Trudeau takes a knee for George Floyd

Andy Blatchford and Sue Allan

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waded into a crowd filled with thousands of anti-racism demonstrators Friday on Parliament Hill and took a knee at the center of the peaceful rally assembled to protest George Floyd’s death.

Trudeau, flanked by security guards and several Liberal lawmakers, clapped and at moments cheered with the protesters as they listened to speeches in the shadow of Parliament’s Peace Tower.

The prime minister spent nearly an hour at the rally although he did not address the group. But he took a knee as the crowd marked 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence in Floyd’s memory — the amount of time a police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck as he shouted that he couldn’t breathe.

Trudeau has come under pressure from political opponents in recent days to call out President Donald Trump’s emphasis on "law and order" rhetoric in response to the unrest across the United States sparked by Floyd’s death.

When asked about Trump’s threats to call in the military to respond to U.S. protesters, Trudeau said earlier this week that Canada was watching in “horror and consternation.” But despite reporters’ questions, he’s stopped short of criticizing Trump, whom he already has a strained relationship with at times.

Trudeau has instead shifted the focus of his replies to racism in Canada. After all, he was forced to confront his own actions not long ago, when images of Trudeau wearing brownface 20 years ago surfaced during last year's election campaign. Those images were ultimately followed by the release of more photos and videos of the younger Trudeau in brownface and blackface.

But as he arrived on Parliament Hill for Friday's demonstration the focus was on events in the U.S., and some people in the crowd briefly chanted at him: “Stand up to Trump!” He did not react.

The prime minister, wearing a grey face mask, was mostly quiet as he listened to the speakers who denounced racism and made calls for equality.

“There is no middle ground: You are either a racist or an anti-racist,” said one speaker, a statement to which Trudeau applauded. He also nodded as the crowd cheered “Black lives matter.”

One person in the crowd handed the prime minister a black t-shirt with the words: “Black Lives Matter.”

Trudeau accepted the gift, thanked the man and carefully folded the shirt without putting it on. He made sure to hold the shirt in a way so that people could read the words. After taking a knee, he walked back to his nearby office.

Earlier in the day Trudeau insisted his government was a partner with all Canadians marching against racism and discrimination.

“Canadians right across the country are joining together and standing up to speak out clearly about the systemic discrimination that has existed for far too long in our country,” he said. “We have thousands of people stepping forward to highlight the challenges and to show that they want to be allies. I salute the work they’re doing.”

The prime minister began his Friday morning Covid-19 briefing by acknowledging “disturbing reports” involving the Royal Canadian Mounted Police force in recent days, including one case from Iqaluit, Nunavut, where a 22-year-old man was hit by an RCMP truck before being placed in custody with other inmates where he was beaten.

On Thursday, Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old woman from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation was shot by RCMP in Edmundston, New Brunswick, during a welfare check.

“We need to ensure that each of these individual cases is investigated properly, but we also need a larger reflection on changing the systems that do not do right by too many Indigenous people and racialized Canadians,” Trudeau said.

He said the country still has systemic racism and discrimination that makes Indigenous and "racialized" Canadians vulnerable.

“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. And that is what we are working on,” he said.

When asked for specifics, Trudeau said he would be speaking with the RCMP Commissioner and his Cabinet this afternoon. “There have been many reports, many recommendations … that have laid out concrete steps that can be taken. We will moving on those.”

He said that while the federal government has authority over the RCMP, “we need to work with provinces and indeed municipalities to cover all police forces and justice systems across this country.”