Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says all Canadians have a role to play in confronting systemic racism as solidarity protests spread around the world following the death of George Floyd, a Black American man who pleaded for air as an officer pressed a knee into his neck during an arrest last week.
Speaking during a daily briefing with journalists outside Rideau Cottage, Trudeau said he wants young Black Canadians to know he is listening and understands why many are “anxious and angry” about the continued racism and discrimination they face, including at the hands of police.
“The status quo where people face violence because of the colour of their skin is unacceptable,” he said.
“I think that Canadians recognize that there’s a lot of work that remains to be done to fight against racism, even today … this is not only something that is happening elsewhere.”
Floyd’s death, which was captured on video, has sparked nationwide protests since last week in the United States, most of them peaceful.
Several have turned violent, both from police crackdowns and from rioters vandalizing property.
Police in Montreal are looking at 70 cases of alleged mischief following an anti-racism protest in that city on Sunday night and have so far arrested 11 individuals.
The protest condemned police brutality and called for accountability and systemic change following the death of Floyd and was peaceful until reports from police that projectiles were thrown at officers.
Police responded with pepper spray and tear gas and declared the protest illegal.
Trudeau said peaceful protest is a right that must be protected but that those who try to disrupt peaceful protests with violence must be condemned.
“As for those who took advantage of these peaceful protests … we have to condemn those actions strongly,” he said.
“They do not represent the peaceful protesters who are standing up for very real issues. We need to make sure that peaceful protest can always happen in Canada.”
He was also pressed by one journalist on whether his own history of wearing blackface and brownface gives him the “moral authority” to speak on the matter.
Trudeau said he still regrets those choices and has apologized for them.
“I think we all have a role to play. We’ve all seen things in our lives or done things in our lives that we need to learn from or do significantly better on,” he said.
“I will be part of that. I will continue to be an ally.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer also commented on the protests on Monday, saying he was “heartbroken by the killing of George Floyd” and calling the incident “tragic.”
“We all have a responsibility to fight anti-Black racism in all forms,” he told journalists.
“I think we have to teach the next generation of Canadians that words can hurt, words can lead to violence and we all have to do better to make sure we’re not adding to feelings of insecurity.
“Every Canadian has the right to live without fear from authorities because of the colour of their skin.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the video of Floyd’s death “chilling” and “painful.”
“It was painful. It was stomach-turning,” said Singh. “When you see someone who looks like you being killed like that, it makes you feel like you have no worth, no value. It makes you angry.”
He said he understands that anger and has felt it himself when facing racism, and said Canadians are going to have to work “collectively” to find solutions to end racism.
“We have our own issues here in Canada and we can’t shy away from the anti-black racism that exists.”
The police officers involved in Floyd’s arrest and death have since been fired.
The officer seen kneeling with his knee on Floyd’s neck is now charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.