Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to take a knee alongside protesters at Ottawa’s anti-racism march last week is meaningless until policies to improve outcomes for Black Canadians are put into action, say organizers behind the event.
Trudeau emerged on Friday afternoon as a crowd of thousands gathered on Parliament Hill to peacefully protest injustice, police brutality and racism against Black lives.
At one point, Trudeau kneeled among other demonstrators and appeared to nod along as crowds chanted “Black lives matter” and a speaker stressed there was no middle ground in this issue: “You are either a racist or an anti-racist.”
Participants at the Ottawa march took a silent knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the same amount of time a white officer in Minneapolis knelt on the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, before he died on Memorial Day in the United States.
As Floyd’s death sparks outrage and protests across the U.S. and some Canadian cities, other examples of police violence against Black and Indigenous Canadians are leading many are calling for changes to policing and other societal reforms.
Carine Basiala, the owner of the Ottawa-based National Christmas Market and an organizer with the No Peace Until Justice Coalition (NPJC) that orchestrated Friday’s rally, says the march succeeded in uniting Ottawa residents and opening many eyes in the community to the discrimination and violence facing Black Canadians.
She believes Trudeau heard that message loud and clear.
“The point was made that there definitely needs to be change in Canada. I think the prime minister understood that,” she tells Global News.
But the image of Trudeau taking a knee — believed to be the first leader of a G7 nation photographed in solidarity with anti-racism protesters — does not mean anything in and of itself, says another NPJC organizer, Gwen Madiba.
“What’s more important is not to take the knee. For us, what’s important right now is the needs of the community — what’s done after that knee has been taken,” says Madiba.
Addressing the media Monday morning, Trudeau said he attended Friday’s march to show the crowds that he was listening to their concerns.
The prime minister announced Monday he would push the provincial premiers to equip police with body cameras as a measure of accountability in cases of excessive brutality.
But the plight of Black Canadians goes much deeper than policing, says Madiba, who’s also the president of an Ottawa non-profit aimed at providing equal access to resources for women and Black Canadians.
Advocates have been speaking out about the need for initiatives to improve outcomes for Black communities for years, she says.
As an example, she points to the need for new education strategies to retain racialized youth who experience higher rates of dropout and expulsion from school.
“Everything starts with education and what we are teaching our children in schools,” Madiba says.
Both Madiba and Basiala believe demonstrations such as Ottawa’s rally are helping non-racialized Canadians wake up to the barriers and discrimination facing Black, Indigenous and people of colour in the country.
Canada has often clung to a national identity of tolerance and multiculturalism, they say, but diversity is often taken for granted without considering how it manifests for non-white Canadians.
“It’s great for us to celebrate that we have diversity and multiculturalism in our country, but diversity without inclusion is like policy without implementation. And that needs to stop,” Madiba says.