A convoy of thousands of truckers and other protesters converged on Parliament Hill Saturday to call for an end to COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other public health restrictions — a raucous demonstration that has police on high alert for possible violence even as organizers urge the crowd to be peaceful.
Hundreds of protesters on foot flooded into the parliamentary precinct on Saturday in the midst of an extreme cold warning, joining a lineup of truckers that started to arrive on the scene late Friday night.
They were later joined by other drivers and demonstrators from all regions of the country that, in some cases, travelled thousands of kilometres to take their message to the streets outside of the Prime Minister’s Office in the downtown core.
Police said as many as 10,000 people were expected to be on hand by day’s end, but by Saturday evening the force did not have an official estimate of the crowd’s size. Also that evening, the group organizing the convoy sent out a schedule for Sunday events, including a prayer and press conference.
The convoy has snarled traffic throughout the region, clogging arteries that lead in and out of the city centre. Law enforcement urged everyone to avoid travel to the downtown as it deals with the surge of people. The Rideau Centre, a major shopping centre only steps from the main protest site, was closed early after it was overrun with maskless patrons defying provincial rules for indoor spaces.
The many trucks that have gathered along Wellington Street in front of the Parliament Buildings are adorned with banners denouncing public health measures and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Some warn that communism will take hold in Canada if COVID-19-related restrictions continue. Dozens of truckers blasted their horns throughout the day and into the evening.
Amid security concerns, Trudeau and his family have been moved from their home to an undisclosed location in the nation’s capital, sources said.
The protest, while loud and disruptive, has been peaceful to this point. As of 5:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, no charges have been laid against any of the protesters, a spokesperson for the Ottawa Police Service said. The police said at 8 p.m. ET no incidents of violence or injuries had been reported.
A demonstration that was originally planned to urge the federal government to drop its vaccine mandate for cross-border essential workers like truckers has morphed into a larger movement against all public health measures.
A number of the people assembled, many of whom are not truckers, said they were on hand to pressure the government to end pandemic-related restrictions and return to “normal.” The event has also attracted some more extreme voices who have called for violence.
Roughly a dozen protesters had parked their vehicles on the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Ottawa’s National War Memorial earlier Saturday. The cars and trucks were removed by midday after orders from local police. “Parking on this sacred ground was a sign of complete disrespect,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said.
Later, protesters were seen dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, prompting condemnation from Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay and Canada’s top soldier Gen. Wayne Eyre.
I am sickened to see protesters dance on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and desecrate the National War Memorial. Generations of Canadians have fought and died for our rights, including free speech, but not this. Those involved should hang their heads in shame.
Defence Minister Anita Anand called the behaviour of protesters “beyond reprehensible.” The NDP called it “despicable” and denounced symbols of hate seen in the crowd.
Demonstrators also adorned a statue of Terry Fox, the cross-country runner who inspired the nation with his “marathon of hope,” with anti-vaccine material and a defaced Canadian flag.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole similarly condemned the actions of those involved with the incidents at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Terry Fox statue.
“I support the right to peacefully protest but that should not be confused with blatant disrespect for the men and women who have served, inspired, and protected our country,” he said in a statement, saying the individuals in question should be “ashamed.”
In another instance, a can of beer was thrown at a journalist covering the event. Protesters also set off fireworks as the evening began, which Ottawa police said Saturday should not be used downtown.
Standoff over science
The many flags flown in the crowd reflected the divergent groups that are calling for an end to mandates.
Some of the protesters carried Canadian flags, while others held placards that urged people to “Think for Yourself,” a slogan used in anti-vaccine circles. Some demonstrators were seen flying the Patriotes flag, a nod to the Lower Canada rebellions of 1837-38, when French-speaking settlers from present-day Quebec fought against British colonial rule.
At least one Confederate flag was spotted in the crowd, a holdover from the U.S. Civil War that is often associated with racist and far-right elements. Indigenous demonstrators flew the Mohawk warrior flag and waved the flag of the Métis Nation.
“I’ve never done anything like this in my life. I’m 53 years old and this is the hill I’m going to die on. Do not tell me I have to put something in my body,” Lorraine Commodore, a convoy supporter, told CBC News on Saturday.
Commodore said she was fired from her job as a dental hygienist because she wouldn’t get vaccinated. She said she wants this protest to bring an end to mandates that cost her and others like her their jobs.
She said her mother-in-law died in hospital and it was difficult for the family to visit her in the last days of her life because of COVID-19 restrictions on visitors. “Open the hospitals, they’re public. This needs to end today.”
Her husband, Mike, said he’s distrustful of the shots — skepticism that cost him his job as a community living nurse.
“How many boosters is it gonna take? Wake up, people. How many boosters? People who’ve taken the two shots, they’re still coming down with COVID-19. They’re still testing positive. So, where’s the science? What science? It’s amazing what government scientists will say when their paycheques depend on it,” he said.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) reported earlier this month that the primary series of vaccines — the first two doses of an mRNA product — offer “low” to “very low” protection against an Omicron infection but that they still prevent severe cases of COVID-19, hospitalization and death.
PHAC data suggests unvaccinated people are 19 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people. A third dose of an mRNA shot also offers much more protection against an actual infection.
Amid this standoff over science, there was also a smattering of counter-protesters who waded into the crowds to bring a pro-vaccine message to a group that is generally leery of the COVID-19 shots. “I believe in public health. Thank you nurses,” read one of the signs carried by this group.
