OTTAWA —Thousands of people descended upon Parliament Hill on Saturday to decry pandemic health restrictions and denounce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as a so-called “Freedom Convoy” honked and hollered its way to the epicentre of Canadian democracy.
Through the course of a single day, the protest — sparked by truckers opposing vaccine mandates — gave voice to pandemic exhaustion, the distrust of science and expert opinion, and a strain of right-wing populism that helped fuel the surge of demonstrators who came from all parts of the country.
The protesters themselves claimed to be champions of freedom in Canada, and many of them seized upon comments Trudeau made earlier this week, describing the convoy participants as a “fringe minority” holding “unacceptable views.”
“If we were the fringe minority, why did he have to close down bridges so that people don’t come here? That’s how much he’s scared of a fringe minority,” said Ernesto Serrano, a 24-year-old from Montreal with a red bandana over his face who was referring to how local police temporarily closed bridges between Ottawa and Gatineau on Saturday.
“Everybody’s standing together, and as we should, and as we should have two years ago before we let it extend for too long. And if we don’t stand up now, then I don’t know when this will ever end,” he said.
Despite warnings from Ottawa police and security on Parliament Hill, the demonstrations had not turned violent by nightfall Saturday. The mood instead was defiant, yet celebratory. Throngs of people brandishing flags tied to hockey sticks danced and chanted while dozens of semis lining the street in front of Canada’s parliament buildings blared their horns. Some participants sipped beer, grilled hot dogs and set off firecrackers, as all manner of vehicles jammed the downtown core, ranging from camper vans and transport trucks to a black limousine bedecked with Canadian flags.
Yet it was clear many protesters flocked to Ottawa intending to shirk public health measures. People lined up inside food establishments without masks, while others led to the closure of the Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa after crowding the shopping centre unmasked.
Steps from Parliament Hill, an anti-vaccine mandate protest sign was tucked under the arm of a Terry Fox statue, sparking condemnation from municipal leaders. Elsewhere, a flag bearing a Nazi Swastika was photographed near Parliament Hill, while several people carried the yellow “Gadsden” flag from the American revolution in the 18th century that has become associated with far right groups.
Video also circulated of at least one person climbing atop the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which prompted Canada’s top soldier Gen. Wayne Eyre to express outrage on social media.
“Generations of Canadians have fought and died for our rights, including free speech, but not this. Those involved should hang their heads in shame,” Eyre tweeted.
There was also an obvious contempt for Trudeau peppered throughout the parliamentary precinct. Many protesters held vulgar signs referencing the prime minister, while one donned a T-shirt with an image of a noose along with Trudeau’s name.
“He’s like a skunk. He comes out at night,” said Larry Fehr, a protester from Scarborough who accused Trudeau of using a COVID-19 infection in his family as an excuse to hide from the demonstrators.
CBC reported Saturday morning that Trudeau and his family had left their Ottawa residence at Rideau Cottage to ensure their safety. In a statement to the Star, the Prime Minister’s Office would only say Trudeau is isolating according to local health advice “in the National Capital Region.”
“As always, we do not comment on security matters,” the statement said.
Alongside the anger directed at Trudeau and other political leaders, many demonstrators claimed health restrictions were a violation of their constitutional rights, and even evidence of a slide towards “Communism” — assertions without evidence.
Patrick Meilleur of Lachute, Que., was one of several people handing out printed copies of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to a line of parked trucks and cars near Parliament Hill. He hoped the arrival of the convoy would convince the government to lift all measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“I don’t think anything will change on a dime. But we’re already hearing politicians speaking out, which is a great thing,” said Meilleur, who had booked an appointment for his first vaccine dose but ultimately decided not to get the shot.
The virus has killed more than 33,000 Canadians since it emerged in China more than two years ago. Evidence shows COVID-19 vaccines are effective at protecting against severe outcomes of the illness, along with hospitalization and death. Other public health measures, including wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, have also been proven to reduce transmission of the virus.
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For other protesters, being told to get a booster shot was the final straw.
“I got two shots, and that’s probably going to be it,” said Marc-André Canuel, who arrived in Ottawa Friday night from Quebec City.
Canuel told the Star he got vaccinated because of work requirements — not because he believes they work.
“People should have the freedom to decide for their own health,” Canuel said, brandishing a Canadian flag.
“This is why so many people now are rising together here in Ottawa. I believe, altogether, we are frustrated. I am myself extremely frustrated. And I feel like today was the opportunity to walk with my companions, Canadians, who are also very upset about the situation.”
Ahead of the protests, Ottawa Police chief Peter Sloly warned that “lone wolf individuals” and unspecified “parallel groups” could try to incite violence.
Earlier this week, the sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons warned MPs of online “solicitations” for their residential addresses in the capital region, and to lock their doors and refrain from posting about the protests on social media.
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has also reported that the convoy of truckers has been promoted by individuals from far-right groups in Canada, and that some organizers have expressed Islamophobia in the past.
Organizers of the convoy have said their sole intention is to call for the end of health restrictions, including recent federal rules that require unvaccinated truckers to quarantine if they drive across the border. The U.S. has imposed similar rules.
Canada Unity, one of the groups behind the convoy, has posted a “memorandum of understanding” on its website, calling for the Senate and Gov. Gen. Mary Simon to end vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions.
One organizer told the Star that they intend to hunker down in the capital until all public health restrictions are lifted, and said some participants have booked hotel rooms in the area for 10 days. Ottawa Police said Friday that demonstrations could continue into the week.
A GoFundMe fundraiser backing the effort has raised more than $8 million so far, though the platform has not released all funds to organizers.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance has denounced the convoy protest and says more than 85 per cent of the 120,000 Canadian truck drivers who regularly travel across the Canada-U. S. border are vaccinated. That leaves up to 16,000 truckers who could be impacted by the cross-border vaccine mandates.
Sibo Chen is a professor at Ryerson University who has written about the overlap of right-wing populism and opposition to health restrictions during the pandemic. In an interview with the Star, Chen said this is a global phenomenon and that the grievances underlying the outrage over vaccine mandates predates the pandemic.
“The key idea is a growing number of people who consider themselves being marginalized, who consider themselves as being restricted by what they consider the establishment,” he said.
This sentiment fuels what Chen called a “binary logic,” where complex issues like how to best respond to a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic is reduced to simplified notions of alleged government overreach and misinformation about the efficacy of vaccines.
“It’s not really about vaccines; all this is really about is people that have this kind of aversion … the way they see certain rules as against their own political beliefs,” Chen said.
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga
Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel
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