By the time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived, streams of people clutching signs had made their way on to Parliament Hill and through surrounding streets Friday to protest black lives lost to police.
The Ottawa demonstration was one of multiple events in Canada following days of rallies against racism and police brutality in numerous American cities.
Lori Seale-Irving brought her two teenage sons to the Ottawa march and was pleased to see many young people supporting diversity and inclusion.
“That comes down to what we, especially Canadians, represent,” she said. “We’re trying to treat everyone fairly and equally. I think there’s hope for the younger generation.”
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 came to Parliament Hill with security guards, wearing a black cloth mask.
He clapped and nodded in response to 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.
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 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 was 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.
Kaylei Welsford carried a sign saying, “I can’t breathe.”
“I just feel like nobody should have to fear for their life because of the colour of their skin,” she said. “We’re all the exact same on the inside.”
Organizers had asked police to stay away and said they had not invited Mayor Jim Watson, who had indicated he would attend. Police were present throughout the downtown and mostly watched from a distance.
In Toronto, officers also generally kept a low profile as 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 surfaced recently.
“We’re fed up. We need change and we do not trust police,” said 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 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.
Hundreds also gathered at city hall in Barrie, Ont., to call for justice for black people.
In Vancouver, thousands rallied at the Olympic cauldron downtown for a peaceful protest aimed at addressing racism in Canada’s school system.
“We want people to understand what’s going on here,” said Jacob Callender-Prasad, the protest’s lead organizer.
“It’s not just a myth. Canada does have large racial inequality.”
Callender-Prasad said he believes some protests have turned violent in the United States because citizens have reached a breaking point. He hopes the protests in Canada will help stop that feeling.
Trinitee Okoye, 15, shared her experiences as a black girl in the American and Canadian school systems.
“There’s a lot of racism in Vancouver. No one really knew about black culture and what not to say and how to act,” she said. “But in the United States, they were doing it intentionally.”
There were similar rallies in Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg.
Earlier Friday, Trudeau called the videos and reports about confrontations with police across Canada in recent weeks “disturbing.” They include an encounter between an Indigenous man and the RCMP in Nunavut.
Trudeau said the 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,” he 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.
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.”
— With files from Nick Wells in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2020.
Jim Bronskill, Colin Perkel and Liam Casey, The Canadian Press