Crowds of trucks jammed Ottawa streets and crowds packed Parliament Hill on Saturday to protest the federal Liberal government, vaccine mandates and COVID-19 restrictions, with thousands more expected to arrive by end-of-day.
The sounds of honking horns echoed around the core of the national capital from vehicles parked and idling in front of the parliamentary buildings and around the National War Memorial.
Demonstrators marched up and down Wellington Street, which runs right in front of Parliament Hill and the Prime Minister's Office, flying the national flag, the Quebec flag and the occasional American flag.
Many of those in attendance appeared to be unmasked. Some could be seen carrying copies of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Others carried signs reading "God keep our land glorious and free," "Make Canada great again," and "we are here for our freedom." Still others bore expletive-laden signs targeting Trudeau.
Hundreds more vehicles from Western Canada, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces are expected to arrive in the next few hours to join those already in the capital.
Police were already out keeping emergency lanes open. Ottawa police warned that vehicles obstructing those lanes or other locations that must be kept clear for public safety reasons would be towed. Officers planned to remain downtown until crowds disperse.
The Parliamentary Protective Service expects as many as 10,000 protesters as part of a weekend-long rally. Though the aim of the protest is ostensibly to oppose vaccine mandates for truck drivers crossing the Canada-U.S. border, attendees said that is only a small part of their demands.
"I can travel freely through the border, and not be in contact with anyone. Yet I'm locked into my own country right now," said Tom Pappin, who came from just outside Ottawa. "I can't go on a holiday. I can't go to a restaurant, I can't go bowling. I can't go to a movie. You know, these are things that it's just gotten out of control."
The 52-year-old said the gathering wouldn't likely be a one day protests, saying that attendees are likely to stay parked by Parliament until vaccine mandates are lifted. Some protesters have said they wouldn't leave until public-health restrictions are lifted or Justin Trudeau is forced out as prime minister.
While the federal government has imposed a vaccine mandate for federally regulated workers and at the Canada-U.S. border, almost all COVID-19 restrictions fall to provincial jurisdiction. That includes mask mandates, business and school closures, and other public and private gathering limits.
Phil Haggart was among the group to counter-protest the convoy's message, saying he wanted to show that there were voices in favour of public health measures to slow the spread of the virus.
"Masks are important, vaccines are important, and mandates are important only because we need them to stay alive and not fill our hospitals up," he said as protestors rang cow bells close by.
While the mood of attendees appeared jovial and peaceful, not everyone was optimistic that the government would fold to their demands.
"It's a nice thought, but I don't think anything will happen immediately," said Phil Powers, a truck driver from Oshawa, Ont., who parked his trailer truck in front of Parliament Hill on Wellington Street for the weekend.
"This is the Canadian space to have the debate, so that's why we're here."
Organizers of the group that mainly planned the truckers' convoy, Canada Unity, are expected to address the crowds Saturday.
The memo being pushed by Canada Unity unlawfully demands Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and the Senate force the federal and provincial governments to lift all COVID-19 restrictions, including vaccine mandates. It does not mention truckers, and was initially sent to the Senate and Simon on Dec. 11.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance issued a statement Saturday saying it appears that a great number of the protestors in and heading to Ottawa "have no connection to the trucking industry and have a separate agenda" beyond the cross-border vaccine requirement.
To the truckers in attendance, the association said their behaviour will impact the "majority of your colleagues from coast-to-coast who do not share your opinion but share your passion for the industry and country."
Police have warned their intelligence is flagging the potential for violence. Local law enforcement is working with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, RCMP and other agencies to identify any potential threats to public safety.
- With files from Laura Osman and Mia Rabson
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2022.
Stephanie Taylor, Erika Ibrahim and Jordan Press, The Canadian Press