Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knelt on the ground as part of a crowd gathered on Parliament Hill Friday afternoon, in solidarity with anti-racism demonstrators protesting police killings of black people.
The demonstration is one of multiple events in Canada, following days of demonstrations against racism and police brutality in numerous American cities.
Trudeau had declined to say earlier Friday whether he would attend, but arrived on Parliament Hill in mid-afternoon with security guards, wearing a black cloth mask.
Some in the crowd shouted at him to stand up to U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Ottawa event was organized by No Peace Until Justice, formed by a young black woman. The goal was to bring together black activists and organizations and allies to stand in solidarity against police brutality and societal racism.
Trudeau clapped and nodded in response to many of the things said by speakers at the front of the crowd, including one who said there is no middle ground on the issue.
“You are either a racist or an anti-racist,” the speaker said.
Trudeau gave a similar response when the people starting chanting: “Black lives matter.”
He did not speak and left as others began leaving Parliament Hill to start marching through the capital.
The demonstrations followed protests across the U.S. after a video showed a white Minneapolis officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, George Floyd, for nearly nine minutes, even as he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe.
Floyd fell still and died, the officer’s knee still on him.
At one point, the crowd in Ottawa went silent for the time Floyd was held down. Trudeau put one knee to the ground, his head bowed, as others also took a knee around him.
The Ottawa march that followed was not supposed to go to the U.S. Embassy but wound up there anyway. The mission’s Twitter account promised the building’s lights would be dimmed for nine nights in Floyd’s honour, acknowledging that the gesture is small and not enough.
Demonstrators peacefully chanted, clapped and clutched signs that said, “Demilitarize the police” and “Say their names,” – a slogan urging people to remember and recognize the victims of police brutality by name.
Organizers asked police to stay away and said they had not invited Mayor Jim Watson, who had said he would attend. The group also said it opposed all live-streaming and video or photos to protect the identity and safety of those attending.
In Toronto, as officers generally kept a low profile, more than 1,000 people walked peacefully in blazing sunshine chanting, “I can’t breathe,” “No justice, no peace,” or “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
Others held signs reading “Racism is a pandemic, too” or “Silence is violence.”
They later massed in a sudden downpour, kneeling and raising clenched right fists, with most then dispersing.
Reports and video of problematic police encounters with minorities in Canada have also surfaced recently.
“We’re fed up. We need change and we do not trust police,” said one protester, John Coleman. “Black lives really matter.”
Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders and other uniformed officers met a group of protesters, then Saunders removed his hat, and took a knee at a downtown intersection near police headquarters.
“We see you and we are listening,” Saunders, who is black, tweeted after the meeting. “We have to all stay in this together to make change.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford praised Saunders’ action, calling it “true leadership.”
Several businesses on downtown Yonge Street and area boarded up their windows in anticipation of Friday’s protest and others planned for the city over the weekend. The landmark Eaton Centre closed until Monday as a precaution.
“Even though Toronto boarded up everything – they must have thought that we were going to be on some crazy hooligan stuff that they only show on the news – but we actually came out here for positivity to get our message out”‘ said one participant, Blake Gabriel.
Another protester, Junae Watson, said she wanted to show black people are equal to other races.
“People have this conception that Canada doesn’t have a lot of racism, which isn’t true,” Watson said.
Earlier Friday, Trudeau called videos and reports from across the country in recent weeks “disturbing.” Those include an encounter between an Indigenous man and the RCMP in Nunavut.
While each case needed to be investigated, Trudeau said the larger issue of systemic racism in policing was long-standing and needed addressing.
“Far too many Canadians feel fear and anxiety at the sight of law enforcement officers,” Trudeau said. “Over the past weeks, we’ve seen a large number of Canadians suddenly awaken to the fact that the discrimination that is a lived reality for far too many of our fellow citizens is something that needs to end.”
Change, he said, needed to start immediately but would not happen overnight.
Hundreds also gathered at city hall in Barrie, Ont., to call for justice for black people.
In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump said everyone deserves equal treatment at the hands of law enforcement. “Hopefully George (Floyd) is looking down right now and saying, ‘This is a great thing that’s happening for our country.’ It’s a great day for him, it’s a great day for everybody.”
This report by Colin Perkel and Liam Casey, The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2020. With files from Jim Bronskill.