As protests and rallies continue around the world following the death of George Floyd, a rally in Edmonton drew a very large crowd Friday evening to denounce racism and discrimination.
Shortly after 8 p.m., police told Global News they estimated at least 15,000 people were in attendance.
A number of community groups, including Black Lives Matter YEG, planned a demonstration at the Alberta legislature and the legislature grounds.
At 4:30 p.m., a Black Lives Matter rally got underway in front of the legislature, where a number of people spoke to the crowd that had assembled there.
Olga Loggale, one of the event organizers, said talking about racism can be uncomfortable, but experiencing racism is much more uncomfortable.
She said that while the protest has to do with Floyd’s death, the issue “is so much bigger” and that it is important to “really get down to the root of the problem.”
At 6:30 p.m., the crowd gathered for the Black Lives Matter rally merged with another crowd for a larger rally that was also planned.
As protesters walked together downhill from the legislature building to the grounds where the main demonstration began, people chanted things like “Black lives matter,” “no justice, no peace” and “I can’t breathe” in reference to the death of Floyd.
The crowd was diverse and included people of all ages.
The group organizing the event stressed on Facebook that the protest is peaceful, and outlined a number of safety measures it wants attendees to follow, including the use of masks due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Global News crews at the scene noted the protests were very peaceful and that many of the demonstrators wore masks to try to mitigate the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.
A number of speakers rallied the crowd, including NDP MLA David Shepherd, one of the few Black people to hold a seat in the legislature. He told the crowd that there are serious issues that need to be addressed, such as how people are governed and policing tactics.
“At some point, enough is enough because I don’t believe we can keep going on like this, do you?” he asked the crowd.
“Things need to change, but I’m not going to lie to you, change is going to be tough. It’s going to take work.”
Shepherd said he believes all Albertans need to do a better job.
“I am one man. I hold one seat in one legislature,” he said.
“I recognize that gives me a platform, that gives me privilege and that gives me some power and it gives me an enormous responsibility that I and my colleagues cannot shirk away from. But let me be clear, the real power is not in there,” Shepherd said as he pointed to the legislature. “The real power is out here.
“The real power comes from the voices of all of you.”
Lobi Efughi said she came because People of Colour deserve to have justice.
“I’m going to be Black for the rest of my life,” she said. “I need everybody to know that my life matters too.”
Hazelyn Williams attended the protest and called it “a powerful moment.”
She added that she hopes discussions about racism and discrimination in the community will not stop here.
“Can we keep a dialogue going after this?” Williams said.
Hakiza Franck went to the rally, saying it “means a lot to me as a minority.”
“This means a lot to me coming out and seeing Canadians united as humans first, and also [trying] to address this issue,” he said.
Ian Bramble told Global News he attended the rally because “it’s just time for discrimination to stop.”
Following the protest at the Alberta legislature grounds, thousands of demonstrators marched down Jasper Avenue. The crowd was chanting loudly but peaceful as they took up lanes of traffic and wound down several downtown streets.
The group ended up on 104 Avenue, near Rogers Place, where a group of Edmonton police officers on bicycles were monitoring the demonstrators. The march stopped in place and participants began chanting.
Shortly before 11 p.m., the police officers took a knee, just as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did in a show of solidarity with demonstrators at a rally against anti-Black racism and police brutality in Ottawa on Friday morning.
As of 11 p.m., the crowd continued marching through the city’s core and were planning to head south of the river to Whyte Avenue.
The boisterous crowd received honks of approval from passing vehicles and there did not appear to be any tension between the significant crowd and the large police presence. Police officers and protesters could be seen engaging and shaking hands at times.
Once the protesters arrived on Whyte Avenue, tensions appeared to rise somewhat as some people confronted police officers and hurled obscenities at them. Police were seen taking two people aside but it was not clear if they were being detained. One person was let go and the crowd cheered.
The situation seemed to de-escalate after that.
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson spoke about the planned rally during a media availability on Thursday afternoon. He said he respects Edmontonians’ right to protest, but urged those attending the event, or any similar events, “continue to follow diligently public health precautions and consider, of course, staying home if they are experiencing any COVID-like symptoms.”
“Racism is still a problem and we must continue to combat it here in Edmonton and I am supportive of the work that many Edmontonians and organizations are doing to fight injustices and create a more equitable society,” the mayor said.
“As an honourary witness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this work in our city is close to my heart and Black lives matter everywhere. Including in Edmonton.”
Iveson said over the last week or so he’s done a lot of reading and “a lot of active listening” to what community members here and activists across the continent have been saying.
“My office and I have been talking directly to community members and reaching out to city stakeholders and to civic administration to ensure that we are continuing to do our part to move anti-racism initiatives forward and continue to address systemic racism.”
Issues of police use of force and racial injustice have been thrust into the spotlight after the death of Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis at the end of May.
The out-of-work bouncer was arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store and died after a white officer pressed his knee on the handcuffed Black man’s neck for several minutes.
Floyd’s death has sparked demonstrations across the U.S. and around the globe.
Earlier this week, Edmonton police chief Dale McFee released a video, calling Floyd’s death “unwanted” and “criminal.”
“It’s made us all look at ourselves internally, externally and realize this in particular, this death, is certainly not part of the profession of policing,” McFee said.
While speaking on 630 CHED Thursday afternoon, McFee said he believes it’s important not to make the story about police.
“There’s people that are frustrated and they want their voices to be heard. But at the same time, it needs to be done peacefully, it needs to be done loud,” McFee said.
“It’s not about what we’re seeing to the south where we’re destroying people’s livelihoods and businesses and stuff. That stuff is obviously unacceptable. This is where leadership and loud voices need to be heard, but it’s also where we can actually sit down and design the new plan or the system together.
“Police are only as effective as the community and the community that they work with, that they serve. And if you lose touch of that, you’re going to be fighting a long, losing battle. So it’s important that we go shoulder to shoulder and we we take ownership of things that we need to change. And, you know, when we get community involved in some of the things that they might be best to change. So everybody’s seeing it as a negative. And, you know, I’ve been in the space for a while. I actually see this as potentially a big positive. And there’s a lot of different things that I think we can build out of it.”
The Edmonton Police Service said in a statement that it is working with Alberta Sheriffs and the rally organizers “to support them in upholding their rights and helping them to hold a safe protest within the context of the public health orders.”
“The Alberta Sheriffs recognize that recent events in the U.S. have spawned widespread reaction beyond its borders and prompted many people in this country to demonstrate against racism and inequality,” Alberta Justice and Solicitor General spokesperson Jason van Rassel said in a statement.
“Canadians have a Charter-protected right to demonstrate and the Alberta Sheriffs will work with groups and individuals planning to demonstrate, to uphold this right while at the same time ensuring the safety of everyone at the legislature grounds.
“Peace officers have the ability to use discretion in the execution of their duties. During the pandemic, the Alberta Sheriffs have been mindful of the direction offered by the chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, on helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
–With files from Global News’ Karen Bartko
View photos of the rally below: