OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared virtually in the House of Commons on Monday with a clear message to protesters who had overtaken Parliament Hill: go home.
Outside, at nearly the same time, a hoarse-voiced man shouted into a microphone before a crowd of demonstrators.
“We’re on the Hill and we will hold the line!” he cried, calling for protesters to double in number by Friday. Then he led the crowd in a chant.
“Hold the line!”
“Hold the line!”
It was the middle of the third full day of a so-called “Freedom Convoy” protest against COVID-19 vaccination mandates and public health restrictions that has disrupted the downtown core of Canada’s capital city.
The demonstrations have so far prompted the closures of vaccine clinics and an elementary school, sparked complaints from residents and local politicians, and provoked widespread condemnation after participants were seen standing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and outfitting a statue of Terry Fox with signs.
By Monday evening, it wasn’t clear how — or when — the protest would end, with Ottawa’s police chief stating that “all options are on the table,” including the use of force to clear the trucks and demonstrators.
“I’m not leaving until this is over,” said Justin Gauthier, an Ottawa resident who wore sunglasses and a toque and carried a Canadian flag along the street in front of the Parliament buildings on Monday.
He denounced disturbances that have occurred during the protest, and said his goal was to stay positive and keep demonstrating until all health restrictions imposed during the pandemic are lifted.
“People need to keep pushing against the government of Canada on this, and we should cause as much disruption as possible without causing violence and harm to other people,” Gauthier said.
By midday Monday, the protest had shrunk to a fraction of its size on Saturday, yet scores of semi trucks, camper vans and passenger vehicles still lined the street in front of Parliament Hill. On the sidewalks, people shovelled snow beside trucks with banners and signs that denounced COVID-19 restrictions, celebrated the idea of Trudeau going to jail, accused the media of perpetuating lies, and praised God.
The protesters’ determination was at loggerheads with the pleas of political leaders including Trudeau, who revealed Monday that he tested positive for COVID-19. Appearing virtually in the House of Commons, Trudeau said he supports the freedom to protest public policies but that the government must also stand against the kinds of intolerance seen during the demonstrations.
“What we need is for people to go home,” he said in French. “Their message got through.”
Hours later, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said he was dismayed by the way demonstrations had demoralized a city of “people who have already been through enough as a result of living through a global pandemic.
“We’ve had to close some businesses and daycares and inoculation centres. We’ve had to deal with aggressive behaviour towards staff in our hotels and our restaurants,” Watson said.
Centennial Public School, located blocks away from the demonstrations, shifted to online teaching on Monday in light of the protests. The appearance of hate symbols, including swastikas and the Confederate flag, also prompted the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board to condemn images that “promote hate, instill fear and are intolerant.”
“This is completely unacceptable in a civil society that we live in,” Watson said. “I know we’re all tired and frustrated, but you’ve had your moment, your 15 minutes. Time to move on.”
Donna Hilmendager was one protester milling around Parliament Hill on Monday who planned to check out of her hotel Tuesday.
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The retired schoolteacher who drove to Ottawa from Lloydminster — a prairie city on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan — said she had spoken to many protesters who planned to stick things out “until something’s done.
“I’m a little leery of how things will be back home because this is freedom, right now. We are all together. We all believe the same,” Hilmendager said, adding that she’s seen no evidence of disturbances despite many reports of disruptive behaviour.
Police said one person has been arrested and several incidents were under investigation.
The cost to the city of policing the protests is $800,000 per day. Ottawa police have secured the assistance of several police forces, including the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police and four GTA police services.
Yet despite a heavy police presence in the downtown core, frustration has been expressed over a weak crackdown on the behaviour and presence of demonstrators.
“The focus has been on de-escalation,” said Diane Deans, an Ottawa city councillor and chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board.
“I want you to know that it is my expectation … that the people who have involved themselves in criminal acts and acts of violence in our city be fully prosecuted.”
City officials were clear Monday that demonstrations were “unprecedented” in their scope and had morphed into an event never-before seen in Ottawa’s history.
Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly said police were negotiating with the “core organizers of the core protest” and noted that demonstrations had “scaled down over the last 12 hours.”
“We want that trend to continue until this demonstration comes to a complete end. I cannot guarantee you that right now,” Sloly said.
Several hundred trucks have left the city, but Sloly said he had heard reports of protesters who hoped to return this weekend. He said police have planned for a range of scenarios in the coming days. Asked whether that includes forcibly removing protesters, Sloly said that “all options are on the table.”
For some residents, the end can’t come soon enough.
Catherine McKenney, an Ottawa city councillor, told the Star that their office is fielding a barrage of calls from residents who feel afraid and exhausted after three days of honking, traffic congestion and harassment from protesters through the downtown core.
McKenney said they had spoken with residents with a rainbow pride flag in their window who said they found feces outside their front door after men who appeared to be from the protest had yelled at them from outside. McKenney said the residents are now staying in a different part of the city after they said the same men came back and yelled at them.
“I have never once had a resident call me and tell me they were afraid for what was happening in a protest, and I am receiving hundreds of messages,” they said.
Not all politicians condemned the protest. Conservative MPs have expressed support for the demonstration, which began with a group of truckers upset with a recent federal vaccination mandate for them to cross the U.S.-Canada border without having to quarantine. Michael Cooper, a Tory MP from Alberta, attended the protest to serve coffee to truckers. Cooper gave a TV interview as a demonstrator strode behind him carrying a Canadian flag with a Nazi swastika drawn on it.
Cooper was near the Hill again on Monday as the Commons resumed, and told the Star that “bad apples” don’t represent most people at the protest, who he said have a right to be heard. “They shouldn’t be demonized and labelled,” he said.
“It’s really quite straightforward to be able to distinguish between a handful of idiots versus the vast majority of people who are here talking about their jobs and livelihoods,” he added. “We’re concerned about mandates, concerned about supply chain issues … Life has to get back to normal for all Canadians.”
Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga
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