Ottawa's police chief says officials are on guard against "social media actors" and "lone wolf individuals" who might try to infiltrate this weekend's protests against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Members of a protest that organizers call the Freedom Convoy steadily streamed into the nation's capital on Friday as various groups from across the country prepared to rally against the federal government's vaccination mandate for all cross-border drivers, which came into effect earlier this month.
Trucks lined up along Wellington Street throughout most of Friday — a day ahead of when the official protest was scheduled to begin — honking their horns and blocking the road in front of both Parliament Hill and the Supreme Court of Canada, blocks away.
By Friday evening, police estimated that between the convoy's eight different streams, nearly 2,000 vehicles would converge on Ottawa on Saturday.
A count by Kingston Police on Friday morning had 17 tractor-trailers and 104 tractors without trailers, along with more than 400 passenger vehicles and six RVs, leaving the city en route to the capital. Kingston is about 174 kilometres southwest of Ottawa.
Protesters walked in between the trucks, cars and RVs, waving Canadian flags and carrying signs with messages, including #SayNoToVaccineMandates.
Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly said residents and visitors should expect a large police presence across the city, but especially in the downtown, with officers in uniform and plain clothes.
"The demonstrations this weekend will be unique, fluid, risky and significant," Sloly told a news conference on Friday morning.
Police and intelligence officials are also keeping a close eye on parallel demonstrations and are expected to film the weekend's events, but police said they have been unable to connect with most of the organizers.
While the protests are national in scope and massive in scale, Sloly said, they are also "polarizing in nature" and come with "significant risks."
Sloly said organizers of the main convoy have promised that demonstrations will be peaceful but that there have been various online threats locally, nationally and internationally inciting violence, hate and criminal acts.
"We do not know all the parallel demonstrations that may occur and/or the lone-wolf individuals who may insert themselves into the mix for various reasons," Sloly said.
At least one vehicle flying a Confederate flag was seen driving around the city's downtown on Friday. The flag of the southern U.S. states whose secession set off the American Civil War has been taken up by some white supremacist groups.
Some of the hateful rhetoric over public health measures has been ongoing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sloly said, and directed at local, provincial and federal politicians, including Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson.
Ottawa police say they have yet to receive a direct threat assessment for any group that's coming to the capital.
"We cannot, however, ignore the rhetoric," the chief said. "We cannot ignore the direct hate language and threats, and we cannot ignore the direct attempts to incite violence and criminality in and around the demonstration."
He also said he recognizes that comparisons to the events in Washington, D.C., last January, when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, will likely be on the minds of many. He said he believes Canadians will behave better.
"We have every confidence in the world that the vast majority of people who are choosing to come to this city, or who live in this city and choose to participate in some form or other in the demonstrations, will do so as Canadians do: lawfully, peacefully and with respect to everybody," Sloly said.
Yet he reiterated that police are prepared to arrest, charge and prosecute any individuals or groups who incite violence or commit crimes, whether intended or spontaneous.
Police closed several roads throughout downtown Ottawa on Friday to prepare for the protesters, and more roads were expected to be closed as the convoy grew in the capital.