Supporters arrive at Parliament Hill for the Freedom Truck Convoy to protest against Covid-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions in Ottawa, Canada (AFP)
OTTAWA: Hundreds of trucks and thousands of people blocked the streets of central Ottawa on Saturday as part of a self-titled “Freedom Convoy” to protest vaccine mandates required to cross the US border.
Flying the Canadian flag, waving banners demanding “Freedom” and chanting slogans against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the truckers were joined by thousands of other protesters angered not only by Covid-19 restrictions but by broader discontent with the government.
An enormous clamor rang out as hundreds of big trucks, their engines rumbling, sounded their air horns non-stop.
Closer to Parliament, families calmly marched on a bitterly cold day, while young people chanted and older people in the crowd banged pots and pans in protest under Trudeau’s office windows.
Canadian media said the prime minister and his family had been escorted out of their home and taken to a secret location in the capital, with much of the protesters’ wrath directed at Trudeau.
“I want it all to stop — these measures are unjustified,” said one demonstrator, 31-year-old businessman Philippe Castonguay, outside the Parliament building.
He had driven seven hours from northern Quebec province to make his feelings known: “The vaccination requirements are taking us toward a new society we never voted for,” he said.
The protest originated last week in western Canada, where dozens of truckers organized a convoy to drive from Vancouver to Ottawa to demonstrate against Covid-related restrictions, particularly a vaccination requirement for truck drivers.
Both Canada and the United States imposed that requirement in mid-January, affecting drivers who cross the 5,500-mile (9,000-kilometer) border- the world’s longest.
The movement rapidly gained steam as the original cross-country convoy was joined by others en route to the federal capital.
Their rallying point was Parliament Hill, in the heart of Ottawa.
Stephen Penderness, an unvaccinated 28-year-old trucker from Ontario, said he was protesting for all Canadians, not just his fellow drivers.
“It’s actually for every single person… everybody on the road,” he said. “It’s all about your free choice.”
Angela Bernal, a 67-year-old retired teacher said she wanted “governments to lift the measures,” adding that “maintaining the restrictions is useless.”
With a strong police presence around the federal capital the protest went off without major incident despite initial fears there could be violence.
The zone around Parliament was closed for the weekend, and Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly described the situation on the ground as “unique, fluid, risky and significant.”
Police said they fear some demonstrators will stay beyond the Saturday protest, snarling traffic further.
Trudeau, who is currently in isolation after a Covid exposure, on Wednesday defended the vaccination mandate, noting that 90 percent of drivers are already vaccinated.
He called the truckers headed for the city a “small fringe minority” who do not represent the majority of Canadians.
Trudeau said Friday that the truckers’ views — which he described as anti-science, anti-government and anti-society — posed a risk not only to themselves but to other Canadians as well.
The leader of the Conservative opposition, Erin O’Toole, urged the protesters to remain peaceful. He has promised to meet with the truckers.
The movement received an endorsement Thursday from Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who tweeted, “Canadian truckers rule.”
To date, 82 percent of Canadians aged five or older have been vaccinated against Covid-19. Among adults, the figure is 90 percent.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance, a major industry group, said the vast majority of the country’s truck drivers are vaccinated. It has “strongly disapproved” of the gathering in Ottawa.