Raucous protests in Canada’s capital continued Sunday over trucker vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 health restrictions, but the crowd thinned from its height a day earlier after drawing military and political rebukes for poor behavior.
The main avenue outside the parliament buildings in Ottawa remained blockaded by a line of big rigs, and protesters speaking on a makeshift stage said they don’t intend to leave anytime soon. Canada’s legislature has been on a winter break since mid-December, but is scheduled to resume sitting on Monday.
The trucker convoy has drawn an unusual amount of global attention, most recently from Donald Trump. “We want those great Canadian truckers to know that we are with them all the way,” the former U.S. president told a Texas rally Saturday night. The protesters in Ottawa are “doing more to defend American freedom than our own leaders by far,” he said.
But images of Nazi flags, along with footage of vehicles parked on the national war memorial with beer-drinking protesters dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dealt a blow to the convoy’s credibility.
General Wayne Eyre, Canada’s top soldier, tweeted that he was “sickened” by the footage at the war memorial, which was the site of a terrorist attack in 2014 that killed a 24-year-old soldier.
“Generations of Canadians have fought and died for our rights, including free speech, but not this,” Eyre said. “Those involved should hang their heads in shame.”
The demonstrations have paralyzed traffic in the city’s core, but have been largely peaceful so far. Ottawa police, who haven’t yet released a crowd-size estimate, said Sunday morning they are investigating various incidents but have so far made no arrests.
Even so, the protests have generated substantial controversy.
Images of swastikas and a Confederate flag appearing near the main demonstrations circulated on social media, and a soup kitchen near parliament said its staff were intimidated by some demonstrators into giving them free food. A statue of Terry Fox, an amputee who became a Canadian icon for attempting a cross-country trek to raise money for cancer research, was draped with protest propaganda.
Ottawa’s downtown liquor stores were closed early on Saturday and remained shuttered Sunday. Other local businesses have been swamped by demonstrators defying mask mandates, and a large downtown shopping mall closed after protesters refused to follow COVID-19 regulations.
Politically, the protest has exacerbated long-standing tensions in the main opposition Conservative Party.
Leader Erin O’Toole has attempted to walk a fine line, embracing the cause of aggrieved truckers in general while distancing himself from the actual protest and its inflammatory rhetoric, such as equating Canada’s vaccine mandates to Nazism.
But multiple Conservative lawmakers have fully embraced the protest and filmed themselves attending in person. Michael Cooper, who represents a district in oil-producing Alberta, gave a TV interview Saturday afternoon while a protester behind waved an upside-down Canadian flag with a swastika scrawled on it. (Cooper later issued a statement saying he was unassociated with the protester and unaware of the flag.)
After the controversy at the war memorial, O’Toole — who is a military veteran — condemned the protesters’ conduct.
“I support the right to peacefully protest but that should not be confused with blatant disrespect for the men and women who have served, inspired, and protected our country,” O’Toole said in a series of tweets Saturday night. “The individuals desecrating these memorials should be ashamed and their behavior undermines the brave Canadians who have sacrificed for our country.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who earlier denounced the protest as the work of a “fringe minority,” has been staying in an undisclosed location in the Ottawa region. Trudeau is also currently isolating after one of his children tested positive for Covid. The prime minister has so far tested negative.
Police and the parliamentary security service haven’t yet said how they will handle the situation if the semi trucks refuse to budge from Ottawa’s streets. Protest organizers claim they won’t leave until all vaccine mandates are lifted, but most such public-health orders are in the jurisdiction of provincial governments.
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