TORONTO – The head of Toronto’s police service took a public knee on Friday in solidarity with marching anti-racism demonstrators protesting police killings of Black people, with similar demonstrations planned in other Canadian cities.
As officers generally kept a low profile, several hundred people walked peacefully to city hall 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.”
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. He died on the sidewalk.
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.”
Chief Mark Saunders and other uniformed officers met a group of protesters, then the chief removed his hat and took a solidarity 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.”
Several businesses on downtown Yonge Street and area boarded up their windows in anticipation of Thursday’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, adding she was happy with the turnout.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin 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.
Demonstrators also planned to march from Parliament Hill through Ottawa’s streets in an event 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.
Organizers asked police to stay away and said they had not invited Mayor Jim Watson, who said he would attend. The group also said it opposed all live-streaming and video or photos of the demonstration to protect the identity and safety of those attending.
For their part, Ottawa police said public safety was a shared responsibility.
“You have a right to be heard,” the police service said on Thursday. “We will support that right by ensuring your safety.”
Participants must recognize the COVID-19 pandemic is not over and police were working with organizers and Ottawa public health officials to make personal protective equipment available to demonstrators, the force added.
-With files from Jim Bronskill in Ottawa