In a reversal of their earlier support for anti-pandemic-restriction protesters, federal Conservatives called on Thursday for trucker blockades to end, as a new border protest in Manitoba joined similar efforts in Alberta and Ontario.
“To all of you who are taking part in the protests, I believe the time has come for you to take down the barricades, stop the disruptive action and come together. The economy that you want to see reopen is hurting,” interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen said in the House of Commons. “Farmers, manufacturers, small businesses and families are suffering. I believe this is not what you want to do.”
Protesters have blocked or significantly reduced traffic at border crossings in Windsor, Ont., Coutts, Alta., and, as of Thursday, Emerson, Man. The demonstrations have interfered with cross-border travel, and with goods shipments to and from the United States. Another protest, in Ottawa, has shut down the city centre for nearly two weeks.
Last week, before her recent election as interim leader, Ms. Bergen met with protesters blockading downtown Ottawa and called them “passionate, patriotic and peaceful.” She later called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to extend an “olive branch” to the demonstrators and meet with them.
Her statement to Parliament on Thursday marked a shift in approach.
Ms. Bergen told the House of Commons that the Conservatives have heard the message protesters brought to Ottawa. She added that the party “will not stop until the mandates have ended.”
She tabled a motion calling on the government to release a plan by the end of February for the lifting of all federal pandemic mandates and restrictions. In Question Period, she also urged Mr. Trudeau to meet with her and other opposition leaders “in good faith” to discuss next steps and a way out of the protest impasse.
Mr. Trudeau expressed skepticism about the Tories’ change in tone. He called Ms. Bergen and her party the protesters’ “biggest champions” and said she had promoted their fundraising efforts. He accused the Tories of spending the past two weeks “endorsing and enabling” the blockades.
Mr. Trudeau said he is focused on ending the blockades, and added, referring to Ms. Bergen’s Thursday comments, “I am hoping the leader of the opposition will maintain her current position and continue to call for an end to these blockades.”
MP Pierre Poilievre, the only declared candidate in the race to replace Erin O’Toole as Conservative leader, released a letter to the Prime Minister Thursday evening. In the letter, which Mr. Poilievre asked his supporters to endorse, he accuses Mr. Trudeau of allowing his anger over the truckers’ protest to cloud his judgment.
The letter urges the Prime Minister to end all federal vaccine mandates, encourages him to convene a meeting with Premiers to chart an end to provincial pandemic mandates, and asks him to state clearly that there will be no taxes on unvaccinated people. The letter does not elaborate on the latter point.
“Do not allow your spite towards the trucker protest to stand in the way of doing the right thing. This is not about saving face. Your pride and ego come after the public interest,” the letter says.
Pollster Nik Nanos said the Conservative policy change is a “course correction” that may not work.
“Although the Conservatives can be friendly with the trucking protest, they should be cautious about being friends with the trucking protest. This is escalating and could do damage to the Conservatives as a party that wants to win an election,” Mr. Nanos said in a statement.
Hamish Telford, a political science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, said the Conservatives have long been seen as a party of law and order, meaning their support of the chaotic protests may put off some voters, including members of their own base.
He said Thursday’s shift may not help the Tories.
“I think Canadians are still going to have questions about why the Conservatives seemingly encouraged this to begin with. That’s where their judgement comes into question,” he said.
“There was every possibility that this process was going to unfold in the way that it did, given who was involved with it, and yet Conservatives’ first inclination was to be supportive and try and use it as a wedge against the Prime Minister in particular and the government in general.”
Conservative MPs arriving for Question Period on Thursday largely ignored questions from journalists about the shift. MP Michael Chong noted that the blockades are illegal. “They should be taken down, but that’s a decision for law enforcement to make,” he said.
On Thursday, RCMP in Manitoba said a large number of vehicles and farm equipment were blocking the border crossing in Emerson.
“No traffic is getting through either northbound or southbound,” the RCMP wrote in a social-media statement. “The port of entry is shut down.”
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