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  • Truckers arrive in a convoy to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates for cross-border truck drivers, in Ottawa.PATRICK DOYLE/Reuters

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Ottawa is on edge as police and businesses prepare for a convoy of protesters demanding an end to vaccine mandates that began converging on the country’s capital Friday, without knowing when the protest will end and with questions about the motives of some involved.

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly described the demonstration as “unique, fluid, risky and significant,” during a press briefing on Friday. He said that while organizers have advised police that it will be peaceful, the force does not know when the rally will conclude and is concerned about the possibility of “lone-wolf individuals.”

“These demonstrations are national in scope, they are massive in scale. Unfortunately, they are polarizing in nature, and they come almost two full years into a highly stressful and tragic global pandemic,” he said.

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Vehicles line up before the convoy's departure from Kingston to Ottawa on Jan. 28.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

Chief Sloly said Ottawa police are prepared to investigate, charge and prosecute anyone who acts violently or breaks the law in association with the demonstrations. He said they are co-ordinating with federal, provincial and local partners to ensure that they are identifying people who pose a threat.

In the past two weeks, Canada and the United States imposed vaccination mandates on cross-border truck drivers. The truck convoy was planned in response to the vaccination requirements but the protests have become about much more than that policy, attracting many who want to rally against a range of government COVID-19 restrictions.

Police said the number of people and vehicles in the convoy are changing and unpredictable. On Wednesday Ottawa Police said they were expecting between 1,000 and 2,000 people in vehicles with pedestrians also expected to join.

Trucks and other vehicles drove through downtown Ottawa on Friday, many with upside down Canadian, U.S. and Ontario flags and some carrying signs with obscenities directed at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. One vehicle was flying the confederate flag. Drivers honking created a racket that could be heard throughout the downtown. The demonstration prompted the closing of some businesses and vaccine clinics.

The main rally will take place Saturday, Chief Sloly said, but police are worried about the protests continuing into next week. He said police are in contact with the core convoy organizers but they haven’t been able to “engage fully” with “other parallel demonstrators.”

He also said there are individuals and groups on social media locally, nationally and internationally who may or may not participate in the demonstrations, “but who are nonetheless inciting hate, violence and in some cases criminality to take place in our city.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Supporters of the Freedom Convoy protest against Covid-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions in front of Parliament of Canada in January 28, 2022 in Ottawa, Canada. - A convoy of truckers started off from Vancouver on January 23, 2022 on its way to protest against the mandate in the capital city of Ottawa. (Photo by Dave Chan / AFP) (Photo by DAVE CHAN/AFP via Getty Images)DAVE CHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Across Ottawa, business owners are weighing their options. Kevin McHale, executive director of the Sparks Street Business Improvement Area (BIA), said some will close. One concern is that customers will have nowhere to park as large vehicles are expected to clog the area. Sparks is a pedestrian street near Parliament Hill and is used to protests.

The federal government announced in November that the exemption allowing truckers to cross the border without needing to quarantine or be vaccinated would end in January. The United States imposed a similar vaccine requirement last week.

In the face of mounting pressure from the protest and as more Conservative politicians speak out in favour of truckers, Mr. Trudeau’s government has defended the decision to impose the mandate. In an interview with The Canadian Press on Friday the Prime Minister dismissed them as a small group of “very angry” people.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos on Friday suggested the focus of protesters’ anger and frustration is misdirected. “The enemy is not vaccination, the enemy is COVID-19 – and the best tool to fight this enemy is to be vaccinated,” he said.

Neither he nor Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam were able to provide data to specifically outline the need for the mandate on truckers but border testing data show that unvaccinated people are much more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than vaccinated people.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance said most truckers are fully vaccinated, with the numbers closely mirroring the vaccination rates of the general population. The alliance has disavowed the protests and said it reflects the minority of truckers.

In the past week, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has gone from distancing himself from the protests to supporting them and expressing empathy for their concerns. On Friday, he said he met some protesting truck drivers at a truck stop 90 kilometres south of Ottawa.

“I wanted to talk to some people that were actual truckers protesting and using their democratic right and some of the people that were gathering to wave flags and show their support,” he said in an interview.

The Conservative Leader opposes any federal policies that compel essential workers to become vaccinated on pain of dismissal.

Other Conservative MPs have come out strongly in support of the trucking protest, including former leader Andrew Scheer, deputy leader Candice Bergen and prominent Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre.

People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, who has twice lost bids to sit in the House of Commons under his new party, will join the protest on Saturday. At a Friday news conference, he said Ottawa should scrap the vaccine mandate on federal workers and remove COVID-19 travel restrictions. He also urged protesters to remain “peaceful.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said earlier this week that he understands people are frustrated by the pandemic, but that he is concerned by the “dangerous rhetoric we’ve seen from the convoy.”

A GoFundMe campaign collecting funds for “Freedom Convoy 2022″ had raised nearly $7.3-million Friday. GoFundMe is not immediately releasing all of the funds to the protesters until they get more details on how the money will be used. So far, the group has said it will go to fuel, food and lodging.

With a report from John Ibbitson

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