Trudeau, family moved for security reasons
Trudeau and his family are no longer at their home, Rideau Cottage, which is on the property of the Governor General’s residence in the New Edinburgh neighbourhood of Ottawa — roughly four kilometres from the epicentre of the protest.
The Prime Minister’s Office said it could not comment on Trudeau’s whereabouts for security reasons. His itinerary, which normally lists the city where he’s staying, said only that he’s in the “national capital region.”
Trudeau is currently in isolation because he was a close contact to one of his children who recently tested positive for COVID-19.
The decision to move Trudeau and his family follows the Rideau Hall gate-crashing attack in 2020. A Canadian Armed Forces member carrying a firearm rammed his vehicle into the gates protecting the property in an attempt to reach Trudeau.
The precautionary measure also comes after a warning from Parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms, the person responsible for the safety and security of the parliamentary precinct and its occupants, that protesters could show up at politicians’ homes.
Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly said that while organizers say the protest, which does not have a permit, will be a weekend event, “the option of [it] going into the week is also still on the table.”
Sloly said any decision to bring the protest to a close early or continue past the weekend will be based on public safety concerns. He also said a breakdown in communication with protest organizers could lead to it being shut down early.
The police said late Saturday there would continue to be a large presence of officers during the evening and Sunday.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Ottawa’s officers will be backed up by other police and national security forces, who are preparing to deal with any threats that could erupt from extremists who have latched on to a massive protest organizers call the Freedom Convoy.
Mendicino said Friday that there have been signs of “flagrant extremism” among some protesters, including the equating of vaccine mandates to the fascist regime of Nazi Germany and inciting people to overthrow the government through violence.
That is “not about freedom. And it’s certainly not about truckers,” he told guest host Nil Köksal on CBC’s Power & Politics.
The Ottawa Police Service said it will be augmented with officers from Toronto, London, York and Durham regions, as well as the Ontario Provincial Police.
Ottawa vigil to mark mosque shooting cancelled
The organizers of an Ottawa vigil commemorating victims of a fatal shooting at a Quebec City mosque in 2017 have cancelled the planned event, citing the convoy.
The event, which was scheduled for Saturday, the fifth anniversary of the violent hate crime, is not going ahead “because of the possibility of violence related to the truckers protest,” the organizers said.
“The fact that we had to cancel this memorial event marking a tragic anniversary for Canadian Muslims is not only disappointing but it angers me,” said Fareed Khan, the founder of Canadians United Against Hate.
“This so-called freedom protest, and the possible violence that may be caused by those connected to it, has denied me, the Muslim community and residents of the National Capital Region our freedom to gather peacefully to mark a very sombre occasion and remember the six victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting.”
Organizers urge calm
One of the protest’s key organizers on Friday warned participants to demonstrate peacefully.
“We cannot achieve our goals if there are threats or acts of violence,” said B.J. Dichter. “This movement is a peaceful protest, and we do not condone any acts of violence.”
He warned protesters not to enter government buildings, disrespect police officers, act in a way that escalates tense situations and make “any type of threat.”
Dichter ran as a candidate for the Conservatives — in Jack Layton’s old riding of Toronto–Danforth — in the 2015 federal election, finishing third behind the Liberals and NDP with just over 5,000 votes.
In 2019, Dichter spoke at the first People’s Party of Canada conference held in Gatineau, Que., where he railed against “political Islam” and argued that the radical left in Canada is working with Islamic groups to undermine the Canadian state.
On Twitter, he regularly criticizes public health measures to fight COVID-19, major media organizations, socialism and established political parties.
He and Alberta resident Tamara Lich started a GoFundMe campaign for the convoy that has raised more than $7.5 million.
As the convoy moved across Canada, Lich posted regular video updates from the cab of one of the trucks. She says her parents own a trucking company, which is part of what motivated her to organize the protest. Lich was involved with the Western separatist Maverick Party in the past and is still listed as its secretary on the party’s website.
She has said many times in her Facebook videos that the trucks and demonstrators won’t leave Ottawa until they get what they want, while urging people to obey the law and not cause trouble.
Politicians weigh in
Earlier this week, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh condemned the convoy, saying it harbours racists. Trudeau has been equally unreceptive, dismissing what he calls a “small fringe” that holds “unacceptable views.”
While rejecting bigotry and hate, Conservative Leader O’Toole said Canadians frustrated with two years of COVID-19 restrictions should be heard by elected officials. O’Toole met with some of the truckers in the convoy away from Parliament Hill on Friday.
Former U.S. president Donald Trump endorsed the convoy’s efforts during a rally in Conroe, Texas, on Saturday evening, claiming the protesters in Ottawa were doing more to fight against “lawless mandates” and defend “American freedoms” than U.S. leaders.
At least one Canadian parliamentarian was among Saturday’s crowd. Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who represents an Edmonton-area riding, told CBC News he was there to show support to “a whole lot of everyday Canadians” that were out to express “concerns with the direction Justin Trudeau is taking the country.”
“The vaccine mandate just doesn’t make any sense, and it’s only going to exacerbate our supply-chain issues,” Cooper said. A number of business groups, including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, warned this week the trucker mandate could disrupt the free flow of goods between Canada and the U.S.
Cooper said while there may be a “small number of unsavoury characters” in the mix, most of the people are “just here to send a message to the prime minister.”
“I’m just here to let people know they’re being heard.”