OTTAWA, Canada – A convoy of truckers and others who oppose vaccination mandates have arrived in Ottawa for a weekend of rowdy protests, putting Canada’s capital on edge amid police warnings that they don’t know how big the crowd will be.
On Saturday, thousands of protesters packed downtown Ottawa and the grounds of Canada’s Parliament Buildings, while a long line of large trucks, vans, recreational vehicles and other assorted vehicles honked through the streets, causing a traffic jam downtown.
The protest group has attracted unusual international attention, having been championed in prime time on Fox News broadcasts, Joe Rogan’s podcast and Elon Musk’s Twitter feed.
The initial motivation for the protest was a new rule requiring truckers to show proof of vaccination when entering Canada, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government implemented on Jan. 15. Until then, truckers had been allowed to cross the Canada-US border with few restrictions. . The United States imposed a similar mandate on January 22.
But the protest has turned into a catch-all movement of people angry at public health restrictions meant to control the spread of COVID-19. A crowdfunding campaign has raised more than C$7 million (US$5.5 million) through Go Fund Me to support truckers.
While many of the protesters on Saturday had anti-Trudeau signs laced with profanity and denounced everything from mask mandates to pharmaceutical companies, there were at least a few truckers who came out to protest the border rule.
A man sitting in a tractor-trailer near Parliament Hill, who was named Emo and said he immigrated from Bulgaria 20 years ago, told Bloomberg News he crossed the Canada-US border three times a week to ship products and that he was vaccinated only because he had to do so to continue working.
“They forced me to get vaccinated, it was not my choice,” he said. “My message is this: let everyone choose what to do with their body.”
But the Canadian Trucking Alliance, a federation representing provincial trucking organizations, issued a statement on Saturday warning that the protests are not representative of the entire industry. The CTA said about 90% of Canadian truckers are vaccinated and the industry must “adapt and comply” with the border mandate.
“While a number of Canadians are in Ottawa expressing their displeasure with this mandate, it also appears that many of these protesters have no connection to the trucking industry and have a separate agenda beyond- beyond disagreement over cross-border vaccine requirements,” the statement said.
A heavy police presence monitored the crowd on Saturday. A day earlier, Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly told the media that they were preparing for all possibilities.
“This weekend’s protests will be unique, fluid, risky and significant,” Sloly said.
Canada is not immune to violence but, with few exceptions, protests tend to be orderly affairs. The convoy organizers pledged to cooperate and be peaceful. Police have expressed concern that the protests will attract violent actors seeking to provoke law enforcement.
The protesters have been hailed as heroes by anti-vaccine groups on mainstream and alternative social media platforms. On Twitter, a Bloomberg News search found posts amplifying the convoy’s activities in Arabic, Dutch, German and Spanish. Facebook groups and pages about the trucking convoy have tens of thousands of users.
At least some of the convoy organizers appear to have motivations that go far beyond easing health restrictions or relaxing vaccine rules. One group, called Canada Unity, produced a manifesto calling on Governor General Mary Simon, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in the country, to overthrow the Trudeau government.
Trudeau, who is currently in isolation after being exposed to COVID-19, disparaged the convoy during a press conference on Wednesday.
“The small minority of people who are heading to Ottawa, or who have objectionable opinions they express, do not represent the opinions of Canadians,” Trudeau said.
Canadian voters tend to be broadly supportive of vaccination mandates. About two-thirds agree with the idea of compulsory vaccination for all who are eligible, according to an Ipsos poll conducted for the Global News television channel.
So far, the prime minister has shown no signs of backing down on the vaccine mandate. Approximately 78% of the Canadian population and 82% of those eligible for injections have received at least two doses of a COVID vaccine.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who leads the largest opposition party, has tried to tread a cautious line in embracing the truckers’ cause, while seeking to distance herself from some of the movement’s more controversial elements. Other Conservative Party lawmakers in his caucus were outspoken in defending the protest.
Maxime Bernier, leader of the populist People’s Party of Canada, was spotted mingling with protesters on Saturday. Bernier is a former Conservative Party cabinet minister and leadership candidate, and many conservatives fear losing support for the PPC.
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