Protester harassment of federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh puts Peterborough in national spotlight

Singh says aggressive protest outside provincial candidate Jen Deck's campaign office is one of his 'worst experiences'

Two protestors give federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh the finger while yelling abusive comments as the politician got into his vehicle following a stop at provincial NDP candidate Jen Deck's campaign office in downtown Peterborough on May 10, 2022. (Screenshot of Facebook video)
Two protestors give federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh the finger while yelling abusive comments as the politician got into his vehicle following a stop at provincial NDP candidate Jen Deck's campaign office in downtown Peterborough on May 10, 2022. (Screenshot of Facebook video)

Peterborough is in the national spotlight and not in a good way, thanks to the actions of a small group of protesters who aggressively accosted federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh during his stop on Tuesday afternoon (May 11) at provincial NDP candidate Jen Deck’s campaign office.

While Singh was leaving the George Street office, protesters yelled and screamed at him, calling him a “f**king traitor”, a “lying piece of sh*t”, and told him to “go f**k yourself,” with some showing him their middle finger.

Singh addressed the incident at a media conference in Ottawa on Wednesday after a reporter asked him about the experience.

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“I’ve been to Peterborough a number of times and I’ve always been really well-received and had a good time,” Singh began, before describing what he later said was one of his “worst experiences” in politics.

“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. (There was) a lot of aggression and violence in terms of the behaviour and demeanour.”

The protest was organized by Roy Asseltine and Nicole Comber — owner of Peterburgers, a burger restaurant that was shut down last December for four months for violating public health restrictions — shortly after they found out Singh would be arriving at Deck’s campaign office.

Asseltine and Comber posted a video asking protesters to come to Deck’s campaign office, and a “call to action” was also posted on the “Hold Fast” Facebook group.

Comber livestreamed part of the protest on Facebook, and other videos taken by protesters’ were circulated on social media.

Singh received most of the harassment and verbal abuse when he was leaving Deck’s office by the front door.

While Singh says he was able to get into the event and back to his vehicle “without any particular issue,” he pointed to the protest as an example of increasing polarization in Canadian politics.

“There is a level of polarization that is going on in politics which is troubling,” he said. “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.”

He added that, while it’s “absolutely necessary for people to express dissatisfaction,” his experience was “something really troubling.”

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“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,” Singh said.

Singh added the incident made him “really worried” about his team.

“We want to encourage people to participate in politics, we want people form all walks of life to participate,” he said. “We don’t want to create a climate where it is dangerous to be in politics, where people feel their safety is at threat, or their team’s safety is at threat. That should never happen. It should never get to that point.”

“There is a responsibility that politicians play who purposefully inflame these divisions or purposefully spread misinformation that heightens the tensions,” Singh said. “Those who things that we can stop doing, I think that we have to stop doing.”

“There is a point where expression of anger gets into a position of hatred or violence. There’s no place for that in Canada. It’s completely wrong.”

Despite previous incidents involving Asseltine and Comber, including a raucous grand reopening celebration of Peterburgers in April that led to charges under the city’s noise by-law, there was no police presence during the protest.

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The day after the protest, Peterborough police posted on Twitter they were unaware Singh was in Peterborough and had received no calls for service.

“It’s disheartening to hear as we know most residents are respectful and these few are not reflective of our community,” police wrote.

Several people took to Twitter to condemn the protesters’ behaviour, including Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who wrote Singh and Deck “deserve to live and work freely, without intimidation.”

On Wednesday evening, Singh posted his “thoughts and reflections” about his experience in Peterborough on Twitter, thanking everyone who reached out to him about the incident.

“I want to say especially say to the people of Peterborough — I have visited many times and I know your community is filled with good people who want the best for each other,” he wrote, adding later “Peterborough, I love you.”