Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he made the right decision to attend a massive anti-racism protest in Ottawa Friday, despite his telling Canadians for weeks to avoid crowds and practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During his daily press conference Monday, Trudeau was asked why he went against his own advice by participating in the demonstration on Parliament Hill, organized by the group No Peace Until Justice. Trudeau wore a mask as he waded into a crowd with his security detail, and at one point took a knee with fellow protesters.
Watch: Visiting anti-racism rally was important despite health concerns, PM says
Trudeau told reporters that he looked out of his office window and saw “thousands upon thousands of young people, Canadians of all ages” standing in solidarity against racism and systemic discrimination.
“I felt it was important for me to be part of that,” he said. “To be able to listen, to be able to hear people, and to be able to understand and to share with people how important it was to act on it.”
The prime minister said he followed social-distancing measures as best he could, and kept “distance where possible,” in the crowd. Public health experts have asked Canadians to stand at least two metres away from each other to help stem the spread of COVID-19, and wear non-medical face coverings to prevent the transmission of respiratory droplets.
“I recognize it is a difficult situation where we are trying to balance very important, competing interests,” he said. “But for me it was important that I be there to hear.”
Peaceful protests against racism and police brutality were held in different Canadian cities last week in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The handcuffed Black man died after a white police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The incident ignited calls on this side of the border for Canadians to examine how racialized Canadians and Indigenous people are treated in the criminal justice system.
Yet those protests violated public health restrictions on large gatherings that have been in place for weeks to slow the spread of the virus.
Trudeau said that despite the health emergency, people feel a “deep need” to stand in solidarity with racialized Canadians and Indigenous people who face “unacceptable levels of systemic discrimination” in Canada.
In his earlier remarks, Trudeau said it is a reality that many Canadians do not feel protected by the police. “In fact, they’re afraid of them,” he said.
The prime minister said he will push premiers to equip all police officers in their jurisdictions with body cameras, and will raise the issue with the RCMP commissioner.
At an earlier press conference in Ottawa, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he understood why Canadians would be “upset and confused” about Trudeau’s actions after months of being told to stay home and follow the advice of experts not to gather in large groups.
The Tory leader noted that Canadians have not been able to visit loved ones, including those on death’s door, or attend funerals because of the restrictions in place amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Scheer: ‘Double-standard message’
“After all the hardship that people have gone through, to see the prime minister completely ignore those types of health guidelines and recommendations… I can understand why people are confused as to what advice they should be following,″ Scheer said.
The Tory leader trumpeted the same message in the House of Commons Monday during a meeting of the special COVID-19 committee, repeatedly asking Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland if the government’s advice against gathering in large numbers has changed.
Freeland told the House she strongly supported Trudeau’s participation in Friday’s event, saying it sent “an essential message to Canadians and the world,” and noting the PM was wearing a mask.
“It was sending a message,” Scheer shot back. “It was sending a double-standard message.”
Watch Scheer’s back and forth with Freeland. (Note: According to the rules of the special committee, MPs should respond to questions with the same amount of time spent on the question):
Freeland noted how Canada’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, provided guidance to protesters last week urging them to wear masks, use hand sanitizer, and avoid shouting which could project more droplets.
Scheer also brought up how an Ottawa pizza restaurant, “mere blocks away” from where the protest took place, received a $880 ticket from bylaw officers Sunday for reportedly allowing customers to sit on its patio while waiting on their orders. The Tory leader asked Freeland if she thought such a fine was fair.
“I would like to be extremely clear about our government’s position and I would like to invite the Official Opposition to be equally clear about its position,” she said. “Now is a time in the world when all of us have to state our views. All of us have to be clear on whether we stand against anti-Black racism or not. To be silent is to be complicit.”
This is not the first time Trudeau has been accused of inconsistency when it comes to following guidelines amid the COVID-19 emergency.
In April, Trudeau defended travelling to the prime minister’s country residence of Harrington Lake in Quebec at a time when authorities in that province were stopping recreational travellers and cottagers from coming into the province. The prime minister said he wanted to spend Easter with his family, who had gone to Harrington Lake after his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, recovered from COVID-19.
Around the same time, Scheer also had to answer for his decision to bring his wife and five children on a small government jet to Ottawa at a time when Canadians were told to physically distance and avoid non-essential travel.
With a file from The Canadian Press