Justin Trudeau denounced abusive behavior and racist imagery at a protest against vaccine mandates that saw lines of big-rig trucks blockade the downtown core of Canada’s capital.
The Liberal prime minister, speaking Monday from an Ottawa-area cottage where he is isolating after testing positive for COVID-19, also used weekend antics by members of the protest convoy to criticize his Conservative political opponents.
“Over the past few days, Canadians were shocked and -- frankly -- disgusted by the behavior displayed by some people protesting in our nation’s capital,” Trudeau said at a virtual news conference.
The convoy of truckers and other activists swelled to its height Saturday, when thousands of people marched around the parliamentary precinct. Though non-violent so far, an image of a Nazi flag, and a separate instance of a Confederate flag, circulated on social media along with footage of beer-drinking protesters dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A nearby soup kitchen was also raided.
“We are not intimidated by those who hurl insults and abuse at small business workers and steal food from the homeless,” Trudeau said. “We won’t give in to those who fly racist flags. We won’t cave to those who engage in vandalism or dishonor the memory of our veterans.”
The protest has drawn international attention and become a catch-all movement against COVID restrictions, with many demonstrators carrying profane anti-Trudeau flags and signs.
Crowds were much thinner on Monday, but Ottawa’s central core remains impassable due to a large cluster of semi trucks and other vehicles parked on the streets surrounding the parliament buildings. The convoy prompted one downtown school to close, along with two libraries and a daycare at city hall.
Local businesses have been swamped by demonstrators defying mask mandates and some downtown shops proactively closed their doors due to security concerns. Protest organizers say they don’t intend to leave until all vaccine mandates are lifted, despite the fact most such orders are the jurisdiction of provincial governments.
The convoy is exacerbating long-standing tensions within the main opposition Conservative Party. Leader Erin O’Toole has attempted to walk a fine line, embracing the cause of aggrieved truckers in general while distancing himself from the actual protest and its inflammatory rhetoric.
O’Toole met with a group of truckers outside the city on Friday, and released a video on social media arguing Trudeau has turned his back on the industry. But on Saturday night he denounced the desecration of the war memorial and has otherwise stayed away from the demonstrations, despite other lawmakers in his party attending in person.
Trudeau sought to portray the Conservative leader’s strategy as concerning nonetheless.
“All politicians need to think very carefully about who they’re supporting, about what messages they’re putting out. We have seen over the past many, many months Conservative politicians sharing disinformation about vaccines, encouraging conspiracy theories online,” the prime minister said.
“Erin O’Toole is going to need to reflect very carefully on how he’s walking a path that supports these people who do not represent truckers, let alone the vast majority of Canadians,” Trudeau added.
It’s unclear where the protest goes from here. Ottawa police have said they have so far avoided ticketing or towing vehicles in order to de-escalate the situation, but local residents -- including a provincial cabinet minister -- are pushing back against the disruption to daily life.
Pressed on whether he is using the bad behavior of some protesters to smear the whole group, Trudeau said he’s seen “many, many protests” over the years, and none has had “the level of hateful rhetoric, of swastikas, of abuse towards our fellow citizens” that this one has featured.
He also denounced the vaccine disinformation that some protesters have espoused, attributing it to “online conspiracy theorists” who “go on about microchips, about God knows what else that go with the tinfoil hats.”