Update: Ottawa anti-racism march faces backlash amid shifting plans

Click to play video: 'Ottawa mayor says he anticipates a peaceful protest march on Friday' Ottawa mayor says he anticipates a peaceful protest march on Friday
WATCH: Mayor Jim Watson spoke to reporters Wednesday morning at the first practice of the CPL expansion team Atletico Ottawa. He addressed concerns surrounding physical distancing at an upcoming march protesting police brutality in Ottawa on Friday – Jun 3, 2020

This story was updated with additional statements and a new route.

Amid shifting details about a peaceful march planned in Ottawa on Friday, some Black activist groups are advising community members not to attend, citing safety concerns for participants.

A group called the No Peace until Justice Coalition (NPJC) is organizing a peaceful march on Friday, June 5 at 3 p.m.

The demonstration, originally planned to start at the U.S. Embassy, has been changed to begin at Parliament Hill, with the march now progressing east down Wellington Street to the temporary home of the Senate of Canada at Colonel By Drive before turning back down Elgin Street and ending at Ottawa’s human rights monument.​

A list of speakers for the event was also added to the group’s website.

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According to posts on the NPJC Instagram page, Friday’s demonstration is meant to promote solidarity against police brutality and racism in Canada.

The peaceful march comes amid protests across the United States, where anger has erupted over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in Minneapolis, Minn. after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes.

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But while the NPJC says it wants to bring Black activists, organizations and allies together, a joint statement released Thursday from a number of Black community organizers in Ottawa advises activists to stay home on Friday.

The statement, which is signed by the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition, No Justice, No Peace Ottawa, Full Femme and associated organizers in Ottawa’s Black community, claims NPJC denied or ignored recommendations from the groups to change or postpone the event amid concerns about participants’ safety.

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The groups’ statement criticizes the locations chosen for the event, as the U.S. Embassy and Parliament Hill are both heavily surveilled.

READ MORE: Proposed anti-racism role on Ottawa council doesn’t go far enough, Black activists say

They also take umbrage with a lack of attention to social media posts related to the event, which screenshots show were assailed by hateful comments.

The groups also suggest that a standing protest would have better allowed for physical distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic than a moving march.

The statement notes that the language used by organizers is important and that they should explicitly condemn racism and violence against Black lives rather than naming only visible minorities and persons of colour, though a Wednesday evening post on the NPJC Instagram page explicitly denounces anti-Black violence.

“Furthermore, major changes and inconsistent updates to the (NPJC) event have fostered a sense of mistrust and concerns around safety. We strongly urge the Ottawa community not to attend the No Peace Until Justice march,” said the group’s statement.

Despite the recommendations to stay home, members of the groups said they will be on scene to “mitigate any possible harm done to the Black community as a result of this gathering.”

The criticism follows a similar post earlier in the week from a group that previously organized a vigil for Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black-Indigenous woman in Toronto whose death last week has prompted an investigation from Ontario’s independent police watchdog.

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The group, which previously used the justice4regis handle on social media but has switched to placeholder accounts so as to no longer tie the collective to the family, had concerns about the lack of a legal fund set up to cover fees that could arise should any demonstrators be arrested and the relative inexperience of the march’s primary organizer.

In response to Global News’ requests for comment this week, the NJPC pointed to statements made on its social media channels.

Answering concerns that organizers had invited police and Mayor Jim Watson to attend the march, a post on the NPJC Instagram Wednesday evening denied both accusations.

The same post invites collaboration with other Black-led organizations in Ottawa and names the Equal Chance Foundation, the African Canadian Association of Ottawa (ACAO) and Curly Hair Designs as groups NPJC is working with in planning the event.

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The ACAO released a statement Thursday evening addressing community concerns and sought to reassure prospective participants that it is working with NPJC organizers “to maintain a peaceful and safe protest.”

NPJC says it opposes all streaming, videos and pictures of the event to protect the safety of attendees. The group has also listed names and contact information for pro bono legal representation in the city.

In an earlier post on the NPJC Instagram page, the organizer, identified as a Black Muslim woman named Sameha, admits she has never planned a demonstration before.

