Policing and Protest in Canada During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Despite the Covid-19 restrictions that limited public life and prohibited gathering the summer of 2020 was defined by protest as Canadians took to the streets to draw attention to the pressing issues facing their communities. Initially Canadians protested in solidarity with Americans over the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police but several incidences of systematic racism within Canadian government structures caused further outcry, leading even more Canadians to take to the streets to make their voices heard. This put Canadian leaders in an awkward position, their choice was to support the protests that would undoubtedly cause the Covid case numbers to rise or renounce the protests for their threat to public health but risk losing the support their constituents. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose to come out in support of the Black Lives Matter protest, in the picture, despite the risk of increasing Covid-19 transmission. This act sent a strong message to the Canadian people about the Prime Ministers commitment to social issues and his willingness to accept and attempt to tackle the issues of systematic racism in Canada. His attendance was also an example of the stark contrast between his approach to these sorts of issues and that of President Donald Trump who continually renounced and attacked the Black Lives Matter movement. Trudeau did not speak at the rally but felt it was important that he attend, show his support and most importantly to him listen and understand queries of Canadians. The event and the Prime Minister’s appearance did not come without criticism as political opponents were quick to point out the hypocrisy of telling Canadians to avoid any sort of large gathering then promptly attending and supporting a protest with thousands of people.
On May 27th police were called to a Toronto apartment to deal with a young woman suffering a mental health episode, the incident came to a tragic end as Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell 24 stories to her death while several police officers were inside the apartment. Three days later thousands of people took to the streets in Toronto and marched from Christie pits to the Ontario legislature at Queen’s park demanding answers from the Toronto police service. The family of the victim alleged that the officers in the apartment played a role in causing her death and believed that race played a role in how the officers addressed the situation. Along with the death of George Floyd that occurred only a few days prior this incident pushed the discussion of racism within police services to the forefront. A number of factors came together to create a sort of perfect storm of civil activism, the lockdowns that had kept citizens at home for so long ultimately contributed to the strength and size of the protest as thousands of young people saw an opportunity to get out of the house for a noble cause. The protest was attended largely by younger generations, young men and women with firsthand experiences of police injustice believed making their voices heard was worth the risk of increasing COVID-19 transmission. Social media played a major role in organizing the protest, activist used platforms like Instagram and Snapchat to share information about the protest as well as to share their own experiences dealing prejudiced law enforcement. Anger and distrust of the police in Canada was already increasing due to the events in the United States but this tragedy at home pushed Canadians to take a stand and vocalize their issues with law enforcement. There was fear that protest in Toronto would lead to violent riots as they did in the United States, in downtown Toronto business took precautions by covering store fronts in plywood. Boarded up windows, empty sidewalks and the forced lockdown combined to create a very dystopian and unfamiliar atmosphere in the streets of Toronto. Luckily, the protest remained peaceful and Toronto’s downtown did not suffer the same fate as other North American cities.
The case of Joyce Echaquan, a 37 year-old indigenous mother of seven, brought attention to the systematic racism that exist within Canadian government structures outside of law enforcement. Joyce checked into the Centre hospitalier de Lanaudière in Saint-Charles-Borromée, Quebec on September 26th with stomach pains. Two days later she died in hospital care. Prior to her death Joyce livestreamed on Facebook from her hospital bed, in the video she is crying out in pain begging for help from the health care workers who reaspond with insults telling her she is only good for sex and she would be better off dead. The video sparked outrage across the country which materialized through protests like this one demanding action and accountability for her death. During a pandemic access to trustable health care is more important then ever making it truly despicable that indigenous Canadians should have to worry weather or not they are getting the same level of treatment that a white patient would receive. The incident came after a summer of protest that brought issues of systematic racism in Canada to the forefront, especially the unique barriers faced by indigenous Canadians. In June, a video emerged showing Allan Adam chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation being beaten by RCMP officers following a stop for expired license plates. Adam knows the situation would have been different if he were a white man and this was not his first time being harassed by the RCMP. In a quote given to Aljazeera Allan Adam said “When it comes to the treatment of First Nations in Canada, the police are nothing but a bunch of ruthless thugs.” These injustices have been ongoing for generations and despite widespread outrage, protest and awareness indigenous Canadians continue to be treated as second class citizens by agents of the Canadian government. As the world slowed to a crawl the ugliest and most pressing issues facing Canadian society were laid bare and began to receive some of the attention the deserve and with that should come meaningful change.
As protests over police injustice and systematic racism took place across the country there was another movement that was slowing gaining momentum through protests of their own. This movement materialized through anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests, Canadians with a wide range of opinions on the Coronavirus came together to protest the restrictions put in place by the government. Protests were largely made up of conspiracy theorist and science deniers who either don’t believe in science or don’t believe the government should have the right to restrict the freedoms of its citizens. Although smaller in numbers compared to the Black Lives Matter protests these protests were far more persistent, all throughout the summer protestors in Toronto gather at young and Dundas square, queen’s park and eventually the residence of premier Doug Ford. Law enforcement struggled to deal with these protests, the use of force to prevent these gathering was not really an option as police forces had previously been accommodating the Black Lives Matter protests and making mass arrests at an anti-mask protest would only play into their narrative. Tensions came to a head when, Adam Skelly who owns a barbeque restaurant in Etobicoke refused to abide by the Covid-19 restrictions and opened his business for indoor dining. Just like the Black Lives Matter protest social media played a major role as Skelly posted on Instagram that he would be opening, prompting a massive crowd of anti-mask protestors to show up in support. A large number of Toronto police officers were guarding the establishment, occupying a law enforcement role unique to the pandemic. In almost no other circumstance would police be required to prevent a business owner from entering his own property and this incident is an example of how law enforcement was forced to adapt and take on a more authoritarian role, preventing people from doing things that would otherwise cause no issue. Skelly was eventually arrested for violating indoor dining rules and charged with the 13 different offences, after his arrest he became a sort of martyr for the anti-lockdown movement who continued to hold gatherings at his restaurant.
"We want Justice for the mandem" protestors in Ottowa, june 25th
Protestors gather at Bloor and Christie on their way to Queen's park.
Swarovski crystal preparing for the possiblity of looting and riots following protests in Toronto.
A woman holds a sing with the face of Joyce Echaquan at a protest in Montreal.
Anti lockdown protestors demonstrating at Queen's park.