, because that would hold them back,” Richardson said.
He also added the fact that Singh had never visited the province as another reason the party might have a hard time finding support.
“Jagmeet as a leader, or when he was running for leadership, has never visited New Brunswick.”
Richardson had initially released a list of 14 names of 2018 provincial NDP candidates who said they were switching their allegiance to the Green Party and admonished Singh for not paying enough attention to the province.
But the NDP challenged those numbers, saying the complaints were more about the provincial party and not the federal one led by Singh, adding that some of the 14 names said they remained supporters of the NDP.
The number of defectors was later revised down to eight.
The NDP said in a statement on Tuesday that it had responded to Richardson’s claim through its lawyers and that the party disputes the claim.
“The NDP has responded through its lawyers,” said Melissa Bruno, NDP national director.
“The claim has no merit. We look forward to dealing with this through the legal system, so we won’t comment further.”
A spokesperson for the NDP had initially responded to Richardson’s press conference announcing the defections last month by saying that it was not the first time people had judged Singh because of his race.
“Jagmeet has dealt with racism his whole life,” said Melanie Richer on Sept. 3. “Throughout his whole life, he’s been told that he hasn’t been able to do things because of who he is, and he has overcome it. People see the struggles he’s faced and overcome and are proud of him.”
“I don’t think this statement made by (Richardson) is giving Canadians and the people of New Brunswick enough credit.”
Richer did not, however, name Richardson or any of the individuals named as defectors of being racists, and it’s not clear from the statement whether the racism referenced refers to the defectors or those who had reportedly raised concerns about race to those defectors.
Singh also appears to have no public comments explicitly accusing any of the defectors of racism.
He had initially called the claims a “fiasco” and an “act of desperation” but it’s not clear when exactly he is accused of having called those raising concerns racist.
He did put the spotlight on the Green Party at the time though, saying that “I think the Green Party shouldn’t take in candidates who openly express their concerns about someone looking different.”
Angus, a longtime NDP MP for northern Ontario, tweeted out a link to that report by the Canadian Press at the time and condemned both the NDP leadership for not meeting with local board members as well as the defectors.
Angus called the report that they did not want to run for a leader from a different religion “sickening.”
But that tweet also did not make explicit accusations of racism.