OTTAWA — Thousands of protesters gathered outside Canada’s Parliament on Saturday in a raucous demonstration, which began as a movement by truckers to challenge a government vaccination mandate, but has spread to include a wide range of grievances anti-government.
A loosely organized “freedom convoy” set off last weekend from the western province of British Columbia. The convoy shrank and sank in size on its way to Ottawa, the capital, where police were preparing for what they said would be an unpredictable weekend of protests.
The convoy was organized in response to a regulation, implemented this month, that requires truckers returning from the United States to present proof of vaccination. But in recent days it has expanded to include Canadians critical of pandemic restrictions in general and of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Some people, who may not have been involved in the convoy itself, have called for an attack on Parliament similar to the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Such calls for violence have denounced by the organizers of the convoy, as well as by many demonstrators in the streets.
Despite fears the protest could turn violent, on Saturday night police said there were no significant incidents.
Private cars and vans far outnumbered the heavy trucks that made up the convoy in its early days. Throughout Saturday, vehicles lined the streets in and around Parliament, most displaying flags or placards decrying public health measures related to the pandemic.
Thousands of protesters on foot, many carrying handmade signs on hockey sticks, wandered between parked vehicles and slow-moving traffic or gathered on the lawn outside Parliament. Some of them carried Canadian flags upside down; at least one flag had swastikas drawn on it. The air was filled with diesel fumes and car horns.
Few people appeared to be following Ontario rules requiring social distancing and masks at crowded outdoor gatherings.
A large contingent of police and parliamentary security guards watched over it all. Ottawa’s police force was supplemented by officers from towns hundreds of kilometers away, as well as the Ontario Provincial Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The protests were loud and free, but generally peaceful and poorly organized.
A group affiliated with the convoy intended to try, for a second time, to convince the Governor General, the official (if ceremonial) head of state of Canada as a representative of Queen Elizabeth, and the appointed members of the Senate to strike down all pandemic laws and rules imposed by all levels of government — well beyond their constitutional powers.
Others have called for protests outside the homes of politicians. Because the House of Commons is currently not in session – it resumes on Monday – many lawmakers were out of town.
Several Canadian news outlets reported that Mr. Trudeau and his family had been moved from their official residence by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as a precaution. Police declined to comment on the reports, citing security concerns.
Organizers raised approximately C$8 million, or $6.3 million, on GoFundMe as the convoy traveled across the country.
Police towed vehicles that were parked at the National War Memorial site. Jim Watson, the mayor of Ottawa, said these protesters had disrespected the country’s war dead.
The “Freedom Convoy” was organized by Tamara Lich, secretary of the relatively new Maverick Party, a centre-right group that began promoting the separation of the three prairie provinces of western Canada from the rest of the country.
While Ms. Lich’s convoy campaign was separate from her work with the Maverick party, Jay Hill, the party’s acting leader, said the convoy tapped into what he believed to be widespread sentiment in Canada against pandemic restrictions.
“This thing has really taken on a life of its own,” said Hill, a former Conservative MP from Alberta. “The vast majority of people who either came on board to take part in the truck convoy or those who made donations to support it financially have just reached a point of frustration and exasperation with these lockdowns and the continued restrictions that they want someone to talk and say “enough” to the federal government.
Corn opinion polls have consistently shown strong support in Canada for public health measures aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, which have primarily been imposed by provincial governments, many led by Conservatives. Over 77% of Canadians are fully immunized.
Several people in the crowd on Saturday said they believed vaccines were potentially harmful and ineffective, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.
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Mr Trudeau called the protesters a “small marginal minority”. He has repeatedly said that 90% of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, an assessment shared by the Canadian Trucking Alliance, a trade group that opposes the protest.
Saturday, this group issued a statement stating that the protesters did not represent the views of most truckers.
“We ask the Canadian public to be aware that many of the people you see and hear in media reports have no connection to the trucking industry,” he said.
Vaccination mandates for ship crews, railroads and airline workers have been in effect since October 30. On January 15, they have been extended to truckers returning from the United States. The requirement does not apply to the vast majority of the country’s more than 300,000 truckers who use domestic routes.
Protesters and several Tory MPs blamed the new mandate for a shortage of goods.
“You’ve probably noticed empty shelves in your grocery store,” Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said in an online video posted Thursday. “It’s because Justin Trudeau put in place a mandate that all truckers entering this country, whether Canadian or American, must be fully vaccinated.”
But David Soberman, a professor who studies logistics at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said empty shelves in Canadian stores were mainly linked to other factors, such as a global shortage of shipping containers. , disruptions in the production of certain products and a lack of employees to restock the shelves because of Covid infections.
“There is definitely an amplification and a fear campaign from people who are not happy with this rule,” he said. “But I don’t really think it has a major impact on supermarkets in Canada.”
Mr. Trudeau has made it clear that the protest will not lead to his government canceling the mandate for the vaccine. In any case, it would have no practical effect: the United States made mandatory vaccines for Canadian truckers crossing its border as of January 22.
Omar Alghabra, the Minister of Transport, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Friday that there had been no significant drop in cross-border road traffic since the introduction of the vaccination mandate for either country.
The protesters’ next steps were unclear. As the sun set on a freezing day, the crowd had thinned noticeably. Some of those who stayed, still a significant number, have vowed to stay until the cross-border vaccination mandate is removed.
“At some point, the organizers — if you can call them that — have to say, ‘Okay, it’s time to move on and allow the people of Ottawa to regain some sense of normality.'” , said Mr. Watson, the mayor, told CityNews Ottawaa diffuser.