The Ottawa Police Service has called in reinforcements as the first trucks in a convoy organized to protest the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates arrive in the capital.
Ottawa police are also working with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, RCMP and other agencies to identify any potential threats to public safety, Chief Peter Sloly said during a briefing on Friday.
“Even during the course of this conference call we’ve had new intelligence coming in regards to local threats,” he said.
“That will continue and we will be as prepared as possible to identify those individuals or groups that may seek to come here physically to cause harm to the city, to disrupt lawful demonstrations, or that may be inciting hate and/or criminal violence online.”
The comments came as the first of hundreds of tractor trailers and other vehicles started to trickle into Ottawa, where they are expected to set up in the streets around Parliament Hill for the weekend — and possibly longer.
As of about noon, there were more than 100 people lining up along the sidewalk outside the gates to Parliament Hill. Cars and pickup trucks lined the north side of Wellington Street, far past the Parliament buildings.
People waved flags and hollered as supporters drove by honking their horns. Some seem to be settling in for the long haul, with one group setting up a barbecue on the sidewalk.
Around a core of truckers, including a big rig with an anti-Trudeau slogan, were supporters, many from Quebec, with banners protesting the prime minister and QR codes, which are needed to access restaurants and bars and, in Quebec, some big supermarkets.
Jay Koster made the trip from Fergus, Ont., to watch the protest and said he was “frustrated” with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government when it comes to vaccine mandates.
“People who choose not to get a vaccine, they’re Canadians,” he said. “We’re Canadians and we appreciate our freedom.”
Fran Adair, who travelled with her family to the protest from Sarnia, Ont., was sleeping in her van, parked outside the Parliament buildings. She said she wanted the situation to “go back to the way it was” and was opposed to vaccine mandates.
“Vaccines are not working. It’s a joke,” she said.
Two doses of an mRNA vaccine are 75 to 80 per cent effective against severe illness from Omicron, according to Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization. A booster shot reduces the risk further, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reporting that a third dose is at least 90 per cent effective at preventing hospitalization, including for the variant.
Sloly confirmed his officers had already dealt with some of the protesters, and that such interactions had so far been peaceful.
The police chief nonetheless acknowledged concerns about “parallel demonstrations,” as some with extreme, far-right and white supremacist views have latched onto the protest as the convoy has crossed the country.
Sloly and Acting Deputy Chief Patricia Ferguson nonetheless sought to reassure Ottawa residents and business owners that the police service was prepared — and would not hesitate to act if there is violence.
“We have reassigned and deployed Ottawa police officers and we have called for assistance from other police agencies to ensure we have appropriate resources to manage any eventuality,” Ferguson said.
“Our officers are here to protect the rights of individuals to demonstrate peacefully and in accordance with the law. We are also interested to intervene when violence and laws are broken and to restore peace.”
The federal government ended the truckers’ exemption to the vaccine mandate on Jan. 15, meaning Canadian truck drivers need to be fully vaccinated if they want to avoid a two-week quarantine and pre-arrival molecular test for COVID-19 before crossing into Canada.
Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated foreign national truck drivers who do not have a right to re-enter are turned away at the border and directed back to the United States.
The U.S. now also requires Canadian truckers to provide proof of vaccination to enter that country.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance has disavowed the protest and said more than 85 per cent of truckers are vaccinated. Many truckers have also posted on social media they continue to do their jobs and that the convoy doesn’t speak for them.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has warned people not to dismiss the protesters as simple freedom fighters, saying nobody wants to see the Parliament Hill demonstration descend into anti-government violence.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Thursday that he would meet with some of the truckers, adding that he and his MPs have long stood against the vaccine mandate they now face. But he also denounced those involved in the convoy who are espousing racist and extremist ideas.
Maxime Bernier, the bombastic and proudly unvaccinated leader of the right-wing People’s Party of Canada, which has failed to win any seats in the past two federal elections, said he would be in Ottawa for the next few days to support the protesters.
While the size of the convoy has been a source of debate, the Kingston Police Service said Friday morning that it had counted 17 full tractor trailers, 104 big rigs without trailers, 424 passenger vehicles and six recreational vehicles leaving the Ontario city.
Ferguson said Ottawa police are in contact with eight different convoy organizers, and that plans had been laid to ease the protesters’ movement through the city while ensuring first responders can travel unimpeded in emergencies.
Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said no single border measure is completely effective, but she compared public health restrictions to Swiss cheese, in which each slice has holes, but layering them helps to form a strong level of protection.
“With the improved availability and access to vaccinations, I think you’ve seen that the government has increased those vaccine requirements as time goes by because we just know how effective vaccines are,” she told a COVID-19 briefing on Friday.
—Laura Osman and Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press