OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday his decision to attend an anti-black racism rally even amid ongoing restrictions on gatherings related to COVID-19 was a matter of balancing important competing interests.
Trudeau was among thousands of people who flooded the streets of Ottawa Friday as part of protests around the world demanding immediate action to dismantle systemic racism.
He said watching people from his office windows in downtown Ottawa, it was important for him to send a message he was listening to their concerns.
The gatherings flouted ongoing public health restrictions on mass gatherings designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Trudeau said he did his best to observe public health protocols, including wearing a mask and respecting physical distancing where possible.
Trudeau's attendance came as many Canadians have spent months in relative isolation from friends and families, as well as their jobs, Opposition leader Andrew Scheer pointed out Monday.
"I recognize it is a difficult situation where we are tying to balance very important competing interests," Trudeau said.
"But for me it was important that I be there to hear."
Scheer said the prime minister undermined his own government's health messages.
"After all the hardship that people have gone through, to see the prime minister completely ignore those types of health guidelines and recommendations, I can understand why people are confused as to what advice they should be following," Scheer said.
The protest movement was ignited after George Floyd, a black man in Minnesota, died while in police custody last month.
Video footage of a police officer kneeling on his neck for close to nine minutes, even as he said he couldn't breathe, has now circulated online millions of times.
Since then, images and reports of Canadians, including Indigenous Peoples, being subject to violence at the hands of police have also begun circulating.
Federal public health officials said Monday they will be watching carefully for any increases in COVID-19 transmission because of the risk posted by the setting.
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Dr. Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer, said people who attended the gatherings should evaluate what happened to them in the moment in terms of potential exposure to the novel coronavirus.
Tam said factors to consider include whether people were wearing masks properly and had access to hand sanitizer or handwashing facilities.
People should also monitor their symptoms, and if they think it is necessary, go get a test if the option exists in their local health area. Officials also cautioned it can take a while before exposure to the virus results in a positive test, so people should not be lulled into a sense of false security if they get a negative result.
Trudeau said finding a way to strike a balance between COVID-19 mitigation measures and allowing people freedom to express their concerns over current events is challenging.
"We have to get that balance right," he said.
"I continue to exhort Canadians to do just that."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press