The start of the truckers’ protest on Parliament Hill wasn’t Canada’s Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, as some feared. It also wasn’t all that focused on truckers – and certainly not on the cross-border vaccination mandates that started the convoy rolling.
Yet by the time the crowds had mustered in Saturday’s minus-20 weather, the protest had already shifted Canadian politics.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe sent a letter promising his government will stop requiring vaccination proofs to enter places like restaurants. Conservative MPs, notably potential leadership contender Pierre Poilievre, had already promised they’d greet protesting truckers in person, pushing waffling party leader Erin O’Toole to say he’d meet some of the protesters – which he did, Friday, at a truck stop 90 kilometres away, expressing his opposition to vaccine requirements that could see truckers lose their job.
But the protests on the Hill on Saturday did not hone in on that. The protest signs were not about the specific grievance truckers initially raised – the lifting of exemptions by both the Canadian and U.S. governments that require truckers to be vaccinated to cross the border. There wasn’t a lot of talk about supply chains, either.
This was a protest against COVID-19 public health measures across the board – against vaccine mandates, yes, but for many, also against any vaccine requirements to enter restaurants or shops, rules about wearing masks, restrictions on gatherings, or anything else.
That’s a very different cause for politicians to embrace now. And it’s not clear where it is going.
There were lots of semis on Ottawa streets, but the drivers were mostly in the cabs of their trucks. Most of the folks on Parliament Hill had come in pickups and cars or on foot. For the most part, on the bitterly cold Saturday afternoon, they came smiling and hooting. There were a lot of signs that aimed four-letter words at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but that’s protest stuff.
That’s not to say it was all cheer and clear purpose. There was a cacophony of views from protesters and people who latched on, from conspiracy theorists to street preachers. One had a sign claiming Mr. Trudeau is Fidel Castro’s son. One displayed a swastika flag. A few wore sweatshirts with the logo of the far-right Quebec anti-immigrant group La Meute. A fair number clearly didn’t believe COVID-19 is very serious.
There were more incidents as time went on. Ottawa’s downtown shopping mall was closed because a group of protesters refused to wear masks. People urinated at the National War Memorial. A homeless shelter said staff were harassed into giving meals to protesters Saturday night.
But one didn’t hear much talk about the bizarre “memorandum of understanding” drawn up by one group of organizers, Canada Unity, that is supposed to lead to Governor-General Mary Simon and unelected senators taking over government. By and large, people were saying they want an end to all public-health restrictions. No vaccine mandates, no vaccine passports, no masks, nothing.
A lot of Canadians want to go back to the way things were two years ago. But polls suggest a lot of them blame the unvaccinated for the restrictions. They have shown a widespread taste for getting tougher on the unvaccinated.
Mr. Trudeau has made a political cause out of that. But it is mostly provincial governments that have imposed vaccine passes and restrictions – most recently fearing the collapse of health-care systems at a time when the minority of unvaccinated people are far more likely to end up in hospital and in intensive-care beds.
Quebec Premier François Legault has required proof of vaccination to enter megastores and threatened to impose a tax on the unvaccinated. There was a large contingent of Quebeckers at the protests, yet Mr. Legault, a centre-right premier facing an election in October, is still increasing pressure on the unvaccinated. Presumably, he thinks that is what most people want.
Some federal Conservatives think that mood may be changing, and that COVID-19 fatigue is feeding resentment of vaccine mandates and restrictions.
Some Tory MPs could be seen on the Hill on Saturday giving an “attaboy” to the protesters. Edmonton MP Michael Cooper issued a statement disavowing the swastika protesters displayed nearby while he was interviewed. Mr. Poilievre tweeted a picture of himself handing doughnuts to a trucker, and an anti-restriction slogan popular with the protesters, “freedom over fear.”
But now that it is clear the protests are not just about cross-border rules for truckers, the question is whether Conservatives, and premiers other than Mr. Moe, will still embrace them.
Part of that answer might depend on how the protests end. Mr. Trudeau isn’t going to do an about-face. Parliament is to resume sitting Monday. The protesters’ numbers were dwindling Sunday, but it’s not clear how the protest will evolve.
From Day One, it wasn’t mostly about the truckers.
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