Justin Trudeau took a knee in solidarity with anti-racism demonstrators on Friday, but remained silent at the event as his government faces questions over how it plans to address police violence.
Wearing a black mask and surrounded by bodyguards, the Canadian prime minister made a surprise appearance at the No justice = No peace rally in Ottawa.
After he knelt with protesters, a number of attendees thanked him for the gesture. But, for others, Trudeau’s actions rang hollow.
“I’m not interested in bullshit publicity stunts, especially now,” said Andray Domise, a Toronto-based writer. “How the hell can you meal against police brutality? When everything in your record indicates you have no problem with it. It boggles the mind to watch him turn to the camera – almost like he was confirming that he was being filmed – and kneeling.”
The prime minister has previously received criticism for attending demonstrations. In September he joined a climate rally in Montreal, even though his government has been widely criticised by activists for bailing out a contentious pipeline expansion project.
Earlier in the day, Trudeau acknowledged the country had problems within its policing systems, following a number of violent incidents – including the killing of Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman shot dead by police early on Thursday morning.
“Far too many Canadians feel fear and anxiety at the sight of law enforcement officers,” Trudeau told reporters. “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.”
Reporters asked Trudeau to name specific policy changes his government would implement, and if he believed police officers in Canada were racist, but he declined to answer either question directly.
Earlier in the day, Indigenous Services minister Marc Miller condemned Moore’s killing. “I’m pissed. I’m outraged. There needs to be a full accounting of what has gone on,” he said. This is a pattern that keeps repeating itself.”
The march in Ottawa, attended by thousands, followed days of protest over police brutality and racism across the US, prompted by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
At a march in Toronto on Friday, the city’s police chief, Mark Saunders, also took a knee with other officers near police headquarters.
The city’s police service has come under fire in recent days, after a woman fell to her death following a police response to a mental health emergency. In light of the incident, which police are prohibited from speaking about, Saunders has pledged to expedite the rollout of body cameras on officers.
The incident closely mirrored an event in the city of London, Ontario last month, when the mother of 27-year-old Caleb Tubila Njoko called police for help after her son displayed erratic behaviour. Police arrived at the apartment and her son fell from the balcony. He died three days later.