Thousands attend two Montreal anti-racism protests - a march and a kneeling vigil
MONTREAL -- For the second Sunday in a row, thousands of protesters snaked through downtown Montreal today, marching against racism and police violence.
This weekend’s protest, however, had some differences from last week’s. For one thing, it appeared to be bigger, and it was attended by some prominent Quebec politicians and other high-profile people.
It was also quieter than last weekend’s, which ended in tear-gassing, then looting and arrests. Today’s event began at about 10 a.m. and continued relatively quietly for eight hours.
Organizers declared their involvement officially over in mid-afternoon. A smaller group continued marching, and police unleashed tear gas for the first time around 6 p.m. before dispersing the last group of roughly 150 people by 6:45.
This week’s protest was also just one of several happening simultaneously—a very different kind of event was also held in NDG, alongside others across Quebec. A parallel gathering took place at the Place de la Gare de Sherbrooke and in Quebec City, opposite the National Assembly.
Events were held Saturday in several Canadian cities including Toronto, St. John's and London, Ont.
These rallies, like countless others across the U.S., were sparked by the release of a video on May 25 showing a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a Black man, George Floyd, for nearly nine minutes.
Floyd fell still and died, the officer's knee still on him.
In Montreal, demonstrators gathered by the hundreds at Place Émilie-Gamelin at 10 a.m. before setting off for Dorchester Square.
Quebec Liberal leader Dominique Anglade was at the protest, as was the Federal Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages, Melanie Joly.
At the gathering point, organizers took the floor to underline "the plurality of their views" and, by the same token, their approaches.
One speaker criticized Premier François Legault for advancing a wrong definition of systemic racism.
Legault said this week that that systemic discrimination does not exist in Quebec because racist people in the province are a “small minority.”
“We have this discussion quite often,” he said. “Discrimination exists in Quebec, but there is no systemic discrimination; there is no system of discrimination in Quebec.”
Legault’s statement drew an immediate rebuke from the official opposition, which said systemic racism is not as Legault described it, and it is a problem here.
“Of course it is,” said Quebec Liberal leader Dominique Anglade. “We’ve been saying this for a long time. People have been talking about this since the 1980s.”
One volunteer with the movement said Legault’s comments also inspired her to want to set the record straight.
“People say that it’s only in the States,” said Alyssa Tramoris. “But it’s here too. Even if we don’t see it… Racism is still present here, it’s still systemic even if Mr. Legault says that it’s not.”
Trey Rutherford, left guard for the Alouettes, was also at the march. He said he was “trying get some justice for George Floyd, trying to incite some change. I think the world really needs that right now. That’s why we’re here.”
Some protesters said that being at the demonstration felt like a way of taking the streets back.
“I’m here to support George Floyd and his family,” said Tchuilen Ngatcha Willy, a protester. “I don’t want to be the next one.”
“When I’m walking the street, I’m constantly feeling this kind of fear,” said David Dessalines.
POLICE PRESENCE MUTED DURING THE DAY
For most of the day, the police presence was muted: many officers in riot gear were nearby but they stayed off the demonstration route.
After staying mostly in the background on Sunday, just before 6 p.m., police began to warn protesters to follow all laws and said they were beginning to see unlawful conduct, though they didn't specify what that conduct was.
The final group of protesters were herded by police at an on-ramp to the Ville-Marie Expressway, were tear-gassed, and were then pursued on foot throughout the Old Port before scattering before 7 p.m.
Montreal's police chief Sylvain Caron had an offer to attend the Sunday rally rescinded on Saturday after organizers explained some participants and groups were opposed to his presence.
The force said on its social media page it respected the decision and noted officers would be present to keep tabs on the march.
Police praised the "order and respect" demonstrated by thousands who previously marched to express their indignation over Floyd's death.
But on Ste-Catherine Street in the city's downtown core, many merchants boarded up their windows as a preventative measure.
By the end of the march on Sunday, there appeared to be very little obvious property damage, with only one mailbox that had been knocked over.
Following the peaceful rally one week ago, looters and vandals got into confrontations with police, with thefts and damage including some store windows smashed.
Montreal police have said they considered the vandalism last week a separate matter by people who took advantage of the protest to commit crimes.
On Saturday, they published the photos of people caught on store cameras in the midst of the looting in an effort to make arrests.
A MOMENT OF SILENCE IN NDG
As the protests wound their way downtown, a few kilometres west, a different kind of demonstration was unfolding.
Hundreds gathered in Loyola Park to fight back with silence: they kneeled and prayed about how to fight discrimination close to home.
“I really wanted to do something where we could take a minute to just calm down, be zen for a second, listen to our inner voice, reflect on what’s really happening around us and how we can make a difference,” said Denburk Reid, the director of Montreal Community Cares.
Organizers wanted to offer a calmer, safer alternative to the downtown march. They simply asked them to kneel en masse, think and pray about what they personally can do to create a more equitable world.
The kneel-in was also a tribute to George Floyd. Several protests in U.S. cities have seen big groups kneeling together for eight minutes, to represent the amount of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck before he died.
Chauvin has now been fired and charged with murder.
“It’s a way of showing what he went through,” said Reid.
“We’re not going to kneel for eight minutes because that’s eight minutes the police officer was on his neck,” he said.
“But we’re going to kneel to remember, and we’re going kneel in a silent form of protest... like [NFL player Colin] Kaepernick did when the anthem was going on.”
The NDG vigil drew mostly families, and the parents who attended said they were happy to have a safer way to come together for social justice.
“I think it’s a great organization, a great setting to practice social distancing, and you know, everyone will feel safe and comfortable,” said one attendee. “I feel very comfortable here with my family.”
Another said the residents “just feel very happy that we have the opportunity to take a stand without worrying about safety… it’s something we’ve always wanted to do and we’re happy to do it.”
Though the event happened outside of the downtown core, organizers plan to send pictures of the event to Montreal City Hall to show how many residents showed up.
With files from The Canadian Press.