TORONTO — A convoy of Canadian truckers and their supporters began arriving in Ottawa on Friday to protest a federal government vaccine requirement for cross-border truckers and other coronavirus public health measures, as police warned of social media actors inciting violence and “lone wolf individuals” seeking to disrupt it.
Both Canada and the United States announced last year that they would require truck drivers entering their respective countries to be fully vaccinated. Canada implemented its measure Jan. 15, while the U.S. requirement started on Jan. 22. Most cross-border trade between the two countries occurs over land.
The convoy’s size is unclear, and most of it is expected to arrive Saturday. Polls show vaccine mandates enjoy broad support here. Some 90 percent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, according to the transport minister. The Canadian Trucking Alliance said it doesn’t support protests “on public roadways, highways and bridges.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed the convoy as a “fringe minority” this week.
It has drawn support from several federal Conservative Party lawmakers, Donald Trump Jr. and Tesla founder Elon Musk, a known opponent of vaccine mandates. Some Canadians have gathered on highway overpasses to cheer the convoy on.
As it has approached Ottawa, officials have warned of disruptions. Analysts have raised concerns that what might have ostensibly started out as a protest against vaccine mandates has garnered support from people with a host of other grievances — conspiracy theorists, far-right agitators and anti-government types — and could devolve.
The head of security for the House of Commons advised lawmakers that some members of the convoy were seeking their addresses. Ottawa police say they’re preparing for risks including “counter demonstrations, blocking of intersections, interfering with critical infrastructure and unlawful and violent activity.”
“The organizers have advised us that this will be a peaceful demonstration,” Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said at a news conference Friday, but he added that police are aware of social media actors — in Canada and abroad — inciting violence and criminality.
“We do not know all of the parallel demonstrations that may occur and/or the lone wolf individuals who may insert themselves into the mix for various reasons,” he said.
He added that so far, the demonstrations have been peaceful.
According to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, several of the convoy’s organizers and amplifiers are not truckers but members of far-right groups. Some participants have called for a Jan. 6-type moment online, according to local media.
A GoFundMe campaign organized by Tamara Lich, a former regional coordinator for Wexit, a movement pushing for Alberta to separate from Canada, had raised $7.2 million as of Friday afternoon. The page says the mandates are “destroying the foundation of our businesses, industries and livelihoods.”
In an update posted to the GoFundMe page Friday, organizers insisted that the movement is peaceful and that threats or acts of violence could derail it. They also alleged, without evidence, that “there will be activists working at the behest of global authoritarians and think tanks to sabotage our movement.”
A GoFundMe spokesperson said it has allowed the organizers to withdraw $1 million, after they provided a distribution plan for funds being used to cover fuel costs.
“The trust and safety of our global community is our top priority,” the company said in a statement. “That is why we’re following our standard verification process and working directly with the campaign organizer to ensure the funds are distributed as stated by the organizer and in compliance with the law and our terms of service.”
Canada Unity, one of the groups behind the protests, posted a “memorandum of understanding” that it says it plans to present to the governor general, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Canada, and the Senate. It falsely claims that if the document acquires 6 million signatures it could force a referendum on the mandate “with a victory by default.”
Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole told reporters Thursday that he planned to meet with some of the truck drivers outside of Parliament Hill, but not the convoy’s organizers. He said that “extremist elements” should be called out and that there was a need to “take down the temperature.”
Canadian truckers rule— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 27, 2022
Some business groups have opposed the vaccine requirement for cross-border truckers, saying they could create food shortages and push up the costs of goods at a time when the country is recording inflation levels not seen in decades.
The chief executive of Metro, one of Canada’s largest grocers, told the Canadian Press this week that strains on the supply chains have been mostly impacted by the number of workers out sick with covid-19 and not the vaccine requirement.
Trudeau has resisted dropping the vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers. If he did, unvaccinated Canadian truckers would still be unable to cross the border because of the U.S. requirement. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he intended to work with U.S. governors to drop the requirements.
Most other public health measures are implemented by the provinces and territories, not Ottawa.
Sloly, the Ottawa police chief, said he didn’t know how long the demonstration would last.