As ‘Freedom Convoy’ hits Toronto, other cities, the anti-mandate movement is larger and faces more opposition than ever
As the protest movement that began as a trucker convoy to Ottawa gained steam and stretched out across Canada’s major cities Saturday, the anti-COVID-19 restriction protest faced the biggest show of resistance from counterprotesters across the country yet.
Trucks and tractors rolled into Toronto streets Saturday where hundreds of mask-wearing health-care workers and supporters had gathered holding signs like “Health not Hate” earlier that day.
In Vancouver, drivers in a truck convoy headed downtown were forced to turn around when a slew of bicycle-mounted counterprotesters blocked their path.
And in Ottawa, where police have said that the protest has become an occupation of the city associated with illegal activity, hundreds of anti-convoy protesters set up outside city hall chanting “Whose city? Our city,” to try to urge the protesters to go home. Hundreds of anti-restrictions protesters gathered at Parliament Hill a few blocks away.
“Every available local police service member is currently on active duty. We have no members on days off,” said Ottawa’s Chief of Police, Peter Sloly during a board meeting on Friday.
He added saying, approximately 150 additional uniformed officers were dedicated only to patrol and address unlawful and threatening conduct in the most impacted areas, specifically Centretown, Lower Town and ByWard Market with 20 to 25 officers per neighbourhood.
More than a week after first arriving in Ottawa, the “Freedom Convoy” has proliferated across the country and has been associated with some protesters bolstering symbols of hate and honked horn. The fundraising platform GoFundMe cancelled their account for violation of its rules against harassment. It’s made friends who’ve taken to the streets of their own cities, and foes bent on fighting it in court to get the trucks out of Ottawa.
In other words, the “Freedom Convoy” has become a pan-Canadian movement with pan-Canadian opposition.
Friday and Saturday marked the first time since the truck convoy passed through Vaughan on the way to Ottawa on Jan. 27 that the Greater Toronto Area became a major site for the protests. As a convoy of trucks converged in Toronto’s downtown core near Queen’s Park on Saturday, police and residents of the city clashed with protesters and tried to insulate hospitals and health-care workers from the protest’s effects.
While the protests and counterprotests remained mostly peaceful throughout the day, there were reported instances of delays accessing medical facilities due to traffic, and at least one arrest. Toronto police arrested a 22-year-old man Saturday afternoon, for assault with a weapon, public mischief and reportedly setting off a smoke bomb.
Police did not provide any more details on who the person was, and whether they were participating in the protest against restrictions, or the counterprotests against the convoy by the end of day Saturday.
The first waves of the “Toronto Freedom Convoy” protests came in the form of hundreds of pedestrian protesters holding anti-vaccine mandate signs gathering near the King Edward statue in Queen’s Park and at Queen’s Park and Bloor Street West.
The crowd was estimated to include between 200 and 400 people as of early afternoon, blasting dance music while a loudspeaker also broadcasted a religious speaker. They chanted “freedom” and held signs with anti-Trudeau and anti-media slogans.
Protesters got in a heated verbal confrontation with counterprotesters on University Avenue south of Queen’s Park. “Just which freedoms do you think are being protected,” a protester yelled at the half-dozen counterprotesters holding signs like, “Truck off freedumb posers. U r selfish.”
Protesters at Queen’s Park made their way north later in the afternoon to meet up with the large trucks that took over the intersection at Avenue Road and Bloor Street West, honking their horns and also blaring music through loudspeakers as people with flags circled the trucks.
The road closures and barricades set up by police resulted in a quieter hospital row early Saturday afternoon. However, Toronto police say emergency vehicles, including medics from the region of Peel, have been slowed by traffic caused by the protests.
A mix of some big heavy trucks but mostly regular passenger vehicles, and SUVs, many with Canadian flags, and people hanging out the windows, jammed Bloor Street West, radiating east and west from Avenue Road to Bedford Avenue and Yonge Street, on Saturday afternoon.
The first of the crowd started to arrive around noon, and by 3:30 p.m. horns were blaring constantly.
The Star asked a few of the protesters about their reasons for taking part, but only one gave his name.
Gideon Providence, 29, said he was there to oppose vaccine mandates.
“I just want people to have the right not to have the vaccine and not have their livelihood threatened,” said Providence, who was wrapped in a Canadian flag, walking down Bloor Street West.
The 29-year-old, who lives in Toronto, said he also drove to Ottawa last weekend for the protest there.
He is not vaccinated, he said, over the sound of cars and trucks blaring their horns, as he doesn’t “believe that anybody at all is really telling the truth,” and he “cannot make an informed choice.”
