“Our goal is to end the demonstration,” Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said Friday morning, acknowledging that the extended protest has led to “a lot of unacceptable and unlawful activities.”
The demonstrators are “highly organized, well funded, extremely committed to resisting all attempts to end the demonstrations safely,” he said.
“Freedom Convoy 2022” organizers raised more than C$10 million on GoFundMe. Convoys of semis, trucks and cars arrived last Friday from across the country, organized by individuals with extremist viewsdrawing a crowd of approximately 8,000 people last weekend, according to police.
A loud cacophony of semi-truck horns, honks and a portable train horn has been omnipresent on the hill. At night, fireworks have been set off to the ongoing dismay of nearby residents. Police have blocked traffic in parts of downtown to limit vehicles in the area, preventing some home care workers from accessing area residents living with disabilities.
The convoy has led to an increased security presence on the hill where the work of Parliament continued this week.
Some protesters have pledged to stay until federal, provincial and territorial governments end all vaccine mandates. Far-right groups are part of the demonstration, too, calling for a coup.
On Feb. 2, GoFundMe paused the fundraiser saying “recent events” prompted the company to take closer review of organizers’ plan for the money. The company had been called on by a parliamentary committee to ensure funds would not be used to “promote extremism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism and other forms of hate, which have been expressed among prominent organizers for the truck convoy currently in Ottawa.”
On Friday, GoFundMe issued a statement saying “the previously peaceful demonstration has become an occupation, with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity” and thus had violated its terms of service. With only C$1 million released from the C$10 million raised, donors are eligible to request a full refund by Feb. 19.
Potential foreign interference is also on the minds of politicians and police as the boisterous anti-vaccine occupation digs into its second week.
Ottawa police have told reporters “a significant element from the United States” is involved in the funding and organization of the protest.
Trump used news of the frozen campaign to promote his social media platform. “We are welcoming the Freedom Convoy with open arms to communicate freely on TruthSocial when we launch — coming very soon!” he said in a statement.
While a majority of protesters left after last weekend, others stayed, encamped on the hill. Cars and semis are illegally parked on roads, blocking traffic. The nearby Rideau Center mall closed for the week after maskless protesters harassed shop employees.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and police initially cited a high threat of violence for not ticketing and removing convoy-associated vehicles — but their comments brought swift, widespread criticism about double standards in policing.
The ongoing occupation has attracted a motley crew. From fully vaccinated citizens who oppose government mandates to members of hate groups with their own agendas to followers of Romana Didulo, Canada’s QAnon “Queen,” the commonality is a disdain for Trudeau.
“Fuck Trudeau” flags are commonplace as are chants of “Freedom” and calls to end lockdowns, which are made by provincial and municipal jurisdictions. The country’s national war memorial has been fenced off since individuals were filmed dancing on top of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
There are other distasteful messages on display, too. Signs bearing the Star of David display flippant messages equating the choice to be unvaccinated with the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.
Federal politicians spent the week denouncing symbols of hate, including Confederate and Nazi flags, spotted in the crowd. Stockpiles of propane and diesel accrued by convoyers near the prime minister’s office have also raised security concerns.
Ottawa Center MP Yasir Naqvi offered a field report in the House of Commons on Friday: “Members of my community are being harassed, being subjected to hurtful and racist symbols, and the incessant honking is unbearable,” he said.
“Our parking lots are being used as urinals, fireworks are being hurled down streets at night and the air is thick with diesel fuel. Residents are not sleeping and businesses are shuttered.”
With protesters expected to descend downtown again this weekend, police have added 150 officers to ground patrol.
Between 300 and 400 vehicles are expected downtown in an attempt to join the convoy, police told reporters Friday, as well as 2,000 people on foot. The protests are growing, organized in other cities this weekend including Toronto, Quebec City and Winnipeg. Counter-protesters are also expected.
Some of Trudeau’s supporters have argued that the prime minister has no obligation to meet with the protesters, some of whom espouse hateful rhetoric and advocate for a coup to bring down the Liberal government. Others have criticized Trudeau’s use of incendiary language, such as calling protestors a “fringe minority,” as unhelpful.
Trudeau has been in self-isolation since testing positive for Covid-19 Monday.
Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet implored the prime minister to “do something” to defuse the situation.
“I understand he’s got Covid — but he could speak publicly, ask something, do something,” Blanchet said Friday. “Doing nothing and promising to do nothing encourages those people to stay there.”
When asked by POLITICO to respond to Blanchet’s comments, Trudeau’s office said the prime minister addressed the topic in two press availabilities this week.
“Canadians know where I stand,” the prime minister said Thursday. “This is a moment for responsible leaders to think carefully about where they stand and who they stand with.”
A new alignment with Trump
The protest has put renewed attention on political divisions in Canada — and questions about the fate of the federal Conservative party.
While a disdain for Trudeau left the various groups of protesters on the Hill, the convoy catalyzed the removal of Erin O’Toole as federal Conservative leader by members of his own caucus this week. Some considered his sluggish support for the convoy as the last straw in 18 months of flip flops since he assumed leadership of the party.
O’Toole was viewed as a moderate who campaigned as a “true blue” Conservative. But when he unveiled a climate plan, including a plan to put a price on pollution, many in the party viewed it as a red line.
Discord came to a head Wednesday when members triggered a secret ballot leadership vote to oust O’Toole. The 73-45 result was a decisive referendum on his leadership; Manitoba MP Candice Bergen was later voted to be interim leader.
Her appointment reflects support to push the party to the right, away from the center where O’Toole attempted to score support from disenchanted Liberals.
Bergen has been supportive of the convoy, which began as a protest against the federal government’s vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers. The US implemented a similar mandate two weeks ago.
While Conservative MPs repeated mantras of unity after O’Toole’s ouster, less than 24 hours after Bergen’s appointment, an internal email dated Monday was leaked to media to show that she advocated against asking the protesters to go home.
“I understand the mood may shift soon. So we need to turn this into the PM’s problem,” read the email obtained by The Globe and Mail. It was sent to senior caucus leadership.
Two caucus members have broken rank with the new leader.
“I spent the week undergoing the Siege of Ottawa,” Quebec MP Pierre Paul-Hus tweeted Friday. “I ask that we clear the streets and that we stop this occupation controlled by radicals and anarchist groups.”
Paul-Hus’ message is a stark contrast to other members of the Conservative caucus who went out to support and pose with truckers.
Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson quit the Conservative caucus Friday, citing repulsion with a movement whose interpretation of freedom includes tolerance with the display of Confederate and Nazi flags, and desecration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“I wholeheartedly and unreservedly deplore and denounce what is happening in Ottawa with the so-called Freedom Convoy right now,” he said.