She said she was unable to sleep amid the numerous examples of violence against visible minorities in recent days and picked a time and place for a peaceful demonstration to “provide a place for healing and support.”

Not all anti-racism groups in Ottawa are prepared to abandon the demonstration despite the community’s concerns.

The group Justice for Abdirahman released a statement Thursday evening announcing its intention to attend Friday’s march.

The group formed in reaction to one of Ottawa’s highest-profile examples of police violence: the 2016 death of Abdirahman Abdi. OPS Const. Daniel Montsion was charged with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon as part of an ongoing criminal trial concerning Abdi’s death.

Justice for Abdirahman said Thursday it had no connection to the NPJC march but would attend as a show of support for the Black community in Ottawa.

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“While we may not agree with (the NPJC) organizer’s full platform or demands, we feel strongly that there is a need for the Black community along (with) the wider public to mark this moment in history,” the group said in a statement.

“We are living in a pivotal moment where millions across the globe are embarking on a conscious journey and realization that anti-Black racism is real in Canada, police brutality happens in Canada and systemic racism exists in Canada.”

Mayor, police expected despite criticisms

The OPS confirmed to Global News on Thursday there will be a police presence at the event, but a spokesperson for the force could not say whether or not Chief Peter Sloly would be in attendance. No members of the Ottawa police are expected to speak at the event.

OPS spokesperson Frank D’Aoust said a police liaison has been “making attempts to communicate and collaborate with organizers” to ensure the “smoothest, safest march.” He said OPS does not expect violence at the event.

But many anti-racism groups consider any police presence at demonstrations to be a threat against Black lives.

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As the group that organized the vigil for Korchinski-Paquet put it in a recent post, “a movement addressing on-going police brutality shouldn’t involve them.”

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D’Aoust acknowledged community pushback against police presence, but said it is an OPS “responsibility” to be there to ensure the safety of participants, the public and nearby businesses.

He said police will likely be equipped with personal protective equipment and gas masks, but that is because of the force’s safety measures during the coronavirus pandemic. The police are not planning to involve themselves in the protest to enforce physical distancing measures such as the provincial regulation limiting gatherings to five people.

Among the critiques of the upcoming event is the involvement of Mayor Jim Watson, who said Tuesday he plans to march alongside demonstrators this week in a show of solidarity against racism in Ottawa and around the world.

READ MORE: Ontario health leaders call on province to declare anti-Black racism public health crisis

The NPJC post on Wednesday evening clarifies event organizers were not the members of the community who invited Watson to the demonstration, though Thursday’s statement from other Black activists criticized the group for tweets welcoming the mayor to the march.

Members of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition who spoke to Global News on Tuesday dismissed Watson’s move as “clout-chasing,” and noted that if systemic racism is indeed present in Ottawa as he stated, the mayor must acknowledge his own role in creating that system.

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In response to his critics, Watson said during a media availability Wednesday afternoon that politicians are “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” when it comes to participating in events like this.

“If you don’t go to the march, you don’t care; if you do go to the march, it’s for a photo-op,” he said.

“I think it’s important we express our outrage at what happened south of the border but also recognize that we have racism that’s alive and well, unfortunately, in our city and our country.”

Watson added he will have no formal role at the event.

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Ottawa Public Health advice for participants

Dr. Brent Moloughney, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health, also offered demonstrators advice Wednesday on how best to demonstrate amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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Despite warnings from public health officials for months about the dangers of large gatherings while the virus remains active in the community, Moloughney did not come down against the idea of marching.

“Racism is a public health issue and Ottawa is not immune,” he said during Wednesday’s media call.

“We understand that people want to gather to march and express themselves.”

READ MORE: No yelling, wear a mask — How George Floyd protests can be safe amid COVID-19

For those that do plan to join Friday’s march, Moloughney suggested all participants wear masks, respect physical distancing when possible and bring hand sanitizer to the demonstration.

Anyone involved should also wash their hands and any signs or other items brought to the march as soon as they can.

He also suggested participants avoid yelling if possible, which can spread droplets carrying the virus, and instead use signage or drumming whenever possible.

The NPJC group also posted its own coronavirus recommendations for attendees, including asking anyone who feels sick or is immunocompromised to stay home from the event.

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