A few steps away, a man in a thong, also wrapped in a Canadian flag, was dancing on top of a “Treason Trudeau,” float despite the temperature dropping below -8 C.
A large number of health-care workers and supporters also gathered on hospital row, coming on the heels of controversial instructions given to health-care workers heading to work not to wear hospital uniforms and scrubs in public in order to avoid being targeted by protesters.
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Dr. Naheed Dosani, palliative care physician, tweeted, “Treatment not threats. Health not hate. We health workers refuse to hide. We health workers will never hide.”
A group of Torontonians was also on hand volunteering to accompany health-care workers, patients and other essential workers to their places of work in the downtown area.
Organizer Keltie Hamilton is a former nurse from Alberta and now studies public health at the University of Toronto. “I worked the first year of the pandemic front line … so I know how it feels to feel scared. Not only, going into work in a pandemic with an airborne disease, but then also being afraid just on your walk to work didn’t seem right, and it didn’t sit with a lot of my classmates either,” she said.
Members of the group stationed themselves near subway stations and Queen’s Park, holding signs that read “health care heroes” and offering to walk people to their workplaces.
Hamilton received “20 to 30 DMs directly from health-care workers and patients just asking if someone can escort them safely to their appointments or to work over the weekend because they’re just really hesitant because they’re either BIPOC or LGBTQ,” she said.
“We have so many hospitals downtown and so many health-care workers that have sacrificed a lot in this pandemic. They don’t also need to sacrifice their personal safety trying to go to work this weekend,” said Hamilton.
Protests continued in Ottawa for the eighth day, Saturday, with protest organizers under increased pressure from opposing protesters and financial woes.
The energy behind the protest however has not quelled for the challenges they face. The size of the crowd that converged on Parliament Hill was estimated not to match the nearly 10,000 participants who attended last weekend, but observers in Ottawa said it was the biggest protest day since last Saturday.
There was clear evidence Saturday that protesters were settling into their occupation of the city’s downtown core. At the edge of Confederation Park, across the street from city hall, people were serving steaming food from a makeshift kitchen shack, bagging up snacks and toothpaste to share with protesters, and stockpiling firewood.
Saturday’s demonstrations also brought more families to the nation’s capital. Tammy Cameron, who was walking near Parliament Hill with a group of parents and children from Quebec, said she drove five hours to Ottawa to denounce vaccine passports and mask-wearing in schools.
She told the Star that while she and her children were vaccinated, they didn’t plan to get any more shots. “If you want 18 vaccines, take 18 … If I want two, I should be able to take just two,” she said in French.
The organizers of the “Freedom Convoy” in Ottawa are now facing a lawsuit from an Ottawa woman who has opened her case up for others to join as a potential class action.
On Friday, Ottawa resident Zexi Li filed a lawsuit in Ontario Superior Court, seeking damages for emotional and mental distress, headaches, sleeping difficulties, difficulty concentrating and interference with quiet enjoyment of her home.
Li’s lawyer, Paul Champ, posted a video to Twitter saying Li would withdraw the suit if the protesters go home by Monday morning.
“You don’t know how much harm you’ve been causing the people in downtown Ottawa,” Champ said in the video message. “I understand why the truckers are mad about mask mandates, vaccination mandates, in fact I represent unvaccinated workers against employers who fired them for being unvaccinated.”
“But what you’re doing to the people in downtown Ottawa has just become too much. The people with newborns, the people with disabilities, the elderly, they can’t sleep.”
One of the organizers named as a defendant in the suit, Chris Barber, texted the Star that he had tried to get convoy participants to stop honking all day, and that he hasn’t been in his own truck since last weekend.
“I’m in a room with five major lawyers,” he wrote. “All good.”
Asked for an update on the protest Saturday, Barber wrote in a text message “Smiles and love.”
Following news on Friday that GoFundMe closed the fundraiser for the convoy following reports of illegal activity and harassment associated with the protest, the group started fundraising on alternative platforms like the Christian fundraising site GiveSendGo.
Unlike those in Ottawa, the protests in Toronto wound down in the evening.
Toronto’s Chief of Police James Ramer took to Twitter on Saturday night to say that “after a full day demonstrating, the trucks and protesters who had blocked Avenue & Bloor have been safely moved out. We appreciated the cooperation as we opened & returned the intersection for safe use by residents & businesses. Officers will remain in the area over the weekend.”
Toronto police were unable to comment on what to expect in the coming days.
With files from Wendy Gillis, Jeremy Nuttall and Simran Singh.
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen
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