MONTREAL — Quebec authorities spoke out Monday about the need to fight racism, while condemning the looting and vandalism that followed a Montreal demonstration demanding justice for a black man who died following a police intervention in Minnesota.
Eleven people were arrested after tensions flared between pockets of protesters and police on Sunday night following a demonstration to denounce racism and police impunity in both Canada and the United States.
It was one of many protests held across North America following the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis last week after pleading for air while a white police officer pressed a knee on his neck.
Speaking on Monday, Premier Francois Legault called on Quebecers to fight racism — even as he denied the existence of systemic discrimination in his province.
"All humans are equal, are all the same, regardless of the colour of their skin," said Legault, who described Floyd's death as "shocking and revolting."
But in contrast to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who bluntly stated Monday that "anti-black racism is real" and "systemic discrimination is real," Legault continued to deny the existence of systemic racism in his province.
"I think that there is some discrimination in Quebec, but there's no systemic discrimination, no system in Quebec of discrimination," he said, adding "it's a very small minority of the people who are doing some discrimination."
On Sunday afternoon, thousands of people marched through downtown Montreal, waving signs and chanting "Black lives matter" as they denounced the treatment of racialized people in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada.
While the formal rally took place without incident, the situation later degenerated when some protesters smashed windows and lit fires and were met with pepper spray and tear gas from officers.
Montreal police said Monday that nine of the arrests were for breaking and entering, one was for armed assault and one was for mischief.
They said more arrests are possible as they investigate some 70 reports of damage to stores and other acts of mischief.
Police declared the gathering illegal about three hours in, after they say projectiles were thrown at officers.
In a statement on their official Twitter account Monday, the police noted the "order and respect" shown by thousands of protesters expressing indignation over Floyd's death.
"The event evolved in a peaceful manner until these hooligans took advantage of the situation to commit violent acts," they said.
Legault also denounced the few people who smashed windows and looted stores after Sunday's protest, calling their actions unacceptable. "I don't think it helps the cause to do that," he said.
Stephanie Germain, one of the organizers of the protest, described the vandalism as "unfortunate" but said the focus should remain on police brutality.
"Unfortunately, when you organize a protest ... there's always going to be a group of people doing that," she said.
Nevertheless, she said the demonstration was historic because it helped to start a conversation on racism.
"What we want, we want the people, the parents, to talk about racism to their child," she said in a phone interview. "We want the conversation during dinner at the table. We want people to be uncomfortable. This is a good step."
One of the businesses targeted by looters was Steve's Music Store on Ste-Catherine Street, where looters smashed windows and stole guitars and other valuable equipment, according to an employee reached by phone.
"We don't even know (the extent of the damage). It just looks like a hurricane came through here," said Lenny Lanteigne, who added that some protesters used guitars to smash other guitars.
Lanteigne said it was regrettable to see what he described as "group of hooligans" hijacking an important and necessary cause, adding that he was relieved nobody was hurt.
Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante also denounced the looters, whose actions she said were in contrast with the larger peaceful protest.
"Demonstrating to denounce racism and demanding that things change is noble and necessary," she wrote on Twitter.
"I can only denounce the actions of the looters who ransacked the shops and who had nothing to do with this peaceful demonstration."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2020
— with files from Julian McKenzie and Giuseppe Valiante
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press