OTTAWA — After six days crossing Canada, a convoy that began as a protest against mandatory vaccinations for truckers traveling to the United States was due to arrive in Ottawa on Saturday, its members and supporters airing a wide range of grievances.
The loosely organized “freedom rally” or “freedom convoy” of trucks and private vehicles set out from British Columbia and surged and ebbed toward the capital, where police were preparing for a weekend unpredictable end of protests. In recent days, the convoy has been joined by other smaller groups from south and east Ottawa.
The movement has attracted people opposed to all pandemic restrictions, others who want Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to quit and others who simply don’t like the government.
On Friday, Chief Peter Sloly of the Ottawa Police Service declined to say how many protesters the force expected to converge on Parliament Hill. His department said they were arriving in the capital in eight different streams.
“This weekend’s protests will be unique, fluid, risky and significant,” he told a news conference.
On Friday afternoon, before the main convoy arrived, a group of just over 100 heavy trucks and around 400 cars, vans and camper vans, as well as farm tractors – most adorned with various anti-flags or signs -vaccination – began to enter downtown Ottawa as police began to cordon off the area.
Besides denouncing the vaccine mandate, it was unclear what form the protests would take. A group affiliated with the convoy intends to try, for a second time, to convince the Governor General, the official (if ceremonial) head of state of Canada as a representative of Queen Elizabeth, and the appointed members of the Senate to strike down all pandemic laws and rules imposed by all levels of government — well beyond their constitutional powers.
Others have called for protests outside the homes of politicians. But because the House of Commons is not currently in session – it resumes on Monday – many lawmakers are out of town.
It is not unprecedented for trucks and farm equipment to block roads in and around Canada’s Parliament Buildings. In 2019, a convoy protesting oil pipeline restrictions entered the city and blocked traffic.
But this contestation is distinguished in two ways. The organizers raised approximately C$7.5 million, or $5.8 million, on GoFundMe during the convoy’s trips. Of that total, C$1 million was released on Friday, after the organizer submitted “a clear distribution plan for funds used to cover participants’ fuel costs,” GoFundMe said in an email.
The movement has also drawn extremist rhetoric online. Some people, who may not be involved in the convoy itself, have called for an attack on Parliament similar to the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Such calls for violence have been denounced by one of the main organizers of the convoy.
Chief Sloly, whose force has been in contact with organizers, downplayed the prospect of violence from the main group. But, he said, “we don’t know all of the side manifestations that may be occurring, and/or the lone wolf individuals that may fit into the mix for various reasons.”
Groups of people, many waving Canadian flags, encouraged convoys from overpasses as they made their way to the capital. Several of the early arrivals had flags or signs with a vulgarity in front of Mr. Trudeau’s name (with one of the letters replaced by a Canadian maple leaf).
The original convoy was organized by Tamara Lich, secretary of the relatively new Maverick Party, a centre-right group that began promoting the separation of Canada’s three western prairie provinces from the rest of the country.
While Ms. Lich’s convoy campaign is separate from her work with the Maverick party, Jay Hill, the party’s acting leader, said the convoy tapped into what he believes is widespread sentiment in Canada.
“This thing has really taken on a life of its own,” said Hill, a former Conservative MP from Alberta. “The vast majority of people who either came on board to take part in the truck convoy or those who made donations to support it financially have just reached a point of frustration and exasperation with these lockdowns and the continued restrictions that they want someone to talk and say “enough” to the federal government.
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The convoy caught the attention of several well-known critics of Covid restrictions in the United States, including Elon Musk, Donald Trump Jr. and Joe Rogan, who supported the protesters on social media and talk shows.
Mr Trudeau called the protesters a “small marginal minority”. He repeatedly said that 90% of Canadian truckers are vaccinated.
Opinion polls have consistently shown strong support in Canada for public health measures aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, which have been imposed for the most part by provincial governments, many led by Conservatives. Over 77% of Canadians are fully immunized.
Vaccination mandates for ship crews, railroads and airline workers have been in effect since October 30. On January 15, they have been extended to truckers returning from the United States. The requirement does not apply to the vast majority of the country’s more than 300,000 truckers who use domestic routes.
Protesters and several Tory MPs blamed the new mandate for a shortage of goods.
“You’ve probably noticed empty shelves in your grocery store,” Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said in an online video posted Thursday. “It’s because Justin Trudeau put in place a mandate that all truckers entering this country, whether Canadian or American, must be fully vaccinated.”
David Soberman, a professor who studies logistics at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said empty shelves in Canadian stores were mostly linked to other factors, such as a global shortage of shipping containers. , disruptions in the production of certain products and a lack of employees to restock the shelves because of Covid infections.
“There is definitely an amplification and a fear campaign from people who are not happy with this rule,” he said. “But I don’t really think it has a major impact on supermarkets in Canada.”
Mr. Trudeau has made it clear that the protest will not lead to his government canceling the mandate for the vaccine. In any case, it would have no practical effect: the United States has made vaccinations mandatory for Canadian truckers crossing its border from January 22.
Omar Alghabra, the Minister of Transport, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Friday that there had been no significant drop in cross-border road traffic since the introduction of the vaccination mandate for either country.