Vaccine-mandate protest rolls through downtown Charlottetown
Police chief says about 500-700 vehicles took part in demonstration Saturday
Islanders in cars, trucks and even some tractors made their way along University Avenue and through downtown Charlottetown Saturday in what was billed as a "slow roll" protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Most of the trucks were pickup trucks rather than larger rigs, based on what CBC staff could see from various vantage points. Many of the vehicles were decked out with Canadian flags and anti-mandate signs, some of them directed at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
A stream of cars and pickup trucks coming from Montague was at least a kilometre long by the time it reached the Cherry Valley entry to the Trans-Canada Highway at around 11:30 a.m. AT. Many of the vehicles had their four-way flashers on as they proceeded to Charlottetown.
Organizers had planned for the demonstration to begin at 1 p.m., with convoys coming from Prince and Kings counties joining with Queens County participants in the Milton area. Those taking part were asked to bring along items to donate to food banks if they could.
The plan was for the convoy to proceed at around 20 km/h down University Avenue and Great George Street toward the Charlottetown Cenotaph, where a group of protesters on foot was awaiting its arrival.
A small group of counter-protesters was also present in the blocks around the cenotaph.
Protesters 'sick of delays'
CBC News staff asked at least two dozen mandate protesters to speak on the record about why they had come to the demonstration. Most refused.
Former Liberal MLA Charlie McGeoghegan was one of the protesters. He said the demonstration was about "freedom."
"[It's] just too many mandates, and it's not right what's going on right across Canada," he said. "It's about time people stood up."
Mark MacRae said he joined the protest because he's frustrated about the restrictions.
MacRae, who said it is his choice to be unvaccinated, said that he's been unable to eat at restaurants or participate in other activities because of his vaccination status.
"I'm sick of the delays. I'm sick of the way things have been run here the last, well, half a year or so," he said. "I've already been waiting for ... a year to eat at a restaurant, or to go watch the kids play hockey or to mingle in society, so why do we have to wait another two months?"
P.E.I. plans to phase out most COVID-19 restrictions by April 7.
Among those who spoke to CBC but would not give their names, one cited the desire for freedom and for things to get back to normal as their reasons to participate in the protest. Another spoke of corrupt politicians, judges and media organizations.
A group of demonstrators are now on foot walking back up University Ave in Charlottetown.<a href="https://twitter.com/CBCPEI?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CBCPEI</a> <a href="https://t.co/JJd6QFq9V7">pic.twitter.com/JJd6QFq9V7</a>—@JDoriaBrownCBC
Before the protest began, an organizer told a CBC reporter that the demonstration was not intended to be anti-vaccination but meant to support individual choices on COVID-19 precautions, as opposed to government mandates.
By 2 p.m. AT, many vehicles had started making the turn onto Grafton Street toward Hillsborough Bridge, where the demonstration was expected to disperse. Other vehicles were circling around and coming back past the cenotaph repeatedly, as of 3 p.m.
Shortly after 3 p.m., a crowd of unmasked protesters started to walk back up University Avenue, many carrying Canadian flags or placards. They stopped briefly in front of the CBC station before heading back downtown and beginning to disperse around 4 p.m.
Sgt. Chris Gunn of the RCMP said that around 30 vehicles drove around in Borden for an hour until about 5 p.m. They did not block traffic or access to the Confederation Bridge.
Route 2 going into Charlottetown, just before Milton station, traffic is almost at a standstill on account of the convoy of vehicles headed into the city. <a href="https://twitter.com/CBCPEI?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CBCPEI</a> <a href="https://t.co/35xlnQBtqQ">pic.twitter.com/35xlnQBtqQ</a>—@JDoriaBrownCBC
Police standing watch
The City of Charlottetown has been warning businesses and residents to expect traffic blockages, though city police and the P.E.I. RCMP were monitoring the situation to make sure emergency vehicles could get through if required.
Charlottetown Police Chief Brad MacConnell said Friday that officers had been in contact with organizers, who told police the traffic routes they planned to use and gave estimates of the expected crowd size.
"The benefit of knowing that is we can police appropriately. We have a number of officers to assure public safety but to lessen the traffic impact," MacConnell said Friday.
"Our job is to try to manage all of that and keep people safe, and I can tell you that speaking with the organizers, we have a level of confidence that they're willing to work with us and allow us to do our job."
Late Saturday afternoon, MacConnell told CBC News that between 500 and 700 vehicles had taken part in the convoy.
He said officers were able to maintain communication with organizers throughout the event. There were no reports of violence, just some incidences of shouting, the police chief added.
'If they keep moving, it's not a big deal'
Al Preston, one of the owners of the Hearts and Florist shop a block away from the cenotaph, said early in the afternoon that his main worry was whether any of the protesters would try to stay downtown beyond Saturday.
"If they keep moving, it's not a big deal," he said. "We have no problem with that.
"If they park the trucks here, that's where they're doing something destructive to business, and I think most people on the street feel that way."
MacConnell said protest organizers had assured him that order would be maintained, and protests would be "lawful."
"I can tell you that this particular P.E.I. group that's protesting in relation to what's happening in Ottawa is not sort of any anti-military, anti-police group," the chief said.
"They have their own mandate of what they're protesting, but I am not advocating for that."
'This is my flag'
Ted Nabuurs was one of the counter-protesters facing the convoy as it headed toward the cenotaph.
He said he decided to turn up after seeing participants of other convoy-style protests across the country make prominent use of the Canadian flag.
"This is my flag and I don't believe what they're protesting in," Nabuurs said.
"I think sometimes people can be misguided.… In my mind, getting the vaccine is caring about somebody. Wearing a mask, staying away from people is caring about somebody else, and trying to protect them as well as yourself."
Nabuurs added that he believes the discourse surrounding COVID-19 restrictions has become too "divisive." He said he probably didn't help fix that division by counter-protesting, but thought it was important to come out in support for the measures.
Restrictions about to ease
The demonstration comes five days before the P.E.I. government intends to drop the requirement for Islanders and visitors to isolate for four days after arriving at an entry point.
It was imposed in late 2021 when Omicron variant case numbers began to rise elsewhere in Canada.
Now there is widespread community transmission on the Island, and there have been 14 deaths linked to COVID-19 as of Saturday.
Almost all of the cases confirmed on the Island have been mild, however.
Officials credit that to the high rate of full vaccination in the province; as of Wednesday, 93.7 per cent of residents over 12 had gotten at least two shots of a COVID-19 vaccinated, and 67.4 per cent of children aged five to 11 had at least one dose.