Over the weekend, thousands of protesters converged on the Canadian capital to call for an end to pandemic restrictions and vaccine mandates they denounced as government overreach, a demonstration that grew raucous at times with some participants harassing soup kitchen workers, brandishing flags and signs with Nazi symbols, and desecrating a war memorial.
The protests began as a convoy of truckers rallying against a new vaccine mandate for truck drivers crossing the United States-Canada border, and those taking part were generally peaceful as they traveled across the country. But the loosely organized convoy garnered additional support and picked up speed along the way, morphing into a broader challenge of public health restrictions designed to combat the pandemic and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada before it eventually congregated in Ottawa on Saturday. Trudeau has strongly condemned their actions.
Here is what we know about the unfolding situation.
Who is involved and what are they saying?
Dubbed the “Freedom Convoy,” the movement began with a coalition of truckers aiming to challenge a regulation implemented this month by the Canadian government that requires truckers returning from the United States to show proof of vaccination. If not fully vaccinated, those traveling across the border will face testing and quarantine requirements. The United States has imposed the same mandate on foreign nationals.
But the driving purpose of the convoy eventually shifted to adopt a wider focus: a total repudiation and denouncement of restrictions and lockdown measures. Much of the frustration felt by pandemic-weary citizens who joined in on the protests was directed specifically at Trudeau.
The protest received widespread attention and raised concerns about the potential for violence among both Trudeau and local law enforcement, who warned that extremist and far-right groups might become involved to exercise their own agenda, despite organizers rebuking them. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a nonprofit that monitors and researches hate groups, said some of the leaders of the demonstrations and those promoting crowdfunding initiatives are “previously known figures in Canada’s far-right ecosystem.”
The protests have attracted the attention and approval of those including Donald Trump Jr. and Tesla billionaire Elon Musk. The convoy also received the support of some conservative and right-leaning politicians in Canada. Meanwhile, Canadians have largely criticized those taking part and some of the cruder actions that took place over the weekend.
What is happening with the protests?
Thousands of demonstrators gathered around the Parliament on Saturday, kicking off a series of protests, some of which have sparked widespread outrage. According to the New York Times, private vehicles outnumbered the big rigs that first made up the convoy, clogging the streets, while protesters marched on foot. Because the House of Commons was not in session over the weekend — it resumed sitting on Monday — many lawmakers were out of town.
Several criminal investigations are underway in relation to the desecration of the National War Memorial/Terry Fox statue, threatening/illegal/intimidating behaviour to police/city workers and other individuals and damage to a city vehicle. 1/2— Ottawa Police (@OttawaPolice) January 30, 2022
By Monday, the demonstrations had evolved to the point that Trudeau was prompted to lash out against the actions of protesters and multiple criminal investigations were said to be underway in connection to various incidents that occurred. At least two people have been charged with crimes, Ottawa police said on Tuesday.
Friends, it's been a difficult 24 hours. Staff harassed for meals. A service user and security guard assaulted. Through it all, you have donated and filled our hearts with gratitude. Every cent will support people experiencing homelessness. Thank you. See our statement ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/TYHD8r8aLo— Shepherds of Good Hope (@sghottawa) January 30, 2022
Shepherds of Good Hope, a homeless shelter in Ottawa, said staff members were harassed for meals and that a service user and security guard were assaulted. But the organization expressed its gratitude to those who made donations in response.
“It’s been an incredibly difficult weekend for our downtown shelter and soup kitchen programs,” the center said in a statement. “While we are not certain of exact numbers, the demands for meals and verbal altercations continued for several hours over the dinner period.”
Meanwhile, the Rideau Centre, a major shopping mall downtown, has closed its doors until Feb. 6 after it was reported that a sizable number of protesters were maskless in defiance of public health orders and were also engaging in confrontations with employees.
Very disconcerting to still see individuals trivializing the #Holocaust in protest. We repeat: there's no comparison between current pandemic measures and the dehumanization and genocide of Jews by the Nazis. Such use of the yellow star is a heinous form of Holocaust distortion. https://t.co/D4RpjVqdxJ— Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (@CanadianFSWC) February 1, 2022
But many Canadians were most incensed by the use of Nazi symbolism on protest signs and reports that war memorials had been desecrated.
