Parliament Hill was a hubbub of honking Saturday as countless truckers and supporters flooded in from across the country to support what organizers call the Freedom Convoy. Ottawa Police expected between 1,000 and 2,000 vehicles to flood the city, 18-wheelers and regular cars alike gathering to protest public health measures. The convoy is planning to stay until at least Monday but will reportedly continue for as long as necessary. “The city’s going to get gridlocked. Completely,” said Jason LaFace, an organizer with Canada Unity, one of the groups behind the convoy.
Originally, the convoy was to protest vaccine mandates for truckers that cross the border during their deliveries; they are required to be double vaccinated before crossing, or else receive a negative test result and isolate for two-weeks after arriving. But drivers are alone in their trucks the entire drive, so there is no chance of contracting COVID except at pickup and drop-off. Truckers want to know why they should be mandated to vaccinate when everyday Canadians aren’t?
The original goal has been taken over, however, by people opposed to public health measures in general. The GoFundMe page attached to the convoy, started by Tamara Lich of Medicine Hat, Alberta, states that the aim of the convoy is to protest “rules and mandates that are destroying the foundation of our businesses, industries and livelihoods”. Lich didn’t respond to inquiries in time for publication, but the GoFundMe had raised over $8,000,000 at the time of writing. The money will be disbursed to drivers to help with the cost of fuel, food, and lodgings, with any leftover “donated to a credible Veterans organization which will be chosen by the donors”.
Widespread support has been seen for the convoy as people line the highways along its route, shouting and holding up signs to cheer drivers on. People are posting messages of support on social media, tuning into livestreams, and continuing to donate to the GoFundMe.
Not everyone is thrilled about the convoy, however. The people of Ottawa are despairing at the hijacking of their city streets, which will make commuting and getting essentials like groceries difficult. Police and traffic authorities are expecting significant backlogs of traffic for the entire weekend, roads and highway exits have been closed in anticipation, and the Ottawa Police advised on Twitter to, “Avoid any travel to the downtown core.”
Police have also advised that they are towing any illegally parked vehicles, specifically those that block emergency lanes, the Cenotaph, and other public spaces. Vehicles have already been towed away from one off-limits monument; « Parking on this sacred ground that includes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was a sign of complete disrespect, » Mayor Jim Watson said on Twitter.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) has made it clear it does not support « any protests on public roadways, highways and bridges, » and in a statement last weekend, the association noted the majority of the Canadian trucking industry is vaccinated. « The Government of Canada and the United States have now made being vaccinated a requirement to cross the border. This regulation is not changing so, as an industry, we must adapt and comply with this mandate, » said CTA president Stephen Laskowski.
In addition, officials and citizens are concerned by ties to far-right ideology that have been reported in the convoy. Confederate flags have been spotted flying from vehicles, and multiple participants have brought signs that compare vaccine mandates to Communism, Nazism, and the Holocaust.
One of the convoy’s leaders, Dave Steenburg, posted to a call-to-action video on TikTok late December with the logo of the Soldiers of Odin in the background. The Soldiers of Odin is a known far-right hate group that the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) warned was willing to use violence in service of its aims, although no activity has been noted from them for some time.
The federal government said it won’t be backing down on the cross-border vaccination rule in the face of the convoy. In a joint media statement released on January 25, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, and CTA President Stephen Laskowski said COVID-19 vaccines are the « most effective tool to reduce the risk of COVID-19 » and protect public health.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won’t be present to address the convoy, as he has had high-risk contact with COVID and will be isolating for the next five days, but he said in a press conference January 26 that, “The small fringe minority of people who are on their way to Ottawa, who are holding unacceptable views that they are expressing, do not represent the views of Canadians. (Canadians) who have been there for each other, who know that following the science and stepping up to protect each other is the best way to continue to ensure our freedoms, our rights, our values as a country.”
The convoy has sparked similar protests all over the world. A European Freedom Convoy is expected to arrive in Brussels on February 7, and rumours are circulating that an Australian convoy is in the works.