Thousands of opponents of vaccine mandates have gathered in Canadian cities as mostly peaceful but noisy protests against COVID-19 restrictions spread from the national capital.
About 5,000 people demonstrated in Ottawa, police said Saturday, while hundreds more gathered in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, as well as in Quebec City, Fredericton and Winnipeg.
“We are all sick and tired of mandates, intimidation, living in a big prison,” Robert, a Toronto protester who did not give his last name, told Reuters.
“We just want to get back to normal without having to take the poison they call vaccines into our veins.
The Freedom Convoy began as a move against Canada’s vaccine requirement for cross-border truck drivers, but has become a rallying point against public health measures and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government – although it is responsible for several measures, most of which were introduced by the provincial governments.
Protesters have closed downtown Ottawa for eight days now.
Police say the well-organized blockade relied in part on funding from sympathizers in the United States.
On Saturday, protesters gathered around campfires in bone-freezing temperatures and erected portable saunas and bouncy castles for children in front of parliament as they waved Canadian flags and shouted anti-government slogans.
Their chants of “freedom” were met with shouts of “go home” by a small group of counter-protesters who were fed up with the week-long occupation of the capital.
However, the atmosphere seemed 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 baked hot dogs and distributed baked goods under tarpaulins as two men on horseback rode through the city, one carrying a flag in support of former US President Donald Trump.
Trump has spoken out in support of truck drivers against “the harsh policies of far-left lunatic Justin Trudeau, who destroyed Canada with insane COVID mandates.”
Al Jazeera’s Shihab Ratansi, speaking from the site of the blockade, said those who joined Saturday’s protest “raise a number of issues”.
“Protest organizers, who are on the far right of Canadian politics, are pushing for the overthrow of the government,” he said. “But there are also anti-waxers, religious fundamentalists and those who raise issues that concern those on the right and left – such as the power of pharmaceutical companies or the consequences of civil liberties mandates. And there were those who simply had enough pandemic restrictions.
After the blockade entered its second week, Canadian authorities on Saturday again called on protesters to “go home.”
“The protesters in Ottawa have expressed their views. The whole country heard their opinion, “Transport Minister Omar Algabra said, urging protesters to” go home and engage elected officials “.
In an emergency meeting late Saturday, Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloley also called for an “additional influx of resources” to end what he called a “siege” of the city.
“This is a threat to democracy, this is a nationwide uprising, this is madness,” he said.
But Trudeau, who said the protesters were only an “extreme minority”, ruled out using troops against truck drivers in the capital earlier this week. Meanwhile, protest coordinator Jim Torma told AFP that the protesters would not back down.
“They won’t hide us,” Torma said. “We will enter [politicians’] face for as long as necessary ‘to end public health restrictions.
But Al Jazeera’s Ratanzi said Canadian authorities, as well as protest organizers, were facing “challenging” times.
“Studies show that the majority of Canadians are tired of dealing with the pandemic by both federal and provincial authorities. But they also show great support for public health mandates and measures designed to ease tensions over the health system, “he said. “So it’s hard to see how it’s going to end.”
Police in other Canadian cities, meanwhile, said they had learned from Ottawa’s difficulties and developed strategies designed to protect key infrastructure, such as vital traffic corridors and hospitals, and prevent possible violence.
In Toronto, police set up roadblocks in the city center, preventing protesters in trucks or cars from approaching the provincial legislature, which is located near five major hospitals.
Still, several hundred protesters gathered on the south side of the Ontario legislature, chanting “liberte” over a reggae roaring from loudspeakers and sports signs reading “Freedom.”
Demonstrators also gathered in Quebec City, Fredericton and Winnipeg, and rallies were also planned for Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria and the US border crossing in Coates, Alta.
The Freedom Convoy launched on Canada’s Pacific coast in late January and gathered supporters on the long journey to the capital – as well as millions of dollars in online fundraising, which GoFundMe canceled late Friday after receiving reports of “violence and illegal activity” .
The group raised about C $ 10.1 million ($ 8 million).
The website initially said it would reimburse any requests made by February 19 and give the rest to verified charities, but on Saturday GoFundMe said it would reimburse all donations automatically.
Ottawa residents, meanwhile, are fed up with the chaos that the protests have brought to the streets and have filed a class action lawsuit, demanding $ 10 million ($ 8 million) from organizers.
“The commissioners have been terrorizing us for seven or eight days now,” student Saffron Binder told AFP. “The occupation must end.”