An upcoming Ottawa march in solidarity with civil unrest across the United States is spurring criticism from other anti-racism organizers and caution from public health officials.
A group called the No Peace until Justice Coalition (NPJC) is organizing a peaceful march starting at the U.S. Embassy and moving to Parliament Hill for Friday, June 5 at 3 p.m.
The event aims to show solidarity with protesters in the United States where the recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn. has inspired demonstrations in numerous cities.
Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died in police custody after a white officer was filmed kneeling on his neck. On Wednesday, the charges against Derek Chauvin — the former officer filmed kneeling on Floyd — were upgraded to second-degree murder and three other former officers involved in the incident were also arrested.
But comments on the Ottawa-based organizers’ Facebook and Instagram posts have been filled with questions about the way the event has been planned and the involvement of local police and the mayor.
A post earlier in the week from another anti-Black racism group in Ottawa, justice4regis, lays out some of these concerns.
The justice4regis group recently organized an Ottawa vigil in honour of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Indigenous-Black woman who died last week after police were called to a domestic disturbance at her Toronto apartment, prompting the province’s independent police watchdog to launch a probe into her death.
Among the concerns the group has with Friday’s event is the lack of a legal fund set up to cover fees that could arise should any demonstrators be arrested.
The post also claims the primary organizer is inexperienced, refuses the help of other Black organizers and has contacted police about the event.
A later post from the same group notes that “a movement addressing on-going police brutality shouldn’t involve them.”
The Ottawa Police Service refused to comment Wednesday on any specific knowledge or involvement in the march and only highlighted anticipated traffic disruptions on Sussex Drive and Wellington Street during the demonstration.
Requests to both the NPJC and justice4regis groups for comment were not returned Wednesday.
In a post on the NPJC Instagram page, the organizer, identified as a Black Muslim woman named Sameha, admits she has never planned a demonstration before.
She said she was unable to sleep amid the numerous examples of violence against visible minorities in recent days and picked a time and place for a peaceful demonstration to “provide a place for healing and support.”
A post Tuesday on the NPJC Facebook group also claims organizers are coordinating with other Black community leaders.
The justice4regis group’s latest post on Instagram encourages activists to be “vigilant and critical” about the demonstrations they participate in.
Among the critiques of the upcoming event is the involvement of Mayor Jim Watson, who said Tuesday he plans to march alongside demonstrators this week in a show of solidarity against racism in Ottawa and around the world.
Black activists who spoke to Global News on Tuesday dismissed Watson’s move as “clout-chasing,” and noted that if systemic racism is indeed present in Ottawa as he stated, the mayor must acknowledge his own role in creating that system.
In response to his critics, Watson said during a media availability Wednesday afternoon that politicians are “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” when it comes to participating in events like this.
“If you don’t go to the march, you don’t care; if you do go to the march, it’s for a photo-op,” he said.
“I think it’s important we express our outrage at what happened south of the border but also recognize that we have racism that’s alive and well, unfortunately, in our city and our country.”
Watson added he will have no formal role at the event.
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Ottawa Public Health advice for participants
Dr. Brent Moloughney, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health, also offered demonstrators advice Wednesday on how best to demonstrate amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Despite warnings from public health officials for months about the dangers of large gatherings while the virus remains active in the community, Moloughney did not come down against the idea of marching.
“Racism is a public health issue and Ottawa is not immune,” he said during Wednesday’s media call.
“We understand that people want to gather to march and express themselves.”
For those that do plan to join Friday’s march, Moloughney suggested all participants wear masks, respect physical distancing when possible and bring hand sanitizer to the demonstration.
Anyone involved should also wash their hands and any signs or other items brought to the march as soon as they can.
He also suggested participants avoid yelling if possible, which can spread droplets carrying the virus, and instead use signage or drumming whenever possible.
The NJPC group also posted its own coronavirus recommendations for attendees, including asking anyone who feels sick or is immunocompromised to stay home from the event.
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