Thousands of people opposed to vaccine mandates have rallied in cities across Canada, as the mostly peaceful but noisy protests against COVID-19 restrictions spread from the national capital.
About 5,000 people demonstrated in Ottawa, police said on Saturday, while hundreds more gathered in Toronto, Canada’s biggest city, as well as in Quebec City, Fredericton and Winnipeg.
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“We’re all sick and tired of the mandates, of the intimidation, of living in one big prison,” Robert, a Toronto protester who did not give his last name, told the Reuters news agency.
“We just want to go back to normal without having to take into our veins the poison which they call vaccines.”
The “Freedom Convoy” began as a movement against a Canadian vaccine requirement for cross-border truckers but has turned into a rallying point against public health measures and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government – though it is responsible for few of the measures, most of which were put in place by provincial governments.
For eight days now, protesters have shut down Ottawa’s downtown core.
Police say the well-organised blockade has relied partly on funding from sympathizers in the United States.
On Saturday, demonstrators huddled around campfires in bone-chilling temperatures and erected portable saunas and bouncy castles for kids outside the parliament while waving Canadian flags and shouting anti-government slogans.
Their chants of “freedom” were met with cries of “go home” by a smaller group of counter-protesters fed up with the week-long occupation of the capital.
The atmosphere, however, appeared more festive – with dancing and fireworks – than a week earlier, when several protesters waved Confederate flags and Nazi symbols and clashed with locals.
‘Threat to democracy, madness’
Participants also roasted hotdogs and doled out baked goods under tarps, while two men on horseback traipsed through town, one carrying a flag in support of former US President Donald Trump.
Trump has spoken out in support of the truckers against “the harsh policies of far-left lunatic Justin Trudeau who has destroyed Canada with insane COVID mandates”.
Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi, reporting from the site of the blockade, said those who joined Saturday’s protest “are raising a range of issues”.
“The protest organisers, who are from the extreme right wing of Canadian politics, are demanding the overthrow of the government,” he said. “But there are also anti-vaxxers, religious fundamentalists, and those raising topics of concern for those on the right and the left – like the power of pharmaceutical companies, or the civil liberties implications of mandates. And there were those who simply had enough of the pandemic restrictions.”
With the blockade entering its second week, Canadian authorities on Saturday again urged the protesters to “go home”.
“The protesters in Ottawa have made their point. The entire country heard their point,” said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, calling on protesters to “go home and engage elected officials”.
At an emergency meeting late on Saturday, Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly also called for “an additional surge of resources” to bring an end to what he called a “siege” of the city.
“This is a threat to democracy, this is a nationwide insurrection, this is madness,” he said.
But Trudeau, who has said the protesters represent only a “fringe minority”, earlier this week ruled out the use of troops against the truckers in the capital. Meanwhile, protest coordinator Jim Torma told the AFP news agency that the protesters would not back down.
“They’re not going to hide us,” Torma said. “We’re going to be in [politicians’] faces as long as it takes” to force an end to public health restrictions.
But Al Jazeera’s Rattansi said the Canadian authorities, as well as protest organisers, were facing “challenging” times ahead.
“The polls do show a majority of Canadians are fed up with the handling of the pandemic by both federal and provincial authorities. But they also show overwhelming support for mandates and public health measures designed to ease the strain on the healthcare system,” he said. “So, it is difficult to see how all of this will end.”
Meanwhile, police forces in other Canadian cities said they have learned lessons from Ottawa’s predicament and have developed strategies to protect key infrastructure like vital traffic corridors and hospitals and also prevent possible violence.
In Toronto, police set up roadblocks throughout downtown, preventing any protesters in trucks or cars from getting close to the provincial legislature, which is located near five major hospitals.
Still, several hundred protesters gathered on the south side of the Ontario legislature, chanting “Liberté” over reggae blaring from loudspeakers, and holding up signs that read: “Freedom”.
Demonstrators also gathered in Quebec City, Fredericton and Winnipeg, with rallies also planned for Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria and the US border crossing in Coutts, Alta.
The Freedom Convoy started on Canada’s Pacific coast in late January and picked up supporters along the long trek to the capital – as well as millions of dollars in an online fundraiser that GoFundMe cancelled late on Friday after receiving reports of “violence and unlawful activity”.
The group had raised about 10.1m Canadian dollars ($8m).
The website initially said it would give refunds for any requests made by February 19 and would give remaining funds to verified charities, but on Saturday, GoFundMe said it would refund all donations automatically.
Ottawa residents, meanwhile, have had enough of the chaos the protests have brought to their streets and launched a class-action lawsuit seeking 10 million Canadian dollars ($8m) from organisers.
“The truckers have been terrorising us for seven, eight days now,” university student Saffron Binder told AFP. “The occupation must end.”