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Vehicles line downtown streets as truckers and supporters continue to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Ottawa, on Jan. 31, 2022.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

There was a solid throng of truck honks on Wellington Street, but inside the House of Commons, the resumption of Parliament was pretty quiet. Much of the debate was about how to characterize the protesters.

The Conservatives chose to pre-empt Question Period with a condemnation of their own about the weekend truckers’ protests.

Just before Question Period began, Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo Conservative MP Frank Caputo stood in the Commons to deliver a statement condemning the people who had displayed a swastika and desecrated the statues of Terry Fox and the National War Memorial. His fellow Tories gave him a standing ovation.

The Conservatives knew that was how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was coming at them, by accusing them of irresponsibly backing the protests that yielded those ugly acts – they’d seen him do that in a news conference a couple of hours earlier. The Tories sought to shield themselves by striking a note of condemnation first.

That done, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole went in another direction. “Will the Prime Minister move past the divisions and agree to meet with some of the truckers impacted by his federal regulations?”

Mr. Trudeau, appearing on a screen from home after revealing he had tested positive for COVID-19, answered much as he had at his press conference earlier in the day, by declaring that vaccination is the way through the pandemic, that 90 per cent of Canadians have chosen to get vaccinated. He had already responded to Mr. O’Toole’s question about moving past division by accusing the Tories of supporting people who broke with Canadian solidarity. For the record, he ignored the question about meeting truckers.

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Mr. O’Toole ignored the answer, too. He had a second line of attack. Vaccines are “critically important,” he said, but after two years that have stretched our “social fabric,” the government has to use “all the tools” to deal with the pandemic. “When is life getting back to normal?” he asked.

Mr. Trudeau’s answer again was that everyone is exhausted, but vaccines are the best tool.

It should be noted that the list of tools other than vaccines Mr. O’Toole provided on Monday was limited to rapid tests, and the getting-life-back-to-normal question is one for provincial premiers, too, but part of Mr. O’Toole’s query was also straightforward: People are getting frustrated, so what are you going to do about it?

For a while, after NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh jumped in to accuse Conservatives of fuelling a protest where hate symbols such as a swastika and Confederate flag were displayed, it seemed as if the whole thing might just fade out of Question Period, despite the honking semis and troops of police officers and the frustrations of locals.

The Conservatives moved into a series of questions about why the Liberal government didn’t send weapons in their package of aid to Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland looked on alertly as Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly fielded questions, but most Liberal MPs in the half-empty chamber were on their phones.

But the protest debate, or rather the debate about the protesters, returned. Politicians wanted back in. The Conservative MPs sitting just beside Mr. O’Toole’s left shoulder, Candice Bergen and Pierre Poilievre, blamed the PM for fostering division by insulting what Ms. Bergen called the “patriotic, peace-loving Canadians” who are protesting.

“Just because the Prime Minister dressed up in racist costumes so many times he cannot remember them all does not mean every single Liberal is a racist,” Mr. Poilievre said. “That is guilt by association.”

If anything, it was an exchange between Mr. Poilievre and Liberal House Leader Mark Holland that sparked the most noise in the Commons – when both were debating who should be turning down the tone, and even, atypically, expressing respect for each other.

“When I saw swastikas on the street, when I saw what had happened, it is time to move on,” Mr. Holland said. He added later: “I would ask Conservatives to also join with us to ask they go home, and let us do this responsibly,” he said.

Mr. Poilievre responded by insisting it is the Liberals fuelling division with disrespect. “This country right now is like a raw nerve, and the Prime Minister is jumping up and down on it again and again with his inflammatory rhetoric.”

After that exchange, the topic wound down. There hadn’t been that much discussion of cross-border vaccine mandates for truckers, or vaccine mandates generally or specific COVID-19 rules. The hallways of West Bloc were quiet. Outside, the horns were still honking.

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