“The use of Nazi symbols as a means to compare anything in our lives today here in Canada to the experience of Jews living under Nazi rule is a heinous form of Holocaust distortion,” the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement.
In a separate incident, demonstrators placed an upside-down Canadian flag onto the statue of Terry Fox, put a protest sign in its hands that read, “Mandate freedom,” and lodged a baseball cap on its head. Fox is widely viewed as a national hero. After he lost his leg to bone cancer when he was young, he then proceeded to set off in 1980 on a “cross-Canada run to raise funds for cancer research,” according to the Terry Fox Foundation.
Terry Fox died of cancer that he exacerbated on his Marathon of Hope running across Canada trying to raise money to fight a deadly disease - quite the opposite of what’s happening here. Have a protest, do your thing, don’t disrespect this monument of a Canadian hero. https://t.co/b10nsyuRXS— James Moore (@JamesMoore_org) January 29, 2022
This is completely unacceptable and I have asked city bylaw to have the placard and upside down Canadian flag taken down. This kind of stunt by protesters does not help their cause— Jim Watson (@JimWatsonOttawa) January 29, 2022
Why is it angering people and how has the government responded?
Trudeau, who is currently quarantining with his family after he and two of his three children tested positive for the coronavirus, issued a rebuke of the protesters on Monday. While people have a right to protest, the prime minister said, there is “no place in our country for threats, violence, or hatred.” He added that many were “shocked and frankly disgusted by the behavior displayed by some people protesting in our nation’s capital.”
“I want to be very clear: We are not intimidated by those who hurl insults and abuse at small business workers and steal food from the homeless,” he 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.”
General Wayne Eyre, the chief of defense in Canada, condemned the actions of various demonstrators. He said he was “sickened to see protesters dance on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and desecrate the National War Memorial.”
“Generations of Canadians have fought and died for our rights, including free speech, but not this,” Eyre tweeted. “Those involved should hang their heads in shame.”
Trudeau said in an interview with the Canadian Press ahead of the protests that “Canadians are not represented by this very troubling, small, but very vocal minority.” He acknowledged that while many have grown tired of the pandemic, the only way out of it is to “trust in science, to follow public health rules, and to get vaccinated.” His government does not intend on reversing the vaccine mandate for truckers.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance has said that the “vast majority of the Canadian trucking industry is vaccinated” and that as an industry “we must adapt and comply with this mandate.” The group of Canadian trucking associations added that “it also appears that a great number of these protesters have no connection to the trucking industry and have a separate agenda.”
What might come next as a result of the demonstrations?
More than a dozen investigations stemming from the demonstration are underway, Ottawa police said. Police also reported that there has been a reduction in demonstrators, with about 50 people located on Parliament Hill and another 200 gathered nearby. Although the crowd has thinned, some have indicated that they do not plan on leaving until their demands are met.
“Police are aware that many demonstrators have announced their intention to stay in place,” police said. “This will continue to cause major traffic, noise, and safety issues in the downtown core. We urge all residents to avoid travel to the core.”
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson told reporters on Monday that the protesters had “worn out their welcome.”
“As the capital of Canada, we’re used to demonstrations, but it’s time for this one to move on,” Watson said.
Meanwhile, a blockade of approximately 100 trucks has been in place on the north side of the border crossing between Alberta in Canada and Montana since Saturday, the Toronto Star reported. Those participating are also protesting the vaccination mandates put in place for truck drivers. Royal Canadian Mounted Police attempted to clear out the protesters on Tuesday, but were met with violence, the Star reported.
Blocking truckers & people from getting home or doing their jobs & exhibiting racist symbols to scare minorities in convoys is unacceptable & illegal.— Jasvir Deol (@JasvirDeol_) January 31, 2022
Those stuck are without food, medications or have emergencies
Jason Kenney must act to protect Albertans & our economy. #ableg pic.twitter.com/E9cvmW0JiD