Vaccine-mandate protesters are headed to Ontario legislature. What that means for premier Doug Ford

Ontario's hands-on premier has taken a hands-off approach to the weeklong protest that has snarled downtown Ottawa, the second-largest city in his province. How will that change if something similar happens in Toronto?

Toronto police bracing for Saturday protest supporting Ottawa's trucker-led demonstration

Trucks parked in downtown Ottawa on Wednesday as part of a week-long protest against COVID-19 restrictions. Demonstrators are set to converge on the Ontario Legislature on Saturday in support of the Ottawa protesters. (Christian Milette/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Ontario's hands-on premier has taken a hands-off approach to the weeklong protest that has snarled downtown Ottawa, the second-largest city in his province.

How will that change if something similar happens in Toronto?   

Demonstrators are set to converge on the legislature on Saturday in support of the Ottawa protesters. Premier Doug Ford appears to be crossing his fingers that they don't bring anywhere near the level of disruption as experienced in the downtown of the nation's capital.

"I just hope it's always a peaceful protest," Ford told Hamilton radio station 900 CHML on Thursday morning, when asked about what Toronto police are calling a planned demonstration. "If people want to come down and protest, God bless 'em. I understand their frustration. I really do." 

It's significantly different from the way Ford reacted to a 200-person anti-lockdown protest in the early months of the pandemic.

"We have a bunch of yahoos out in the front of Queen's Park, sitting there, protesting," Ford told a news conference in April 2020. "These people, they're absolutely irresponsible, it's reckless to do what they're doing. Personally, I think it's selfish." 

'If people want to come down and protest, God bless 'em. I understand their frustration,' Premier Doug Ford told a Hamilton radio station on Thursday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Ford's tone now — toward the protesters who want an end to all COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates — is decidedly more sympathetic. 

"I can't stand the shutdowns, the lockdowns, whatever you want to call them," Ford said in the Hamilton radio interview

"Hopefully, we're all going to get through this together as soon as possible, and we won't need any more protests." 

WATCH | Ottawa residents on edge as protesters hunker down: 

Tensions rise as Ottawa protesters refuse to leave

8 months ago
Duration 4:19
Ottawa residents have grown more frustrated as protesters outside Parliament Hill refuse to budge and start building a structure. Police have started handing out tickets, but it’s unclear what more they will do.

Toronto mayor urges protesters to not disrupt hospital access

Toronto Mayor John Tory is sending a markedly more forceful message to the protesters than "God bless 'em" and a wish for peace, with a nod to the fact that five major hospitals sit within 500 metres of the Queen's Park front lawn. 

"Any protest in the area of Queen's Park absolutely cannot block off access to the hospitals around the legislature," said Tory in a statement Thursday.

"I have made it clear to [Toronto police Chief James] Ramer that we must do everything we can to avoid the type of situation currently faced by Ottawa residents and businesses."

The Ford government has clearly been reluctant to get drawn into the Ottawa protest.

Ford himself said nothing all through last weekend about what happened. On Monday morning, his office issued a statement saying he was disturbed by the displays of "symbols of hate and intolerance" and the desecration of Canada's war memorials.

Queen's Park has been the site of protests related to COVID-19 restrictions, including this one in September 2021 against the government's plans to require proof of vaccination in such places as restaurants and bars. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

But the statement was not posted to Ford's 560,000 Twitter followers; in fact, his Twitter account doesn't make a single mention of the Ottawa protest, as if it weren't even happening. 

De-escalation must come from federal government: MacLeod

The justification for his reluctance is best summed up by Ford's top cabinet minister from the Ottawa area, Lisa MacLeod. Her argument: the protesters are targeting a federal government policy, the mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for truckers crossing the border. 

"The only way that this is going to be de-escalated, in my opinion, watching what I'm seeing, is if there is leadership, and that leadership has to come from the federal government," MacLeod told reporters this week during a virtual news conference on an unrelated topic. 

The Ottawa protesters' demands actually go well beyond the federal government's realm. They are calling for all COVID-19 vaccination mandates and restrictions to be scrapped. 

WATCH | At Issue panel discusses divisions in the Conservative Party over convoy protest: 

The Conservatives’ divided response to Ottawa protests | At Issue

8 months ago
Duration 14:08
The At Issue panel breaks down the divided Conservative party’s response to the ongoing protests in Ottawa as some MPs denounce the demonstrations while others pose for pictures. Plus, what's next for the Conservative Party as they rebuild and look for a new leader?

The capacity limits on businesses, the proof of vaccination rules in such places as restaurants and bars, the mask mandate in indoor public spaces, all of those have been put in place by the provincial government. 

Even if Saturday's demonstration in Toronto ends that afternoon, it's becoming harder for Ford to sidestep taking a stance on the protesters' demands.

Trucks whose drivers participate in the protest on Wellington Street near Parliament Hill on Tuesday. (Alexander Behne/CBC)

He dodged such a question on Tuesday, when asked directly by Adrian Ghobrial of CityNews whether he supports the federal vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers.

"I've been on the truckers' side," Ford said. "I've always supported truckers from Day 1, but I support vaccinations."

He didn't mention the mandate.     

Political risk in backing protesters

Taking a firm position on the protests is not without political risk for Ford and his Ontario Progressive Conservatives, with the election now less than four months away.

On the one hand, his political team doesn't want him to be seen as aligned with any anti-vaccine or anti-mask sentiment. Even the government's own polling shows broad support for workplace vaccination mandates and non-lockdown public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

On the other hand, public frustration over the length of the pandemic, the closures and the restrictions is real. 

Still, a politician who wants to get re-elected wouldn't want to overestimate the strength of any current of public sentiment represented by the protestors. 

The maximum police estimate of the crowd at the height of the weekend's protest in Ottawa was 18,000. Contrast that with the 160,000 people who got a shot of a COVID-19 vaccine in Ontario last weekend alone, as pointed out by TVOntario's John Michael McGrath. 

More than 11 million people of voting age have rolled up their sleeves to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Ontario. Having them on his side is far more important to Ford's election success in June than however many thousands join or back the protests.   

Supporters of the convoy protest holding Canadian flags stand on an overpass and cheer as trucks pass on Highway 400 in Toronto last Thursday. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)


Mike Crawley

Provincial affairs reporter

Mike Crawley is a senior reporter for CBC News, covering provincial affairs in Ontario. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. He was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.