Thousands of protesters demanding an end to pandemic restrictions descended on Parliament Hill on Saturday, along with hundreds of trucks and personal vehicles that filled Ottawa’s streets and turned the city’s downtown into a parking lot.
The protest was largely peaceful. People, dressed for a -21 degree wind chill, wove their way through honking trucks, RVs and cars parked on Wellington Street, shouting “freedom!” and calling for an end to COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates.
But small groups of demonstrators drew condemnation for parking their cars on the National War Memorial. Others were widely criticized after posing for pictures and protesting on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The entire Rideau Mall was shut down after it was overwhelmed by protesters who refused to wear masks.
Protesters said they planned to stay in the city for multiple days and that they had not determined an end date for the raucous demonstration, which could be heard throughout Ottawa’s downtown, even inside condos and office buildings. Late in the evening on Saturday, some demonstrators set off a steady stream of fireworks on Parliament Hill.
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“My body, my choice,” read a sign plastered on one truck. “Trump 2024,” read a banner carried by two people. Another sign, printed on a canvas banner, said: ”I am not racist, I am not an extremist, I am Canadian.”
Other signs and flags were obscenity-laced and took direct aim at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, tagging him a traitor, or embracing his description of the protesters as a “fringe minority.” Some of the signs were overtly hateful, and a few contained swastikas. A handful of protesters carried confederate flags and yellow Gadsden flags (which depict a rattlesnake with the words “don’t tread on me” printed below it), both of which protesters carried at the U.S. Capitol riots last year.
Police were concerned that the protest would not stay peaceful, because some of the organizers have called for the immediate replacement of the Trudeau government. Some online comments from the protest’s supporters called for the event to be Canada’s version of the U.S. riots. Ottawa Police had not yet released crowd size estimates as of Saturday evening.
The protest was originally promoted as a convoy of truckers, mobilized in response to the federal government’s decision to impose a vaccine mandate on cross-border delivery drivers. But the focus has since expanded to include all government pandemic measures, and many of the vehicles in the convoy on Saturday weren’t trucks.
On Saturday, the Canadian Trucking Alliance again condemned the protest. The organization said in a statement that a “great number” of the protesters “have no connection to the trucking industry and have a separate agenda beyond a disagreement over cross border vaccine requirements.”
A memo circulated by Canada Unity, the group that is most responsible for planning the convoy, demands that Governor-General Mary Simon and the Senate force the federal and provincial governments to lift all COVID-19 restrictions, including vaccine mandates – despite the legal impossibility of such a maneuver. The memo does not mention truckers. It was initially sent to the Senate and Ms. Simon on Dec. 11.
The convoy’s organizers have raised more than $8.3-million for the protest through a GoFundMe page. The online fundraising website has frozen most of the funds as it waits for organizers to share how they plan to spend the money.
Canada Unity organizer Patrick King riled up the crowd on Parliament Hill by saying politicians would have to listen to their concerns. He spoke from a truck’s flatbed, on a street outside Mr. Trudeau’s office.
“To finally see you guys stand up and say ‘no’ is the most amazing thing I’ve seen yet,” he said.
Mr. King has a history of making extremist and violent comments online and espousing misinformation about COVID-19.
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network said on Saturday that the convoy leaders have used hateful speech, and that Canadians should consider whether they want to be involved in a protest organized by them.
Protesters on the Hill said they were opposed to vaccine and mask mandates. While some said they wanted Mr. Trudeau booted from government, others said they only wanted the federal and provincial restrictions reversed.
“He needs to get out,” Vanessa Lemire of Témiscaming, Que., said of the Prime Minister. “He works for himself; he doesn’t work for the people.”
She repeated conspiracy theories, calling the pandemic a lie and saying the last federal election was rigged.
Tyler Armstrong, a flatbed driver from Hamilton, Ont., stood in front of his truck on Wellington St. as horns blared around him. He said he can no longer work because he is not vaccinated.
He added that he supports the call for the government to be replaced. The crowd in Ottawa, he said, was proof that that the Liberals are doing something wrong.
“I feel very proud to be Canadian at this moment,” he said. He explained that he chose not to be vaccinated because “it’s forced.”
Parked in another truck nearby, Peter Ravensbergen said he was there with his two oldest sons, aged 12 and 14, to “stand up for the freedom to choose.” He said the three of them would sleep on cots in his truck trailer overnight, with a space heater.
“Our goal is just to raise awareness that we are not a fringe group of [the] minority,” he said.
Cheyanne Tryon and Ryan Stojson, a couple from Brantford, Ont., said they came to Ottawa to peacefully oppose vaccine mandates, and that they don’t identify with any of the extreme rhetoric from some of the people involved with the convoy, including the push to change government.
Ms. Tryon said her father, who was a truck driver, died in a long-term care home this month and that she was protesting in his memory. She said she chose not to get vaccinated because she is trying to get pregnant, but the decision also meant she couldn’t see her father before his death. (Many Canadian doctors and health officials have urged women who are pregnant or who intend to become pregnant to get vaccinated against COVID-19.)
“They would let hairdressers in that aren’t vaccinated to cut my dad’s hair, but I wasn’t allowed in as a primary caregiver because I’m not vaccinated, while he’s dying,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
The Liberals and NDP have raised concerns about the protest. On Saturday, Mr. Trudeau made no direct comments about it, but retweeted posts condemning the protesters’ behaviour at the war memorial. Some Conservative MPs, meanwhile, met with protesters in and around Ottawa.
Pierre Poilievre, a prominent Ottawa-area MP, posted a video of himself standing with protesters along a highway overpass.
“This is a rally for truckers, but it’s also a rally for the 60 per cent of Canadians who say they worry they can’t afford food,” he said. “It’s for all those that our government and our media have insulted and left behind. It’s for the people who work hard to put food on our table, to stock our shelves and to make this country work.”
“Freedom not fear, truckers not Trudeau,” Mr. Poilievre said.
With reports from the Canadian Press
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