Peterborough mayor Diane Therrien has spoken out strongly against the “ugly, unacceptable attack” that greeted federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh during a stop in Peterborough last week in support of local NDP provincial candidate Jen Deck, saying “Peterborough is better than this.”
Last Tuesday (May 10), as Singh was leaving Deck’s George Street campaign office, he was aggressively threatened and insulted by a small group of protestors who called him, among other things, a “f**cking traitor” and a “lying piece of sh*t.”
Some of the group showed Singh their middle finger and yelled “go f*ck yourself.”
Speaking in front of City Hall Tuesday morning (May 17), with councillors Henry Clarke, Keith Riel, Kemi Akapo, Stephen Wright, and Kim Zippel standing behind her in a show of council unity, Therrien minced no words.
“This was not a protest or act of civil disobedience,” she said.
“Mr. Singh was targeted and physically harassed as he left the campaign office and walked to his vehicle. People yelled at him, insulted him, and swore at him.”
Noting “This incident is one of many that our and other communities have been subjected to in recent months,” Therrien said “The purpose of this behaviour is to intimidate.”
“It is to incite others to join in the rage, anger, and violence. It is intended to disrupt our freedom to safely and securely participate in the democratic process. It is to distract us from working together to address the issues that truly matter and are increasingly urgent for all of us — climate change, mental health, drug addiction, child poverty, housing affordability, the list goes on. These are deliberate, and very damaging, distractions.”
6) More up close video as Jagmeet Singh left the building where you can REALLY hear the disgusting things the crowd is saying. Might not be safe for work, so watch the volume before you listen to it at. #ptbo pic.twitter.com/QjytzTayTa
— Johnny Fondue (@Eatsfood2) May 11, 2022
Saying “We are better than this … the City of Peterborough is better than this,” Mayor Therrien added “We must all be better than this” before calling on political leaders across Canada “to stand with the good people of Peterborough and condemn these tactics.”
“To refuse to be intimidated and coerced into appeasing or collaborating in any way with those who are terrorizing our democratic processes. To say that this terror must stop now for the good of our country and for the protection of our democratic freedoms. To say nothing is a choice. To not clearly, forcefully and repeatedly condemn these tactics is to be complicit.”
Therrien concluded by revealing that city council will bring forward a motion at its next meeting (on May 24) “to invite Mr. Singh back to our city, to show solidarity, to stand united with him, and to let him know that we are better than this.”
Following the mayor’s statement, longtime city councillor and Peterborough mayoral candidate Henry Clarke told kawarthaNOW that he and his council colleagues are “appalled by what went on.”
“Racism has no place in this city. Abuse of elected officials has no place. The values that those demonstrators displayed are not Peterborough values,” Clarke said.
“It’s almost as if it (protesting) has become a fad thing to do. But it’s not just in Peterborough. It’s going on all over the country. I don’t like the focus on Peterborough, as if somehow we are typical of this thing. We’re not. There were 40 or 50 people that did something terrible, but there were 84,000 people that didn’t.”
Speaking to the increasing vitriol displayed by protesters, and the resulting divisiveness, Clarke pointed to a few reasons for it.
“I think, in part, it’s COVID and the isolation, and also the anonymity of social media where you can say just about anything. I call it anti-social media.”
As for the protest making national headlines, Clarke expressed frustration.
“I’m getting real tired of us getting kicked around like that. It’s not our city. It’s a small group.”
In Ottawa the day following the protest, Singh addressed the reception he received, terming it one of his “worst experiences” in politics.
“There were some folks who were saying some really bad, some really horrible, things,” recounted Singh.
“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.”
“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.”
He added that while it’s “absolutely necessary for people to express dissatisfaction,” his experience was “something really troubling.”
The protest was organized by Roy Asseltine and Nicole Comber — owners 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 on social media asking protesters to come to Deck’s campaign office. A “call to action” was also posted on the “Hold Fast” Facebook group.
Comber live streamed part of the protest on Facebook, and other videos taken by protesters’ were circulated on social media.
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.
The day after the protest, Peterborough police posted on Twitter they were unaware Singh was in Peterborough and had received no calls for service.
On May 12, acting Peterborough police chief Tim Farquharson confirmed, in a YouTube statement, that police are “actively investigating” a complaint lodged in relation to the actions of the protestors.
“Anyone seeing the video should find it disheartening, morally unacceptable, and lacking in respect each resident and visitor deserves,” said Farquharson, adding “”Your (protestors’) actions and belief systems are reprehensible, unconscionable, and, in some cases, criminal.”
Speaking to criticism of his department’s non-presence at the campaign stop, Farquharson pointed to a lack of resources as the culprit.
“Due to our staffing shortages, we’re not always able to engage in pro-active policing patrols,” he said, adding “We also understand that public safety is of paramount importance, and encourage residents to contact us with their concerns or any evidence that could aid in our investigations.”
On Tuesday afternoon (May 17), Farquharson issued a statement that investigators had reviewed all available evidence and concluded there are no grounds to proceed with criminal charges at this time.
“While the behaviour, actions, and comments are disrespectful and should not be encouraged or condoned, they fail to rise to the threshold of being criminal in nature,” Farquharson said.
The RCMP is also looking into the incident, with force deputy commissioner Michael Duheme terming the reception Singh received “unacceptable.”
On May 12, he told the House of Commons public safety committee “We’re following up on it to determine what can be done.”
Despite the threatening reception he received, Singh subsequently posted on Twitter his thanks to “everyone that has reached out” to him in the aftermath.
“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 “Peterborough, I love you.”
This story has been updated with information from a Peterborough police statement issued on May 17 about their investigation into the incident.