TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned protesters who displayed “symbols of hatred and division” during a demonstration against coronavirus public health measures in Ottawa over the weekend and said he would not be intimidated by those who hurled abuse.
Ottawa police said “several criminal investigations” were underway into “threatening” and “illegal” behavior after monuments including the National War Memorial were defaced and demonstrators displayed “illegal” and “intimidating” behavior to police and others, including staff at a soup kitchen for homeless people.
“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,” 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 convoy was initially planned to protest rules implemented in January by the U.S. and Canadian governments that require foreign truck drivers to be fully vaccinated to enter their countries. If Canada were to drop its rule, unvaccinated Canadian truckers would still be unable to enter the United States.
But it has snowballed into a demonstration against Trudeau, who was reelected in September with a minority government, and against coronavirus restrictions, which are mostly imposed by provincial governments.
“It’s everything, everything,” B.J. Dichter, the co-founder of a GoFundMe fundraiser for the convoy, told a handpicked group of reporters Sunday.
By Monday afternoon, the campaign had raised more than $9.2 million. GoFundMe told The Washington Post last week that $1 million of that had been released to organizers after they provided a distribution plan for money being used to cover fuel costs.
Canada Unity, the main group behind the protests, wants Governor General Mary Simon, who represents Queen Elizabeth II in Canada, and the Senate to drop all vaccine mandates or dissolve the government. Neither can unilaterally rescind government policy, and the governor general can’t dissolve a government that has not lost the confidence of the House of Commons.
The watchdog Canadian Anti-Hate Network has documented links between many of the convoy’s organizers and far-right groups.
On Monday, as Parliament resumed a hybrid session after the winter break, a line of big rigs and RVs continued to block the main road outside Parliament. Though many of the estimated 8,000 people who came to the city on Saturday have left, those who remain say they’ll dig in until the mandates are dropped.
“This is a demonstration unique in nature, massive in scale, polarizing in content and dangerous in literally every other aspect,” Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly told reporters on Monday.
Ottawa police advised residents to avoid the area. They said that there has been one arrest, and that they will set up a hotline for hate crimes linked to the demonstrations. Several facilities, including City Hall and a coronavirus vaccination clinic, were closed. The Rideau Center, a major shopping mall, was closed for the third straight day. Canada Unity said Sunday that it planned to gather 1,000 people to shop without masks in violation of public health orders.
“People had the opportunity to voice their frustration against government policy,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson told reporters on Monday, “and as the old saying goes, they’ve worn out their welcome.”
As the convoy approached Ottawa, several People’s Party of Canada and Conservative Party lawmakers cheered it on. Some argued the vaccination rule for cross-border truckers would lead to food shortages and rising food costs. Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole met with some protesters but not organizers.
Some lawmakers who backed the protests have since issued statements condemning the behavior of some members.
Protesters put an inverted Canadian flag — a distress signal — in the arms of the statue of Terry Fox, a Canadian who lost a leg to bone cancer and embarked on a historic cross-country run before his death in 1981 that raised millions of dollars for cancer research. He is considered a national hero.
“You don’t touch his statue. Ever,” tweeted Brad West, mayor of Port Coquitlam, the British Columbia city where Fox was raised.
I’m the Mayor of Terry Fox’s hometown. He’s our city’s hero, national inspiration and an unifier. Whatever your cause, you don’t get to appropriate his legacy and you don’t touch his statue. Ever. This should be removed immediately. @ottawacity @JimWatsonOttawa https://t.co/Souo0BodaJ— Brad West (@BradWestPoCo) January 29, 2022
When one Conservative lawmaker was interviewed on television, a Canadian flag with a swastika drawn on it could be seen in the background. Some protesters brandished Confederate flags.
Wayne Eyre, chief of Canada’s defense staff, said he was “sickened” by scenes of protesters dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and desecrating the National War Memorial.
“Generations of Canadians have fought and died for our rights, including free speech, but not this,” he said in a tweet. “Those involved should hang their heads in shame.”
Shepherds of Good Hope, a soup kitchen, said staff members were “harassed for meals” and others were verbally assaulted with racial slurs during what they called an “incredibly difficult weekend.”
The Canadian Trucking Alliance, an industry group, said Saturday that many of the people at the protests “do not have a connection to the trucking industry.” The alliance said the vast majority of its members are fully vaccinated.
The alliance said in a statement that it condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the desecration of what it called “sacred sites.” It said it had made donations to the Terry Fox Foundation and the Soldier On program, which is run by the Canadian armed forces to support the recovery of members and veterans dealing with physical or mental injuries from their service.
Trudeau, who said Monday that he and two of his children had tested positive for the coronavirus, criticized lawmakers for “exploiting people’s fears” and backing the convoy.
“If we choose to put up with and tacitly support conspiracy theorists and folks peddling disinformation, that’s a reflection on what we choose to do as politicians and who we are as leaders,” he said.
Public opinion polls show most Canadians support vaccine mandates. Quebec Premier François Legault, who is mulling a tax on the unvaccinated, is one of Canada’s most popular premiers. Nearly 80 percent of people in the country are fully vaccinated against the virus, according to Oxford University’s Our World In Data.
There is nevertheless a movement against public health measures. Some of its most prominent and vocal members are tied to far-right groups and push anti-government, antisemitic and Islamophobic views, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue reported in December.