Protests that started in Ottawa last week have spread to major cities across Canada this weekend, as demonstrators call for an end to pandemic restrictions and say they’re ready to continue blocking streets for weeks or even months until their demands are met.
On Saturday, many of the demonstrations were met with direct opposition. Counter-protesters in Ottawa called for an end to protest-related disruptions to daily life in the city’s core, including road closures and frequent blasts from truck horns. In Toronto, counter-protesters said they wanted to protect the well-being of health care workers.
The demonstration in Ottawa, which Ontario Premier Doug Ford has called an “occupation,” began as a trucker rally against vaccine mandates for cross-border delivery drivers, but has expanded into a more general protest against COVID-19 prevention measures.
On Saturday, the Ottawa contingent appeared well organized. Trucks clogged Wellington and other streets in Centretown. A wooden shack constructed earlier in the week at nearby Confederation Park offered free coffee and sandwiches. There were ample supplies of firewood, firepits and portable generators at the site. Journalists have documented a sophisticated command centre at a parking lot in the city’s east end. There was also a stage, where musicians performed and participants made speeches.
Roughly 200 counter-protesters gathered in the plaza in front of city hall to voice their objection to the occupation. They carried signs that read: “We will not be held hostage,” and “No hate in our city,” and they chanted “Go home” and “Whose city? My city!”
Mackenzie Demers, 25, said he had organized the counter-protest on Reddit, after the City of Ottawa refused his application for a permit to hold an assembly.
“Every single Canadian has the right to protest,” Mr. Demers said, but the pro-trucker protesters “do not have the right to terrorize our citizens, harass our people, shoot off fireworks and honk their horns at five in the morning.”
Protesters periodically gathered on the other side of the street, where they were separated from the counter-protesters by about three dozen Ottawa police officers.
Liz Mok, who runs a downtown Ottawa ice cream shop, tried to keep her store open during the chaos by teaming up with other local business owners, who had pledged to look out for one another in case of confrontations. She had her employees walk home in pairs, to prevent them from being targeted for harassment.
But she said that didn’t stop protesters from assaulting one of her employees and hurling racial slurs at another. She said the incident, which she plans to report to police, forced her to make the difficult decision to close shop on Friday and remain closed on the weekend.
In Toronto, police officers, police SUVs and municipal buses blocked all vehicular traffic into Queen’s Park Circle and nearby hospitals. Protesters were still allowed to enter the grounds of the provincial legislature by foot. They clustered in a park to the building’s north, around a monument of King Edward VII on horseback.
There, several people addressing the sizable crowd spoke of attending the Ottawa rally and being energized by it. Many speakers urged a peaceful protest, and credited truckers in Ottawa with bringing outrage against pandemic measures to the public’s attention.
Outside nearby medical buildings on University Avenue, groups of counter-protesters formed human walls, which they said would prevent anti-restriction protesters from harassing medical workers.
“I wanted to try to engage a bit with people who are waving Canadian flags,” said Judith Muster, a University of Toronto student who was among the counter-protesters. “I wanted to remind them ... ‘Watch out whose cause you are joining.’”
Some protesters had congregated with trucks and tractors at the intersection of Avenue Road and Bloor Street.
“We are committed to reopening that intersection and ensuring that nobody is staying overnight,” Toronto Police Staff Superintendent Lauren Pogue said on Saturday evening.
She added that an ambulance was delayed trying to bring a person to a hospital and that the intersection needs to be clear for two firehalls in the area.
In Vancouver, hundreds of vehicles drove into the downtown core, with drivers and passengers honking horns and waving signs and flags.
Supporters lined several blocks around the Robson and Burrard intersection , shouting their support and waving Canadian flags.
One supporter, who gave his name as John McNeely and said he was from nearby Richmond, waved a large Canadian flag from the side of the street and said he wanted to show his support for “truckers’ rights to travel freely.”
“This is about freedom for all of us,” he said.
A few blocks away in front of St. Paul’s hospital, a small group of people, wearing masks and standing quietly, held signs that supported vaccines and healthcare workers.
A woman who said she worked at the hospital as a nurse said she found the protest “super frustrating” and that she hoped it would not sway people from getting a Covid-19 vaccine or booster shot.
“No one is more sick of this than healthcare workers,” said the woman, who declined to give her name as she is not authorized to speak to media.
In Quebec City, dozens of trucks and thousands of protesters gathered at the provincial legislature, where “free hugs” were offered by some demonstrators who said they were unvaccinated.
Police in Edmonton estimated that a protest around the Alberta legislature included as many as 2,000 vehicles. And RCMP said Saturday that they continue to perform traffic enforcement at a protest in Coutts, Alta., where demonstrators are partially blockading a critical border crossing, leaving one traffic lane open in each direction.
And in Winnipeg a man is in custody after allegedly driving his vehicle into a group of protesters outside Manitoba’s provincial legislature yesterday. Winnipeg Police Constable Rob Carver said in a news conference that the man hit four people, and that it doesn’t appear the accused was participating in the protest, or that he was motivated by it. The man is facing charges, including assault with a weapon and dangerous operation of a conveyance.
Another man was arrested around 2 p.m. on Saturday by Toronto police for allegedly igniting a smoke bomb at the Queen’s Park demonstration. He faces charges of public mischief, assault with a weapon and administering a noxious substance.
Police in Ottawa have vowed to take a hard-line approach against protesters after facing criticism over what many downtown residents and observers have called a failure to enforce law and order.
“This is a siege, it is something that is different in our democracy than I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Chief Peter Sloly at a police board meeting Saturday afternoon.
“It’s not a demonstration, it’s not an occupation … and we don’t have a police act that can adequately or effectively address this circumstance.”
Chief Sloly added that 250 additional RCMP officers have been sworn in to help with the Ottawa protests, in addition to an extra 150 officers he announced on Friday.
Online fundraising company GoFundMe blocked the release of nearly $10-million in donations to the Ottawa protesters on Friday, citing the group’s “promotion of violence and harassment.”
On Saturday, the company changed its policy on how refunds would be issued to the protest’s donors, after its original procedure for reimbursing them drew the ire of American tech mogul Elon Musk and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Twitter.
The money will now be automatically refunded. The company had previously said it would require donors to apply for refunds by Feb. 19, at which point any money that had not been refunded would have been redirected to charities.
Protesters have begun raising money on other platforms. They had gathered more than $300,000 on the Christian fundraising service GiveSendGo by Saturday afternoon.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson released a statement urging other companies to follow GoFundMe’s lead. “I am imploring similar crowdfunding platforms to take the same position and not enable the group in its fundraising efforts,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ottawa lawyer Paul Champ was in court Saturday seeking an injunction against the use of blaring truck horns by protesters, but the matter was adjourned until Monday afternoon.
Mr. Champ has filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the truck convoy on behalf of named plaintiff Zexi Li. The suit seeks $9.8-million in damages in addition to the injunction.
Mr. Champ said constant exposure to noise from truck horns, which he claimed has registered between 105 and 125 decibels for 10 minutes straight at times, can lead to permanent hearing loss and tinnitus. He added that babies, children and people with disabilities or conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder are suffering enormous health impacts from the noise.
“This legal action is not trying to stop these individuals from protesting,” Mr. Champ said, adding that downtown Ottawa residents are used to large protests that shut down streets.
“But this protest and these tactics have really crossed the line. They’re inflicting harm on downtown residents, causing serious psychological and physical harm to these residents, and that part of it simply has to stop.”
With reports from John Ibbitson, Colin Freeze, Kelly Cryderman and Wendy Stueck