Jagmeet Singh walked onto a sidewalk in Peterborough and into near-pure hatred. He was there to support a local provincial candidate, Jen Deck, and as he left her office Wednesday the NDP federal leader was crowded on a short walk to an SUV amid shouts of “traitor!” and “not welcome!” and “I hope you die!”
“I have children, and you will not touch them!” said one woman, identified as a co-organizer of the protest.
“Why did you lie about the freedom convoy?” a woman screamed, over and over.
“You’re a f—ing traitor to this country. F— you. Freedom Convoy. Go f— yourself!” yelled a big man with a beard, repeatedly flashing the finger as Singh got in an SUV. Singh said it ranked among the worst experiences of his political career. And he has not had an easy ride.
Singh received some high-profile support, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative leadership candidate Scott Aitchison. Local police are investigating. It was maybe 50 people. It was ugly.
It just shouldn’t be a shock. You might hear the same fury at almost any anti-vaccine, anti-mask, anti-hospital protests, up to and including the convoy occupation of Ottawa. It is an inchoate anger of the age.
And it can be anywhere. In Peterborough this group apparently coalesced around a couple whose restaurant, Peterburgers, was shut down for flouting masking and vaccine passport mandates; the owners were part of the convoy which occupied Ottawa for weeks, fuelled by anti-vaccine activists, conspiracy theories and extremists who demanded the overthrow of the government.
An organizer of the copycat Rolling Thunder protests was apparently at the Singh event, too. Small protests are routine in Peterborough: part anger addiction, part social media swarm, part social club. It doesn’t take many people to destabilize a situation.
“This has been happening for many months,” says Peterborough Mayor Diane Therrien. “The (traffic-impeding) slow rolls (through town), the convoys, the taking over of Confederation Park and honking and all that kind of stuff.”
She is echoed by two other city councillors: second deputy mayor Kemi Akapo and Kim Zimmer, and all three have been vocal about the protests. They talk about how their inboxes fill up with conspiracy theories, or how Akapo was briefly bullied off Twitter after telling Maxime Bernier and Randy Hillier not to come to a rally in 2021; about how the protestors accost or verbally abuse people, block streets without protest permits, make lots of noise, and spread misinformation through social media.
“At the start of my mayoral term (eight years ago) before the pandemic, there were always people that didn’t like me or didn’t agree with me,” says Therrien. “But the level of vitriolic sort of hatred that we see has really been exacerbated. People have all this anger, and they don’t really know where to direct it.”
Anti-public health protestors have targeted the house of local medical officer of health Dr. Thomas Piggott. Akapo, the first Black councillor in town history, says she doesn’t think she will be physically assaulted, but she doesn’t walk alone at night anymore, and doesn’t sit inside with her back to the door. Zimmer talks about wondering if she needs security when she attends an event: She wants nothing more than to talk about how Peterborough is now one of 11 bird friendly cities in North America, or about the 300-tree giveaway at the ecology park Saturday.
“You have to start thinking about that: if I am outspoken against what’s happening … is that going to attract protesters?” says Zimmer. “Is (an event) going to have to have security because I’m there? I mean, I’m a pretty minor player in the scheme of things. We’ve had a federal leader targeted. Hopefully that’s not what it comes to, but you start thinking that way. It skews your perspective about how you interact in the community, which is something I’ve never had to worry about before.”
“It started before the pandemic,” says Akapo, “but a lot of people have been spending time at their computers … I think it’s just a microcosm of what’s happening across Canada.”
Exactly: Peterborough is a bellwether riding; what’s happening there is happening elsewhere, F— Trudeau flags included. None of the three Peterborough representatives are running for office again for various reasons, including the strains of the pandemic and the escalating vitriol. Therrien says she hears the same from municipal officials across the province, or from people who don’t want to run for office, especially if they have young families.
“It drives good people out of politics,” Therrien says.
All three women noted that Peterborough’s male councillors have not condemned the protestors at all; there is also a grim displeasure that local Conservative MP Michelle Ferreri failed to condemn the convoy. (Her statement on Singh included the line, “The reality is many Canadians are deeply upset and hurt by the NDP-Liberal coalition and feel passionately about the current political climate — but name calling is not a solution.”) The current Conservative interim leader and leadership frontrunner both supported the convoy, too.
“When you have politicians that are condoning that behavior at the time … they’ve already been given the go-ahead,” says Therrien. “So you’re not gonna be able to like rein these people back in.”
And so we get pockets of escalating rage. It can be Singh in Peterborough; it can be Trudeau pelted with gravel in London, Ont. It can be someone with a gun and a truck crashing into Rideau Hall, looking for the PM. Right-wing splinter parties have popped up in Ontario echoing the People’s Party of Canada: the New Blue Party, the Ontario Party. An Ontario Party candidate’s campaign truck was parked outside when Singh walked out.
So people can and should denounce what happened to Jagmeet Singh, and the perpetrators can say they’ll be more respectful next time, and the politicians supporting them can tsk-tsk. Sure.
But it will happen again, and maybe worse. Don’t be surprised when it does.
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