Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday’s visit to Peterborough, Ont., marred by aggressive protesters, was one the “most intense, threatening, insulting” experiences in his political career.
Singh’s comments came Wednesday during a media conference when asked about his visit to the campaign office of provincial NDP candidate Jen Deck, which he described as an “incredible event.”
However, Singh noted that while entering and exiting the office on George Street, he received “some negativity.”
Social media videos show protesters approaching him, yelling vulgarities, repeatedly calling him a “liar” and a “traitor” and “not welcome” as he got into a vehicle parked in front of Deck’s office. The protesters had gathered outside the office for about an hour while Singh was talking to supporters inside.
“What we did face were some folks who were expressing displeasure with some of the positions I’ve taken,” Singh said during a media conference in Ottawa. “But there were some folks who were saying some really bad, some really horrible things. Some folks were saying ‘hope you die’ and things along that nature. A lot of aggression and violence in terms of the behaviour and demeanour.”
He said the incident reminds him there is polarization in Canadian politics.
“There is a level of polarization that is going on in politics which is troubling,” said Singh. “It shouldn’t be that someone has to be physically trained in martial arts and be able to deal with conflict to be a politician. I think it’s absolutely necessary for people to express dissatisfaction — to disagree with something, that they think it’s really horrible someone is making a particular law passed or the impact will hurt their families.
“What we are seeing is, instead of saying, ‘I don’t like what you do’ or ‘I don’t agree with your decision,’ we are getting, ‘I want you to die’ or, ‘I hope you die.’ And I think that clearly, people seeing this at home will say there’s something wrong with that.”
Singh noted that it is a “small minority.” He said taking disagreements to “this level” doesn’t help the community.
“We should be able to disagree as a society, respectfully, maybe even angrily, but it doesn’t have to come to the point where it’s getting so polarized that people’s safety can be at risk and people are feeling these types of threats,” he said.
Singh said Thursday he remains concerned about the safety of his staff and noted they are “worried.”
“For me personally, and for my staff, I will say that was one of the most intense, threatening, insulting and physically, that feeling of intense threat,” he said outside the House of Commons. “I’m not personally surprised by that or worried by that. I’ve experienced worse in my life and experienced it regularly.”
Among those in the crowd were Neil Sheard, the Peterborough resident who helped organize the recent “Rolling Thunder” rally in Ottawa, along with Roy Asselstine and Nicole Comber, owners of Peterburgers restaurant, which Peterborough Public Health closed in December 2021 for defying provincial COVID-19 policies.
The couple also spearhead Hold Fast, which describes itself as a grassroots movement “opposing the disastrous mandates that Canadian municipal, provincial and federal government bodies are enacting.”
Asselstine and Comber posted live feeds of the protest on social medial and had earlier called on people to gather for the protest to give Singh a “warm welcome” and said the “Liberal-NDP coalition is trying to destroy our country.”
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Singh also noted that politicians need to remember the consequences when they “stoke fear and division” but did not reference any individual or party in particular.
“Sadly, polarization and disinformation are real dangers to our society,” he wrote in a tweet on Wednesday night. “While disagreements are fundamental to a thriving democracy — hatred, violence and wishing death upon others threaten it.”
In a tweet Wednesday, the Peterborough Police Service stated it was not aware of Singh’s visit to the city.
“Since learning of the event officers reached out to Mr. Singh to discuss as there were no calls for service,” police stated. “It’s disheartening to hear as we know most residents are respectful and these few are not reflective of our community.”
On Thursday, the police service said it was “actively investigating” after receiving a complaint about the incident.
Singh said hate needs to be confronted to prevent it from being spread like wildfire.
“This is why we must always confront it, giving it no space to take hold, no room to grow.”
A number of politicians condemned the actions of the protesters, including Peterborough Mayor Diane Therrien.
“I have been vocal about condemning this nonsense behaviour,” she said in a tweet on Wednesday evening. “Waiting for the men on council to step up and show some leadership on this as well.”
In an interview on Thursday, Peterborough-Kawartha Conservative MP Michelle Ferreri said she condemns hate speech and violence — in any form. She said she spoke directly to Singh to express her concerns about the incident.
“He’s a federal leader and for him to visit our city is wonderful,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that is the coverage and the news that is happening because that’s not who we are as Peterboroughians.
“And I spoke directly to Jagmeet and said basically the same thing. And he said ‘I know Peterborough is a good town.’ So that was good to hear.”
Ferreri acknowledged protesting is a “part of democracy” and that people are entitled to voice their concerns, but do so respectfully.
“But the reality is you can’t harass people, you can’t name call,” she said. “Go after policy, do a constructive method to get involved in politics. Go volunteer with the candidate you want to see win; go join the board of the party you want to be involved in; go be a part of the action. I think these hateful protests put a bad name on everyone.”
Ferreri noted she and other political candidates have also faced personal attacks on social media.
“We need to set the tone that you cannot do this,” she said. “Exactly what Jagmeet said, I agree with him wholeheartedly — absolutely you’re allowed to be upset. It’s passion that drives change and protest is valuable. But calling people names and death threats — unacceptable on all levels.”
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also denounced the actions of the protesters.
“So many times I’ve watched my friend Jagmeet Singh meet hate with grace — just like he and our candidate Jen Deck did in Peterborough,” she said. “But they shouldn’t have to. They deserve to live and work freely, without intimidation.”
Conservative Party leadership candidate Scott Aitchison, MP for Parry Sound—Muskoka, also said the “vitriol is corrosive for our politics and bad for the country.”
“Politics by intimidation has no place in Canada,” he said. “Our leaders need to work together to overcome these division, not stoke the flames further dividing us.”
On Wednesday night, Singh thanked people for the outpouring of support, noting he has visited Peterborough many times and has always been “well-received.” He praised the community with “good people who want the best for each other.”
“Peterborough, I love you,” he concluded. “Don’t worry — I’ll (be) back.”
More to come.