OTTAWA – Thousands of protesters across Canada took to the streets Saturday for the second straight weekend, snarling traffic, disrupting commercial and residential neighborhoods and leading police to liken the protests to a “siege” against democracy national.
What began last month with truckers complaining about mandatory vaccines to cross the border from the United States has become a catch-all movement for various anti-government causes, exposing deep resentments on the Canadian political right.
As police and officials braced for rowdy crowds and potential violence, the atmosphere of protests midday Saturday, though rowdy, has mostly remained peaceful and festive.
But police in Ottawa, the capital, acknowledged being overwhelmed by crowds and warned that loud and disruptive protests posed a real threat.
“It’s a seat. It’s something different in our democracy than I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly. “We do not have enough resources to adequately and effectively deal with this situation,” while dealing with routine policing, he added.
In Ottawa, despite freezing temperatures, a band performed on the street outside Parliament Hill under a Canadian flag hanging from a large construction crane. Nearby, several inflatable bouncy castles were set up and makeshift canteens spread across the city center handing out food.
While there were no serious injuries or uncontrolled violence associated with last week’s protests, they nonetheless paralyzed downtown Ottawa with traffic, noise and complaints of harassment.
“I get hundreds – and I’m not exaggerating – hundreds of emails saying, ‘I went out shopping, I was yelled at, I was harassed. I was followed in the street, I’m so scared that I won’t be able to get out,” said Catherine McKenney, city councilor for the area, Thursday afternoon.
Ottawa police said on Twitter on Saturday that they had received 400 calls related to the protests since they began, resulting in 50 investigations and four people charged.
Across the region, many businesses were shut down for days, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in lost sales. Those that stayed open struggled to enforce provincial mask rules.
About 200 to 250 trucks have remained downtown since last Saturday’s protest, their drivers honking their horns frequently. Supporters delivered diesel fuel to truckers, who piled firewood in parks and built a small wooden canteen next to a canal that serves as a popular skating rink in winter.
Many downtown Ottawa residents have expressed frustration over the city’s police for not aggressively putting down the protests.
On Friday, workers blocked some major downtown roads with concrete barriers as part of a new “escalation and containment strategy” announced by Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly. “The wave will deliver a clear message to protesters: lawlessness must end,” he said. “Our goal is to end the protests.”
In Toronto, dozens of cars, vans and heavy trucks were parked along the upscale downtown shopping district at noon, north of the gated area of the Legislative Building, with the sounds of car horns honking and cries of “freedom”. Protesters held up signs of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and used hockey sticks as masts for Canadian flags and Gadsden flags.
Toronto Police announcement that they arrested a man for assault with a weapon and told the public to avoid protests.
Landscape construction company owner Corey Ley traveled from his home in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes region, about 25 miles northeast of Toronto, to attend Saturday’s protest with his wife, two children and two friends. Mr Ley said they had packed plenty of supplies to stay at the site, including food, fuel and water. “I’m here until when, for as long as it takes,” said Mr. Ley, who said he wanted proof-of-vaccination and mask policies to be optional rather than mandatory.
In Quebec, dozens of tractor-trailer cabs were parked two deep for three blocks along one of the main thoroughfares downtown, adjacent to the provincial Legislative Assembly. Thousands of people lined the sidewalks, cheering on arriving or passing truckers, and large crowds gathered outside the Legislature, dancing and trying to keep warm as they listened to a series of speakers .
David LeBlanc, a Matapedia biologist, said it was time for the government to lift pandemic restrictions. “Our children are affected,” he said. “My son is 18 years old. He couldn’t take a trip with his friends in high school. He couldn’t get into the bar to have fun with his friends.
Bruno Marchand, the city’s mayor, said on Friday he had confidence in the police’s ability to maintain order, noting that the city faces 100 protests a year.
“If they have a cause, they should do it with respect. It’s the only way to be listened to and understood,” he told reporters. “Otherwise the police will have to do their job.”
Convoys of trucks of varying sizes gathered to protest near provincial legislatures in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia. A group of truckers continued to block a border crossing into the United States in Alberta. Counter-protesters took to the streets to block a convoy of trucks as it entered Vancouver, British Columbia.
Through GoFundMe, some of the truck convoy organizers raised C$10 million, or about $7.8 million, but the online service only handed out about $1 million. On Friday evening, he said in a statement that after speaking with police he would no longer release the money.
“We now have evidence from law enforcement that the previously peaceful protest has turned into an occupation, with police reports of violence and other illegal activity,” GoFundMe said.
Ian Austen reported from Ottawa, and Vjosa Isai of Toronto. Peter Black contributed reporting from Quebec City.