Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has denounced “symbols of hatred and division” that were on display during mass demonstrations by anti-vaccine truckers and their supporters in the capital, Ottawa.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Trudeau said that while people have a right to protest, “hate can never be the answer”.
“Over the past few days, Canadians were shocked and frankly disgusted by the behaviour displayed by some people protesting in our nation’s capital,” Trudeau said during a news conference.
“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. We won’t give in to those who fly racist flags. We won’t cave to those who engage in vandalism or dishonour the memory of our veterans.”
Participants in the so-called “Freedom Convoy” began arriving in Ottawa on Friday from across the country, and a crowd of thousands marched through the city the next day to denounce a coronavirus vaccine mandate for truckers driving across the Canada-US border.
While some protesters raised grievances with the vaccine mandate and wider COVID-19 policies in Canada, experts last week pointed out that known far-right activists who espouse Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and other hateful views were among the event organisers.
Images shared on social media during the weekend showed protesters waving flags with swastikas on them, as well as US Confederate flags – which civil rights groups say is a symbol of white supremacy.
Global News journalist Marc-Andre Cossette also tweeted a photo of a flag of the Three Percenters, a far-right, anti-government militia that Canada designated as a “terrorist” organisation last year, that was draped to the hood of a truck parked near Parliament Hill.
“To anyone who joined the convoy but is rightly uncomfortable with the symbols of hatred and division on display: join with your fellow Canadians, be courageous and speak out – do not stand for or with intolerance and hate,” Trudeau said on Monday.
Far more concerning are the extremists leading this protest and their supporters among the crowd. The Nazi and Confederate flags were flown in Ottawa this weekend. The flag of the Three Percenters, a listed terrorist entity, was draped over the hood of a truck parked by the Hill. pic.twitter.com/XMLz4gINWB
— Marc-André Cossette (@MarcCossette) January 31, 2022
‘Tired and frightened’
Many Canadians also were angered when demonstrators parked vehicles on the site of a monument to fallen soldiers, as well as defaced a statue of Terry Fox, a widely revered, late Canadian athlete who ran across the country in the 1980s to raise money for cancer research after one of his legs was amputated.
Meanwhile, Ottawa residents have complained of incessant honking and restrictions on movement in the downtown area, where many of the protesters have parked their vehicles, while others said they were verbally harassed and intimidated.
“People live in the downtown; they’re sick and tired of the diesel fumes and the honking of the horn. Their kids can’t get to sleep. They feel fearful,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said in an interview with CBC News on Monday morning.
“We’ve had a number of occasions where people have been intimidated and yelled at for wearing a mask outside,” Watson said. “It just is illogical. Even their theme of coming here to fight for freedom – you’re fighting against some of the rare tools we have to fight COVID-19.”
Shepherds of Good Hope, a homeless shelter in downtown Ottawa, said in a statement on Sunday that staff and volunteers in its soup kitchen were subjected to “verbal harassment and pressure” from protesters seeking meals.
One member of the shelter community was assaulted by protesters, the shelter said, and a security guard who went to the person’s aid “was threatened and called racial slurs”.
A reporter at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, Elizabeth Payne, also cited a spokesperson for the Ottawa Paramedic Service as reporting that rocks were thrown at an ambulance and racial slurs were made against the paramedic from a truck that was part of the protest convoy. “Paramedics working downtown asked for police escorts because they didn’t feel safe,” she tweeted.
Catherine McKenney, an Ottawa city councillor, tweeted on Monday morning that hundreds of residents had expressed feeling “tired & frightened at what they are experiencing in their neighbourhoods”.
McKenney said they would attend a meeting with city and police officials to raise those concerns. “And I will say that we need to call on the provincial and federal governments for help. We have been patient but we are fed up. It’s time to get our city back,” McKenney wrote.
Some Ottawa residents have criticised police for their response to the demonstrations.
In a statement on Sunday, the Ottawa Police Service said the cost of policing the protest is estimated at more than $800,000 Canadian ($628,000) per day, but said “police have avoided ticketing and towing vehicle[s] so as not to instigate confrontations with demonstrators”.
Illegal & disturbing activity continues throughout our residential neighborhoods. I’ve heard from 100s of residents who are tired & frightened at what they are experiencing in their neighbourhoods. I am hearing reports of trucks driving through red lights without pausing. /1
— Catherine McKenney (they/them) (@cmckenney) January 31, 2022
“Police are aware that many demonstrators have announced their intention to stay in place. This will continue to cause major traffic, noise and safety issues in the downtown core. We urge all residents to avoid travel” to the area, it said.
Even before protesters began arriving in Ottawa, organisers openly said their intention was to disrupt day-to-day life in the Canadian capital.
Organisers also said the demonstration went beyond the vaccine mandate for truck drivers, a vast majority of whom are vaccinated, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), a federation of provincial trucking associations that has denounced the protests. Some participants have vowed to remain outside Parliament Hill in Ottawa until all coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
“This is no longer about the mandate any more,” said Jason LaFace, the convoy’s main organiser in Ontario, who is not a trucker, as reported by CityNews last week. “This is about Canada, this is about our rights and how the government’s been manipulating the population and oppressing us all the time.”
Barbara Perry, a professor at Ontario Tech University and director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism, told Al Jazeera last week that the convoy has brought together “anti-vax sentiment, anti-lockdown sentiment, anti-government sentiment – and then even beyond that, the far-right [is] coming into play”.