Politics

Scheer says people are 'upset and confused' by Trudeau's decision to attend a protest during the pandemic

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said today that Canadians have a right to be angered by the sight of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attending a protest after months of promoting stay-at-home orders as the best way to beat the pandemic.

Trudeau attended an anti-racism rally on Parliament Hill where there was little physical distancing

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said today that Canadians have a right to be angered by the sight of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attending a protest after months of promoting stay-at-home orders as the best way to beat the pandemic.

Scheer said most Canadians have been respecting public health directives meant to stop the spread of the deadly virus behind COVID-19 — by staying home and avoiding large crowds and by complying with rules that make hospital visitations and funerals all but impossible.

Ontario still has rules against mass gatherings. Much of the province's economy is still in lockdown mode as the virus continues to rip through communities.

Trudeau attended an anti-racism rally on Parliament Hill Friday. About 4,000 people attended the protest; few of them practised physical distancing. Ontario is still recording hundreds of new COVID-19 cases each day.

The prime minister wore a mask at the protest. Some of the other attendees did not. Trudeau shook hands with some of the people in the crowd, something public health officials have warned against.

"I understand why people are upset and confused ... to see the prime minister completely ignore those types of health guidelines or recommendations. I can understand why people are confused as to what advice they should be following," Scheer said.

"The prime minister seems to have completely ignored the health officials."

Trudeau said Monday the country needs to find the "right balance" between allowing protests and respecting the health measures he himself has encouraged people to follow.

"We saw many, many efforts made to wear masks, to continue social distancing," Trudeau said. "It is important that we follow public health advice throughout even as we protest and demonstrate to create a better world."

Watch | Andrew Scheer says PM sent a confusing message with his protest appearance

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says he understands Canadians who are confused by Justin Trudeau's attendance at a protest while governments urge continued social distancing. 0:42

He said people feel a "profound need to demonstrate to show solidarity with racialized and Indigenous Canadians" and those people should wear masks and wash their hands if they take to the streets.

Trudeau said he went to the rally "to show support and listen to what community leaders and Black Canadians are calling for."

"I hear you, and I see you, as you call out systemic discrimination, racism and unconscious bias, as you call for action and as you call for it now," Trudeau told anti-Black racism activists.

Watch | Trudeau says he follows social distancing as much as possible but 'it was important for me to be there' 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said while he follows guidelines on social distancing as much as possible, it was important for him to attend an anti-black racism rally "to listen." 1:31

Trudeau said he will speak with the premiers about deploying body cameras to track the actions of police officers — something advocates say deters inappropriate conduct.

He also said he's open to getting a COVID-19 test after being exposed to such a large crowd.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said it would be "unrealistic" to try to put a stop to protests of this nature. She also conceded there is a risk involved in holding such mass gatherings during a pandemic.

She said the virus is easily spread when people are close together for long periods of time.

"It's a tricky situation but I think, from a public health perspective, we were just trying to be realistic," she said.

"It's a bit like a harm reduction approach. People are going to want to exercise their rights, and this is an extremely important issue for Canadian society, so we have to provide the instructions if people can't do protests virtually."

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said the prime minister's protest appearance was a publicity stunt that could have been avoided.

"That is not the best place for the prime minister, or for me, to be," Blanchet said of the Parliament Hill rally. "We have other occasions, opportunities to speak but it is quite characteristic of this prime minister — working with symbols, symbolic gestures."

Calls are mounting from some quarters to "defund" the police in response to widely publicized acts of police violence against minorities — something Minneapolis city council has already promised to do. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is also threatening to slash funding for his city's police force and direct the money to social programs.

Scheer said he would not support such a move here in Canada.

"I don't believe that defunding the RCMP would make Canadians safer," Scheer said, while voicing support for efforts to root out systemic discrimination in the ranks.

Trudeau said there's a need to "constantly review" budgets and expenditures but did not commit to reducing police funding.

WATCH | Justin Trudeau takes a knee during anti-black racism protest

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an appearance at an anti-racism rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Friday. He was met with chants of "Stand up to Trump!" from the crowd and kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds to remember George Floyd. 1:47

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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