Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paused for a long 21 seconds when asked Tuesday to comment on U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to use military force against protesters in the United States demonstrating against the death of a black man in police custody.
After several false starts, Trudeau avoided criticizing the president directly while taking aim at social “injustices.”
“We all watch in horror and consternation at what is going on in the United States,” he said. “It is a time to pull people together … it is a time to listen. It is a time to learn, when injustices continue despite progress over years and decades.”
At no point did Trudeau mention the U.S. president by name or criticize his handling of the situation.
On Monday, Trump directed police and national guardsmen under his control to forcibly remove protesters from Lafayette Square, a park directly across from the north lawn of the White House, so that he could later walk to neighbouring St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo opportunity.
During a Monday press conference in the Rose Garden — with riots and looting taking place in major U.S. cities and with the sound of tear gas guns firing in the background — Trump promised to be a “law and order president.”
Trump warned that if governors don’t deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers to “dominate the streets,” the military would step in to “quickly solve the problem for them.”
When asked again why he did not want to directly address Trump’s actions, Trudeau said his job as prime minister is to focus on Canadians.
“Canadians need a government that will be there for them, that will support them and that will move us forward in the right direction, and I will do that,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau has long been reluctant to wade into domestic U.S. politics or condemn Trump’s more controversial remarks.
Trump has been known to lash out at his critics and Trudeau has tried to maintain a diplomatic relationship with the leader of Canada’s largest trading partner.
Trudeau did not mention Trump by name when he condemned white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia that turned violent when neo-Nazis clashed with other activists (Trump said there were “some very fine people on both sides”) but rather reminded Canadians that racism is alive in our own country.
When Trump told four minority Democratic congresswomen to go back to where they came from, Trudeau pivoted again to the Canadian context.
“That is not how we do things in Canada. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” Trudeau said.
When Trump reportedly called Haiti and some African nations “shithole” countries, Trudeau said he wouldn’t weigh in on what the president “may or may not have said” about predominantly black countries.
“I think you all know that I’m not going to opine on what the president may or may not have said. I will simply repeat that Canada is a country of openness, of respect,” Trudeau said.
‘I’m not perfect’
The prime minister was also pressed Tuesday to respond to a September 2017 UN report that recommended major structural changes to Canadian life to improve the lives of people of African descent. Some of the report’s recommendations have been gathering dust since it was first presented to the government.
The report recommended an apology from Trudeau for Canada’s history of slavery and called on the federal government to consider providing reparations to black people for enslavement and historical injustices. It said black people should be recognized as a “distinct group.”
“We need to take a hard look at our institutions to ensure that those barriers that may be invisible to many of us, but are far too present for black Canadians and racialized Canadians, are addressed,” he said of the UN report.
Speaking later in the House of Commons as party leaders paid tribute to Floyd, Trudeau again expressed solidarity with minorities calling for an end to systemic racism in Canada.
He acknowledged his history of wearing blackface — “I’m not perfect,” he said — while saying such mistakes are “not an excuse to not do the right thing. It’s not an excuse to not step up.”
“I know that for so many people listening right now, the last thing you want to hear is another speech on racism from a white politician,” he said.
“I’m not here today to describe a reality I do not know, or speak to a pain I have not felt. I’m here because I want you to know our government is listening.”
Trudeau pointed to actions his government has already taken — including a $45-million plan called “Building a Foundation for Change: Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy” and the creation of an anti-racism secretariat — but vowed to do more in the wake of Floyd’s death in Minnesota.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said black and Indigenous people are “tired of pretty words and speeches from people in power” and urged Trudeau to take immediate action to reform the criminal justice system to make it fairer for people of colour.
Singh said Canada must confront its own history of racist violence.
He spoke of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a black trans woman he said died in “suspicious circumstances” after an interaction with Toronto police last week, and Stewart Kevin Andrews, a young Indigenous man who was killed by police in Winnipeg in April.
“How many more people need to die before there’s action?” Singh said.
In his own speech on the Floyd death, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer cited the contributions of black Canadians to national life — from athletes like Harry Jerome to businesspeople like cattle rancher John Ware and civil rights activists like Viola Desmond — and said anti-black racism should never be tolerated.
“Racism is real, it is painful and it is wrong,” Scheer said. “No one should ever feel unsafe because of the colour of their skin, especially around police officers.”