'A hollow gesture': Social justice activist calls on Trudeau to do more than kneel with protesters

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s kneeling in solidarity with anti-racism protesters in Ottawa on Friday was a “hollow gesture,” according to a Toronto lawyer and social justice lecturer who says the leader should be taking action to confront systemic racism in Canada.

Kike Roach, Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University, argued that raising awareness is not enough and Trudeau should be focusing his attention on how to address the underlying causes of discrimination and police violence in the country.

“A lot of people are looking at Prime Minister Trudeau taking a knee now as a hollow gesture. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee, he lost his job. When the prime minister does it, he does it to make it look like he is doing his job, but they’re hollow, empty, symbolic gestures,” she told CTV News Channel on Saturday in reference to the NFL football player who kneeled during the American national anthem to protest racial inequity in the U.S.

Trudeau joined demonstrators on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday afternoon who gathered to protest against police brutality and racism. The protest was one of several similar events that took place across Canada that day in response to the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes last week.

During the protest in Ottawa, Trudeau and the crowd around him kneeled in silence for the length of time the police officer had his knee on Floyd’s neck.

Earlier that day, the prime minister said the issue of systemic racism in policing was long-standing and needed to be addressed.

“Over the past weeks, we've seen a large number of Canadians suddenly awaken to the fact that the discrimination that is a lived reality for far too many of our fellow citizens is something that needs to end,” he said.

Roach said Trudeau could take a leadership role in redirecting police funds into community programs.

“What we need is to stop taking the millions and sometimes billions of taxpayer dollars and putting them into Tasers and more batons and body cameras and stuff like that, because those haven’t been proven to save lives,” she said.

“We need to redirect those funds to the things that have been proven to address both mental health issues and issues around youth and youth involvement in crime.”

She also said there needs to be greater access to health care and a greater variety of support systems for people experiencing mental health problems.

“We need programs and jobs and proper housing and opportunities for youth so that they are not involved in criminal activities,” she said. “We could be investing federal dollars into long-range, long-term, stable funding for community programs that we’ve seen have had a proven track record.”

When asked what she would say to people who don’t think racism is a problem in Canada, Roach replied that she’s been protesting these issues since she was a child.

“Canada has a long and shameful history of police violence against Indigenous and Black people. As a lawyer, I've represented so many families whose loved one died unnecessarily in custody,” she said.

Roach compared the death of Floyd with the 1991 killing of Kenneth Allen, a Black man who was strangled to death with a baton while in police custody in Toronto.

“There are so many other stories like that,” she said. “I’ve sat in and represented families and community organizations on countless inquests into the death of people who died in police custody due to excessive police use of force.”

With files from The Canadian Press 

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