National Newswatch

OTTAWA — Jagmeet Singh was pacing.

The New Democrat leader, who typically starts his day with music or meditation followed by a virtual meeting with his team, was poised to address the House of Commons about terror and tragedy in less than an hour.

Striding the floors of his minimalist Ottawa apartment Tuesday morning, he wondered which words could possibly do justice to the brutal attack that killed four members of a Muslim family in London, Ont., that weekend.

Later that morning, his remarks would swell to a crescendo of grief-stricken anger and urgency.

“How many more families will be mauled — mauled — down the street? How many more families will be killed before we do something?” he yelled, his voice rasping, his arms cleaving the air.

The address veered sharply in tone from the sombre one used by other party leaders in Parliament’s West Block that muggy morning, and found voice with nearly no reference to notes.

But as he wrapped a Zoom call with a half-dozen staffers and advisers shortly before the speech, he later recalled in an interview with The Canadian Press, he was at a loss for words.

“I was just still reflecting and folks are like, ‘OK, you what know you're going to say? And I'm like, ‘I don't know yet.’ ”

The process began a day earlier as news started to trickle in about the nature of what police are now calling a hate-motivated attack, which saw a mother, father, daughter and grandmother killed after a pickup truck mounted the curb of a suburban street at 8:40 p.m. on Sunday. A nine-year-old boy is in hospital in stable condition, robbed of his family.

On Monday, Singh began reaching out to Muslim friends, scrolling through acquaintances’ social media posts and listening to responses from his team, some of whom are Muslim.

“I started hearing the pain and really taking in the pain,” he said, tying it to his own experiences of harassment and bullying from his youth — much of it spent in southwestern Ontario — and into the present.

“I’ve had a really close relationship with Islamophobia because I’ve been many times throughout my life identified as a Muslim,” he said, his Sikh turban mistaken for a symbol of Islam.

As Singh reflected, his team scrambled, rewriting his schedule and the week's agenda as they prepared for a vigil Tuesday evening.

Alone at his apartment near Parliament Hill at around 9 a.m. that day, he joined in on a call with his chief of staff, communications director, national director and a few other senior staff.

“We just shared our thoughts and feelings,” said press secretary Nina Amrov, who was on the call.

“I’m Muslim, and I have parents who go on walks every day. My mom was super worried and asking, ‘Does that mean I’m not going on walks anymore?’"

An hour later, Singh walked 10 minutes to West Block and stepped inside its Victorian Gothic grandeur from the front door.

“Some people have said, ‘This is not our Canada.’ And I think about what that means,” Singh told his fellow MPs.

“But the reality is, this is our Canada … Our Canada is a place where you can’t walk down the streets if you wear a hijab because you will be killed,” he said.

“We can’t deny it. We can’t reject that because it does no one any help. The reality is our Canada is a place of racism, of violence, of genocide of Indigenous people. And our Canada is a place where Muslims aren’t safe.”

Singh delivered the message again at the vigil attended by thousands in London that evening.

“We will not cower in fear, we will wear our turbans, our hijabs with pride, because we are proud of who we are! We will not let terror win,” he proclaimed, drawing whistles and applause.

The response to his House address was immediate. A clip of the speech has garnered more than 401,000 views on his Instagram account. It was retweeted more than 1,600 times on Twitter.

"Jagmeet is very much a from-the-heart kind of person. Not just publicly, but personally," said NDP national director Anne McGrath. "It’s pretty obvious to everyone in the country that there’s a personal element for him."

All federal leaders expressed grief, solemnity and determination to resist the forces of hate.

"This killing was no accident. This was a terrorist attack, motivated by hatred in the heart of one of our communities," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during his own speech in the House.

"We grieve for the Muslim community in London and across the country, because this is a pain they have known before," said Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole.

 To that, Singh added visceral outrage.

“I tried to absorb all that and voice that frustration that people were feeling and channel their anger," he said in the interview.

“We're not willing to bear witness to, sometimes, the ugly truth … But the point of the harsh truth is to grow."

That anger stemmed from the horror of what leaders across the political spectrum have deemed an act of terrorism, but also from a lack of action in Singh’s eyes, despite recent attacks against Muslim women in Alberta, the fatal stabbing of a Toronto mosque volunteer last September and the Quebec City mosque shooting that killed six Muslim men in 2017.

In the Commons that morning, Singh finally glanced at his papers — his written speech comprised 454 words; his spoken one 1,268 — and called for three changes: an end to Islamophobic dog whistles in politics, a ramp-up in resources to douse white supremacist ideology and stronger steps to combat online hate and stifle radicalization.

New Democrats followed that up with a motion, prompted by a 40,000-strong petition from the National Council of Canadian Muslims, for the government to convene an emergency summit to fight Islamophobia by the end of July. The motion received unanimous consent in the House on Friday.

Singh said his faith, which holds equality, community and service among its core tenets, informs his approach to particular crises and to politics in general.

He calls it “radical empathy,” a term coined by a friend.

“It's literally trying to believe you are that person. I am that family, I am that little kid."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 12, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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