Protest against pandemic restrictions continues into the night in downtown Winnipeg
Honking horns fill air with sound as trucks block roads near Manitoba Legislative Building
Semi-trailer trucks and other vehicles lined streets around the Manitoba Legislature Friday with a noisy protest convoy calling for an end to pandemic restrictions and federal vaccine mandates for truckers.
The vehicles parked along Broadway and Memorial Boulevard, and the protest showed no signs of slowing down as of 9 p.m. Dozens of people were outside in the frigid temperatures as marked and unmarked police vehicles monitored the protesters.
Under the glow of portable floodlights, a man was barbecuing on the boulevard. Protesters were also using power generators for lighting and were able to relieve themselves at portable toilets that were on site.
Earlier in the day, Memorial was closed from Broadway to St. Mary, as was York Avenue from Osborne Street to Kennedy Street, Winnipeg police said. Police also blocked eastbound Assiniboine Avenue at the Osborne Bridge.
Police advised drivers to be aware of traffic disruptions and avoid Portage east of Osborne, north of the Assiniboine River and west of Donald Street.
On Friday afternoon, there were an estimated 50 to 70 vehicles participating in the demonstration, Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth said during a news conference with Mayor Brian Bowman.
The demonstrators have been co-operative so far and police haven't received any complaints of violence or other incidents related to the protest, he said.
Shirley, who attended with a sign that reads "Freedom no mandates," accused the government of overreach and said Canada is moving toward "a totalitarian regime."
Shirley, who didn't want to give her last name, said she lost her job for refusing to be vaccinated.
"I want my Canada that I love back," she said.
"So many lives have been ruined, jobs have been lost, mental health; there's huge issues.… Elderly people are dying alone. Sick people can't have their visitors."
She said she is glad to hear Manitoba will be loosening some gathering size restrictions in the coming days and aim to gradually ease other restrictions by spring.
WATCH | Protesters want all mandates lifted:
Cindy Bachynski said that's not good enough.
"No restrictions, now," she said. "Why are there still restrictions two years later if the vaccine makes you safe? They've been lying to you. The government is lying, the media is lying."
Bachynski said she hasn't been able to do anything for two years and "wants freedom."
She says she had held season tickets to Winnipeg Blue Bombers games since 2007, "and they told me I could no longer go to games without a vaccine."
"So that was soul crushing for me, but I still supported my team."
The Bombers and Winnipeg Jets required proof of vaccination from fans at games last year, mirroring similar moves in pro sports across North America and beyond.
Christian Pelland is also opposed to having to be vaccinated in order to dine inside a restaurant or go into work.
"I'm against it. We're Canadians and I believe that we have rights as people. Nobody can just walk into our life and say we demand this and we demand that. It just doesn't seem real to force somebody and to lose my job over it?"
"My boss told me if you don't get vaccinated in a couple months we're going to have to let you go. I got kids to feed. I've been at my job for 13 years," Pelland said.
The Friday protest in Winnipeg is one of several similar demonstrations that have occurred across the country recently.
Some have targeted border crossings, while the large protest in Ottawa last weekend is expected to continue through the weekend.
In Manitoba, demonstrations have been held near the Canada-U.S. border, at the legislature and outside Winnipeg City Hall.
The protests started when some Canadian cross-border truckers organized against a federal vaccine mandate for truckers. They've also attracted a range of supporters calling for an end to all pandemic restrictions.
Some politicians and community leaders in Manitoba and beyond have condemned Nazi symbols and racist and antisemitic imagery that have appeared at some protests.
Trevor Penner, who started out from Arborg at 5 a.m. and drove his tractor the roughly 120 kilometres to Winnipeg to participate in the protest, says those kind of symbols have no place in the convoy.
"That's not what this is about."
He added that not all the protesters are against COVID-19 vaccines, but oppose mandates that require people to get vaccinated.
"There are plenty of people here who are vaccinated. It's not an anti-vaccine convoy or event, it's an anti-mandate event."
Some counter-protesters also walked alongside the convoy, with signs about science and promoting vaccination.
'Need for calm'
Winnipeg's mayor said city officials respect the right of demonstrators to protest but don't want to see major disruptions for residents, as has happened in Ottawa.
Bowman said at Friday's news conference that he spoke earlier with Premier Heather Stefanson about a "need for calm and open communications" to ensure the situation doesn't get out of hand.
"I think there's just a recognition that the issues that are being discussed right now at some of these protests are very emotional," he said.
"And I think what's important for our residents to know is that government officials are doing their best to respect the rights of our residents, both those protesting as well as Winnipeggers who may not share the views of those protesting."
Smyth said that every protest is unique and that it's probably not fair to compare the demonstration in Winnipeg to what's taking place in Ottawa at this point.
He said he can't speculate on how police will handle the situation if the protest lasts into the evening and beyond.
"The organizers have been pretty open with our members on the ground and pretty co-operative. We'll just play it as it comes.
However, some of the protesters said they were prepared to stay overnight if not longer.
One man at the Winnipeg protest Friday said the protests have been peaceful so far.
"Every group of people has a few bad apples, right?" he said, declining to provide his name.
"In Ottawa there's going to be a few, at the Jets game there's going to be a few, right here in downtown Winnipeg there's going to be a few too, right? But that doesn't [mean] we condone any violence."
WATCH | 'We just want to protect our rights':
He recently went to a protest in Emerson at the border and came to the Winnipeg protest "to support freedoms."
"People can make their own decisions as far as confidential medical stuff goes, right? We don't need to implement the government and get guys like Justin Trudeau telling us what we should or shouldn't put in our bodies."
About 90 per cent of cross-border Canadian truckers have been vaccinated, says the Canadian Trucking Alliance, a federal alliance of provincial trucking associations that has come out against the protests.