OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood silent for more than 20 seconds at his Ottawa press briefing Tuesday after he was asked to comment on Donald Trump’s threat to deploy the military against anti-Black racism protesters.
When he finally answered, Trudeau was careful not to reference the U.S. president by name. Instead, he focused on racial injustice in Canada.
The question came one day after the National Guard used tear gas on peaceful demonstrators in Washington, D.C. to clear a path for a Trump photo-op. Demonstrations and acts of violence have erupted across the U.S. since last week’s police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in Minneapolis. Floyd died after a white police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck for eight minutes.
CBC News reporter Tom Parry noted Trudeau’s past reluctance to weigh in on Trump’s words and actions. “If you don’t want to comment, what message do you think you’re sending?” Parry asked.
After the lengthy delay that played out like a technical glitch on TV, Trudeau said Canadians are watching what is happening in the U.S. with “horror and consternation.”
“It is a time to pull people together, but it is a time to listen. It is a time to learn what injustices continue, despite progress, over years and decades,” he said.
“But it is a time for us as Canadians to recognize that we too have our challenges, that Black Canadians and racialized Canadians face discrimination as a lived reality every single day.”
Echoing sentiments he’s already expressed publicly, Trudeau said there is systemic discrimination in this country because people of colour are treated differently than other Canadians.
“It is something that many of us don’t see but it is something that is a lived reality for racialized Canadians,” he said. “We need to see that, not just as a government and take action, but we need to see that as Canadians.”
Pressed again on why he is so averse to comment directly on Trump’s actions, Trudeau said his job is to stand up for Canadians, their values and interests.
“That is what I have done from the very beginning, that is what I will continue to do,” he said. “Canadians need a government that will be there for them, that will support them, and that will move us forward in the right direction. And I will do that.”
Another reporter pressed Trudeau on a 2017 UN report on anti-Black racism in Canada that recommended the federal government apologize for the country’s history of slavery and offer reparations.
The prime minister would not say if his government will issue a formal apology. Instead, Trudeau said his government has worked “very, very closely” with the Black community to respond to its priorities. The NDP is currently pushing the government to collect more race-based data to help shape policy decisions, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
“What we are seeing in the United States and what Canadians are speaking about here in Canada underlines the fact that we need to act,” he said.
Party leaders make statements saying racism is real in Canada
Trudeau and other federal leaders later spoke in the House of Commons Tuesday about Canada’s own issues with racial discrimination. The prime minister said horrific reports of police violence against Black men and women in the U.S. are not “elsewhere problems.”
“As a country, we are not concerned bystanders simply watching what is happening next door. We are part of it,” he said.
Trudeau also addressed his own past incidents of blackface, calling them “serious” mistakes.
“We need to be allies in the fight against discrimination. We need to listen, we need to learn, and we need to work hard to fix, to figure out how we can be part of the solution on fixing things.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said racism isn’t a problem exclusive to the U.S. He said he hopes the fallout from Floyd’s death has sparked conversations about racism.
Canada has had its own “dark episodes” in the past, Scheer said, noting a “troubling spike” in the number of racist anti-Asian incidents during the pandemic.
“In a peaceful and free country like Canada, there’s absolutely no room for intolerance, racism and extremism of any kind.” The words were nearly identical to a campaign-style speech he delivered last year.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism is real, and members of those communities have been killed at the hands of police in Canada. He referenced the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto last week as a latest example. The woman’s family has questioned the role of officers in her death after she fell from a 24th-floor balcony with police on the scene.
“How many more people need to die before there is action? How many more speeches need to be made, how many more protests need to happen before something is done.”
Singh said people are done with “pretty speeches from people in power that could do something about it right now if they wanted to.” He added that he doesn’t have the answers and that “we’re going to have to come up with those solutions together.”
Bloc leader, Quebec premier deny systemic racism exists
Earlier, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet told reporters in Ottawa he doesn’t believe the Canadian government, the Quebec government, or cities in his province are racist in “any way shape or form.”
Looking back at history, some can argue that the Canadian government has been racist, he said. The Bloc leader urged citizens and elected officials to feel “sorrow and sincere friendship toward the Black people of all North America.”
Blanchet urged people to express sadness “peacefully” over Floyd’s death rather than “feeding the fire,” referencing protests against police brutality organized around the world.
His comments pick up on Quebec Premier François Legault’s comments Monday, claiming systemic racism doesn’t exist in his province.
Legault said he found the nature of Floyd’s death “shocking,” and expressed solidarity with protesters who took to the streets of Montreal over the week.
But he downplayed the severity of racism in Quebec, despite his government’s push to pass a discriminatory law last year to ban visible religious symbols that disproportionately affects women from minority groups.
Although there are racist incidents in the province, Legault said, the level of discrimination at home isn’t comparable to what happens in the U.S.
“I think there is some discrimination in Quebec, but there’s no systemic discrimination. There’s no system in Quebec of discrimination,” he said. “And it’s a very, very small minority of the people that are doing some discrimination.”