Canadian Trucker Convoy Descends on Ottawa to Protest Vaccine Mandates
OTTAWA — After six days spent crossing Canada, a convoy that began as a protest against mandatory vaccination for truckers who travel to the United States was expected to arrive in Ottawa on Saturday, with its members and supporters airing a wide array of grievances.
The loosely organized “Freedom Rally” or “Freedom Convoy” of trucks and private vehicles set off from British Columbia and ebbed and flowed in size on the way to the capital, where the police were bracing for an unpredictable weekend of protests. In recent days, the convoy was joined by other, smaller groups from south and east of Ottawa.
The movement has attracted people opposed to all pandemic restrictions, others who want Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to step down and some who simply dislike 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 that they were coming to the capital in eight different streams.
“The demonstrations this weekend will be unique, fluid, risky and significant,” he said at a news conference.
On Friday afternoon, ahead of the main convoy’s arrival, a group of just over 100 heavy trucks and about 400 cars, pickup trucks and camper vans, along with some farm tractors — most festooned with various flags or anti-vaccination signs — began moving into downtown Ottawa as the police started sealing off the area.
Aside from denouncing the vaccine mandate, it was unclear what form the protests would take. One group affiliated with the convoy intends to try, for a second time, to convince the governor general, Canada’s official (if ceremonial) head of state as Queen Elizabeth’s representative, and the appointed members of the Senate to strike down all pandemic laws and rules imposed by all levels of government — something well beyond their constitutional powers.
Others have called for protests outside politicians’ homes. But since the House of Commons is currently not in session — it resumes sitting on Monday — many lawmakers are not in town.
It is not unprecedented for trucks and farm equipment to block the roads in and around Canada’s Parliament buildings. In 2019, a convoy protesting restrictions on oil pipelines rolled into the city and snarled traffic.
But this protest stands out in two ways. Organizers raised about 7.5 million Canadian dollars, or $5.8 million, on GoFundMe during the convoy’s travels. Of that total, one million Canadian dollars had been released as of Friday, after the organizer submitted “a clear distribution plan for funds being used to cover fuel costs of participants,” GoFundMe said in an email.
The movement has also attracted extremist rhetoric online. Some people, who may not be involved with the convoy itself, have called for an attack on Parliament similar to the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol. Such calls for violence have been denounced by one of the convoy’s key organizers.
Chief Sloly, whose force has been in touch with the organizers, downplayed the prospect of violence from the main group. But, he said, “We do not know all the parallel demonstrations that may occur, and/or the lone-wolf individuals who may insert themselves into the mix for various reasons.”
Groups of people, many of them waving Canadian flags, have cheered the convoys on 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 right-of-center group that was started to promote 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 in the Maverick Party, Jay Hill, the party’s interim leader, said the convoy had tapped into what he believes is widespread sentiment in Canada.
“This thing has really taken on a life of its own,” said Mr. Hill, a former Conservative member of Parliament from Alberta. “The vast majority of the people that have either come on board to participate in the truck convoy or those donating to support it financially have just reached a point of frustration and exasperation with these lockdowns and continuation of restrictions that they want someone to speak up and say ‘enough’ to the federal government.”
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The convoy has attracted the notice of several well-known critics of Covid restrictions in the United States, including Elon Musk, Donald Trump Jr. and Joe Rogan, who have supported the protesters on social media and talk shows.
Mr. Trudeau has called the protesters a “small fringe minority.” He has repeatedly said that 90 percent of Canada’s truckers are vaccinated.
Opinion polls have consistently shown strong support in Canada for public health measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, which have been imposed for the most part by provincial governments, many of them led by Conservatives. More than 77 percent of Canadians are fully vaccinated.
Vaccination mandates for ship crews, railways and airline workers have been in effect since Oct. 30. On Jan. 15, theywere extended to truck drivers returning from the United States. The requirement does not apply to the vast majority of the country’s more than 300,000 truckers who drive domestic routes.
The protesters, and several Conservative members of Parliament, have blamed the new mandate for shortages of goods.
“You probably noticed some empty shelves at your grocery store,” Erin O’Toole, the leader of the Conservative Party, said in an online video posted on Thursday. “That’s because Justin Trudeau put in a place a mandate that all truckers entering this country, either Canadian or American, have to be fully vaccinated.”
David Soberman, a professor who studies logistics at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, said that empty shelves in Canadian shops were mostly linked to other factors, like a global shortage of shipping containers, disruptions in the production of some products and a lack of employees to replenish shelves because of Covid infections.
“There’s definitely amplification and fear-mongering going on by the people who are not happy about this rule,” he said. “But I don’t really think it is actually having a major impact on supermarkets in Canada.”
Mr. Trudeau has made it clear that the protest will not lead his government to reverse the vaccine mandate. In any case, doing so would have no practical effect: The United States made vaccines mandatory for Canadian truckers crossing its border as of Jan. 22.
Omar Alghabra, the transport minister, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Friday that there had been no meaningful decline in cross-border truck traffic since either country’s vaccine mandate was put in place.