MONTREAL -- One of the organizers of Sunday’s anti-racism vigil in NDG says that seeing a sea of kneeling locals meant more to him than many of the attendees probably knew.

“I can tell you… growing up here in the NDG area, my family, my brother in particular, went through racism just walking through [nearby] neighbourhoods,” Dwight Walton told CTV News on Sunday, a few hours after the kneel-in at Loyola Park.

Walton is a former member of Canada’s national basketball team and now an assistant coach. He’s also a born-and-raised Montrealer who grew up near Loyola Park, where Sunday’s event happened.

Walton’s brother, who passed away in 2001, used to work at the Jewish General Hospital and realized it could be harrowing just to try to get there, he said.

“Just walking through neighbourhoods, trying to get to the 161 bus on Van Horne to go to work, he experienced [racism],” Walton said.

“A police officer stopped him one night, because he used to walk through the neighbourhood of Hampstead, and families in the neighbourhood I guess thought he was casing the area to rob houses,” Walton recalled.

“But all he was simply doing was walking through the neighbourhood to get to the 161 to take the bus to work.”

Walton himself was also stopped several times by police because an old car had “mildly tinted windows,” within the legal limit for tinting, he said, but officers repeated stopped him to accuse him of having too much tinting.

Walton only decided on Wednesday to organize the weekend event, along with Montreal Community Cares director Denburk Reid. They called it “Kneels for Change” and knew that it would create an alternative type of event for people who may not wish to go to the bigger march downtown.

Just four days later, hundreds of people showed up “at my own park,” he said, both “familiar faces and strangers.” He estimated the number at 500 to 1,000 people.

“It was a very emotional afternoon, to say the least,” he said.

“It only came together on Wednesday, and to have [that number] just shows that people are willing to at least try to make a change… To have all of those people come out and show solidarity in a peaceful manner this afternoon, it was tremendous.”

Walton and Reid’s event differed from the downtown march in a few ways. The crux of the event was simply kneeling in the park for a few minutes, with each person asked to reflect quietly on what they could do to make the world more equitable.

But the organizers also invited police to participate, while at the downtown event, Montreal’s police chief was uninvited on Saturday from attending, with organizers saying it wasn’t respectful for the chief to attend a protest against police violence.

Walton said he and Reid wanted to take a different tack and give police somewhere to express their desire for change, if they wanted.

“Listen, we wanted to include everybody in this solidarity photo today,” said Walton.

“We do understand that police departments all around the world, specifically in North America, are under the gun. They’re under the microscope, and you could say that they’re our enemy right now,” he said.

“However, we wanted to include them to let them know, ‘Listen, we know that you’re out here to protect and serve. We know that there’s some racism involved in your police department, but we do know that you protect and serve and we wanted you to be a part of this fight for equality in our community.’”

The protest was meant to welcome everybody, with no reservations, he said.

“We didn’t want to exclude anybody. We wanted to be inclusive. We wanted all the politicians to be there, the coaches, the educators, the teachers, the community organizers. The police as well—we wanted them to be there because we wanted to show them that they are included in this fight against racism,” Walton said.

Police are “a major part of our community,” a very visible part, and he said that their presence at anti-racism protests would be a signal that they’re “on the same page going forward.”

However, Walton says he has less patience with Quebec Premier François Legault, who said last week he believed Quebec had no systemic racism and that only a very small minority of people in the province were racist.

“I’ll have to respectfully disagree with our premier,” said Walton.

“I do understand that his way of growing up may have been markedly different than ours, than all Black people here in the province of Quebec,” he said. 

But that means Legault should have tried harder to learn about other people’s realities before making a blanket statement, he said.

“I think it would be best for our premier to, I think, have conversations with us in the Black community,” and with people from other minority communities, “to really unerstand and grasp and not to make statements like that before really knowing what the situation is in the province.”