The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota has made international headlines and has shone a light—yet again—on the issues of inequality and racism in the United States but also here in Canada.
Floyd—a black man—died after being pinned to the ground by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white. Chauvin was captured on video pressing his knee into Floyd's neck for several minutes, as Floyd pleaded that he couldn't breathe. Eventually, Floyd stops speaking and moving.
Police said they were responding to an alleged forgery at a corner store.
Chauvin and three other responding officers were fired this week, but there are demands Chauvin be charged, including from the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey.
Floyd's death has since sparked violent protests in Minneapolis.
UPDATE: Shortly after this article was published, Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder.
While the issue has gripped international attention, Canada, and indeed Ottawa, are not immune from racism and inequality.
Warren Clarke, a sociology PhD candidate at Carleton University and founder of Babershop Talks told CTV Morning Live racism and violence against black people is just as much of an issue in Canada as it is in the United States.
"This is an issue that has been happening for many years; this is an issue that continues to happen. It's not about just having these conversations. We need to start putting practices in place where we can dissolve these situations that continue to happen," he said.
Clarke said it's not easy being black in Ottawa.
"It is very tough. It's mentally tough, it's socially tough," he said. "In the last two days, I've been speaking to a lot of community members, particularly a lot of black men, who are scared, frustrated, uncertain of their future just because of this continuous play-out of the disregard of black bodies within this white, settler, Canadian nation-state, very similar to the United States."
When asked "could it happen here" Clarke says it already is.
"Lest we forget Abdirahman Abdi, here in Ottawa in 2016, or Lester Donaldson in 1988. These are situations that continuously happen. The question is not if they can happen here, it's why do they continue to happen here?"
Abdiraman Abdi died in Ottawa in 2016 following what witnesses have described as a violent arrest at the hands of two Ottawa police officers. One of the officers, Const. Daniel Montsion, is on trial for manslaughter, aggravated assault, and assault with a weapon. The other officer was not charged and testified in Montsion's defense.
The trial was adjourned in late October 2019 and was set to resume in April 2020, but court business has been suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lester Donaldson was shot by Toronto police in 1988. He had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was shot after allegedly producing a knife when an officer responded to a call. The officer involved was charged with manslaughter but was later acquitted. An inquest six years after Donaldson's death recommended improving de-escalation tactics and resources for police officers responding to calls involving mentally ill people.
More recently, the family of a black woman, Regis Korchinski-Paquet of Toronto, is questioning police involvement in her death. The 29-year-old fell from a highrise balcony Wednesday after police were called to assist with her severe mental distress, according to the family's lawyer. Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, which oversees any incident involving an Ontario police officer and a member of the public that results in death, serious injury or an allegation of sexual assault, is now investigating the case.
In April, Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly announced an investigation into a racist meme circulating within the force that depicted several officers of colour. Sloly also announced the creation of a new directorate focused on equity, diversity and inclusion on respect, ethics and values.
Clarke, who is from Toronto, said he hoped Ottawa would be a better place, but he said he was quickly proven wrong.
"When I moved to Ottawa, I was thinking this was maybe a better place considering this is the nation's capital. I was quickly reminded in my first month here, being pulled over three times, that no, I'm a black man and I should continue to learn that I am a black man and I am the minority," he said. "That's not only is on myself but that's been a common theme for many black men who live in Ottawa."
Past the point of discussion
Clarke said the time for more conversations and discussions about racism in Canada has passed and he wants to see more action taken to combat it.
"We've had a lot of discussions. We've had the community engagement with MPs and we're still here. What needs to happen is there needs to be implementations of stronger policies and laws that combat anti-black racism," he said. "We're at a point right now where people are frustrated, particularly many members in the black community who are frustrated with having these conversations that result in the same thing: the death of black men and the death of black women, as well. We can't just be having these conversations haphazardly and having no action behind them."
“Honestly it’s frightening,” said Wiliston Mason. “You never know how far the incident will go, you never know how far it will escalate.”
Mason was blocked by campus security at the University of Ottawa from entering a building where he lived and worked in 2019. A report later found race played a factor.
He says what’s happening in Minneapolis hits home.
“I definitely do see parallels, we haven’t seen the rioting or the protests on that large scale however we do see instances of racial profiling,” said Mason.
Many in the black community are demanding stronger policies and laws that combat anti-black racism.
“There is a huge problem or concern with police brutality on black bodies,” said Clarke.
“We need to start making policies where it’s very clear on language, on paper, that there is no race over the other and once we do that then we can start changing the narrative, then we can start changing the social policies which speak to inclusivity.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also weighed in on the escalating protests south of the border, calling on Canadians to stand together against discrimination.
“What is needed now more than ever is a complete revamp of law enforcement institutions, they were never built to help and support and protect people of colour,” said Dahabo Ahmed Omer with Justice for Abdirahman.
In an emotional plea, Etalk’s Tyrone Edwards vowed to no longer remain silent about racism and implored others to call it out.
“The best thing anyone can do is stop acting like to didn’t see it,” Edwards said. “Stop acting like you didn’t notice because that just reaffirms that our lives don’t matter.”
Racism is real: PM
Responding to the images of protests in the U.S., the prime minister told reporters outside Rideau Cottage Friday that anti-black racism is real and it's here in Canada.
"We know people are facing systemic discrimination, unconscious bias, and anti-black racism every single day. We need, as a society, to stand together, to stand up against discrimination, be there for each other in respect, but also understand that we have work to do as well in Canada," he said. "I call on all Canadians, whether it's anti-black racism or anti-Asian racism or racism and discrimination of any type, to stand together in solidarity, to be there for each other, and to know just how deeply people are being affected by what we see on the news these past few days."
With files from The Associated Press.