Ottawa police prepare as convoy protesting vaccine mandate heads to nation's capital
Thousands of protesters, counter-protesters could take over downtown core this weekend
Ottawa police are preparing for the arrival this weekend of a massive convoy of protesters opposed to pandemic public health measures — but they say they don't know how big the event will be or how long the protesters might stay.
The 'Freedom Rally' convoy includes transport truck operators from across the country and members of groups broadly opposed to public health mandates. Its participants are planning to stage a protest on Parliament Hill against the federal government's vaccination mandate for all cross-border drivers, which came into effect earlier this month.
"As with any large demonstration, there will be unique and asymmetric elements that are impossible to predict and challenging to manage," Ottawa Police Acting Deputy Chief Trish Ferguson told a special meeting of the Ottawa Police Services Board Wednesday afternoon.
Police say they don't know exactly when the convoy could arrive in the city, how long the protests could last or what each group participating in the convoy has planned.
You have the right to disagree. You do not have the right to damage our infrastructure, to threaten violence, or to spew your statements of hatred, xenophobia, and racism to those who disagree with you.- Ottawa city Coun. Catherine McKenney
"We are planning for a range of potential risks, including but not limited to counter-demonstrations, blocking of intersections, interfering with critical infrastructure and unlawful and violent activity," said Ferguson.
She said Ottawa police are working with the RCMP and the Parliamentary Protective Service to set up a command centre for the protests. She said the police service will ensure there are enough officers working over the weekend to manage both the protests and day-to-day situations.
Worries about other protests
Police are asking people to avoid unnecessary travel in the downtown core because of the risk of traffic disruptions related to protests.
"What we've seen so far in other jurisdictions is that the core demonstration[s] involving the vehicles have been peaceful, well co-ordinated, co-operative in nature," said Ottawa Police Service Chief Peter Sloly. He conceded the situation in Ottawa could be very different.
"This is the terminus of all the different demonstrations and so there are going to be multiple other actors involved," he added. "It'll be much harder for us to create the same level of certainty around what's going on."
Some city councillors and residents say they fear the protests could turn ugly.
"The event we're looking at this weekend is not what it appears," Coun. Catherine McKenney, a mayoral candidate who represents the Somerset ward, wrote in a media statement.
"Several members of this group are connected to militant racist, sexist and homophobic groups. Their statements and placards promote xenophobia. They are not here to only raise voices against vaccination mandates, but to also fuel hatred against the very fabric of our society.
"You have the right to disagree. You do not have the right to damage our infrastructure, to threaten violence, or to spew your statements of hatred, xenophobia and racism to those who disagree with you."
Some in the trucking industry say they understand transport drivers' concerns about the vaccine mandate.
"I'm not a big fan of the government pushing this [mandate]," said Matthew Marchand, a transport operator based in Ottawa. "We already spend 90 to 95 per cent of our time alone in the cab of a truck. We're not really posing any great risk to anybody."
Dan Einwechter is CEO and founder of Challenger Motor Freight, a transportation company based in Cambridge, Ont. He said he's seen tensions between vaccinated and unvaccinated drivers and his company has tried to be patient with those who have been unwilling to get the vaccine.
Some drivers are anti-vaccination, he said, while others think the vaccines were approved too quickly.
"Others don't like government intervention. They think it's medical control, mind control, you know?" he said. "The list goes on. So, whatever the general population is saying, I would say our drivers are reflective of that."
Still, both Marchand and Einwechter say they fear the convoy is sending the wrong message about road safety — and that the convoy's own message about the vaccine mandate risks being taken over by people and groups who have no association with truckers.
"To me, it looks like the small percentage that's not vaccinated is trying to hijack the day and get their perspective as being the right one, when I think we should all be vaccinated to move the freight and keep our economies alive," said Einwechter.
Seeing messages of support on social media from people like Donald Trump Jr., he said, further solidifies that belief.
Both Marchand and Einwechter said they don't believe the convoy will make much of a difference — especially since the U.S. implemented a similar vaccination requirement for cross-border drivers.
With industry estimates suggesting that the vaccine mandate could leave up to 15 per cent of drivers ineligible to work, Einwechter said he would have liked to see the federal government give the industry more time before introducing the vaccination policy.
"I don't want to scare people," he said. "I'd like people to know there's going to be changes in what they've been accustomed to buying and receiving in the time and fashion they did expect to receive it."
With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning