Cracks appear in Conservative caucus over anti-vaccine mandate protest

After a week that saw the new interim leader of the federal Conservatives and other high-profile Tory MPs throw their support behind the anti-vaccine mandate protest convoy snarling Ottawa's downtown core, one of the party's Quebec MPs is breaking ranks and calling the protest a "siege."

Quebec MP Pierre Paul-Hus says protest is a 'siege' being 'controlled by radicals and anarchist groups'

A cyclist stops in front of trucks blocked on Metcalfe Street as a rally against COVID-19 restrictions, which began as a cross-country convoy protesting a federal vaccine mandate for truckers, continues in Ottawa on Friday. (The Canadian Press/Patrick Doyle)

After a week that saw the new interim leader of the federal Conservatives and other high-profile Tory MPs throw their support behind the anti-vaccine mandate protest convoy snarling Ottawa's downtown core, one of the party's Quebec MPs is breaking ranks and calling the protest a "siege."

"I spent the week undergoing the siege of Ottawa," Pierre Paul-Hus, who represents the riding of Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, said in a social media post.

"I ask that we clear the streets and that we stop this occupation controlled by radicals and anarchist groups."

Since the convoy first moved into Ottawa, interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen, former leader Andrew Scheer, Pierre Poilievre and other Conservative MPs have greeted the protesters in person. Some have taken photographs with them and posted supportive messages on social media.

Conservative MP for Charlesbourg-Haute-Saint-Charles Pierre Paul-Hus said the protest dominating the centre of Ottawa has become a "siege." (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Bergen and others have echoed the protesters' calls to end the vaccine mandate for truck drivers crossing the Canada/U.S. border and to end all public health measures related to COVID-19.

Quebec MP Pierre Paul-Hus isn't the only one swimming against the tide in the Conservative caucus. Sen. Dennis Patterson of Nunavut announced Friday that he's leaving the Conservative caucus over his colleagues' support for the protest.

A staffer in Patterson's office said the senator has been concerned by his party's changing tone for some time, but the vocal support for the convoy was what finally pushed him out.

The staffer said Patterson's departure from the Conservative caucus in the Senate is not complete yet, but the required paperwork has been filed for him to join another group in the Senate.

Five Saskatchewan MPs and Sen. Denise Batters pose at a protest against COVID-19 restrictions in Ottawa. From left to right, MPs Warren Steinley, Kevin Waugh, Andrew Scheer, Sen. Denise Batters, MPs Fraser Tolmie and Rosemarie Falk. (Kevin Waugh/Twitter)

"I was really quite distressed [at] not seeing a condemnation of the lawless occupation of the Ottawa downtown, the holding hostage of the heart of our democracy. So that really triggered my decision at the urging of my constituents from Nunavut," Patterson told CBC News Network's Power & Politics Friday.

"I have been increasingly disappointed at the lack of clarity in our leadership on the need for, like it or not, vaccine mandates and even lockdowns, which have worked so effectively to contain the pandemic in my home territory and in which, I believe, Canadians very much support."

The Conservative schism

The protesters came to Ottawa demanding the repeal of all public health measures associated with COVID-19. They've pledged to stay in Ottawa until they are repealed, or until the government steps down.

Since the protest began a week ago, protesters have been spotted brandishing swastikas and Confederate flags. Some urinated on the tomb of the unknown soldier and defaced a Terry Fox statue. Protesters have been sounding truck horns late into the evening and blocking roads. There have been multiple reports of protesters threatening and intimidating local residents for wearing masks.

Businesses in the downtown core already suffering the financial hardships brought on by the pandemic have had to close to protect staff. Residents of Centretown in central Ottawa have been demanding action.

Premier Doug Ford visits a mass vaccination clinic at the Toronto Zoo on Jan. 12, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Discontent with federal Conservative messaging on the protest moved to the provincial level Friday, when Ontario Premier Doug Ford condemned the actions of the protesters.

"It's not a protest anymore. It's become an occupation," Ford said. "It's only hurting families. It's hurting businesses that these folks are supposed to be supporting but its hurting businesses in a big way.

"People want to move on and get through this. It's time for this to come to an end."

In the House of Commons on Friday, Quebec Conservative MP Luc Berthold led off question period by calling for an end to public health restrictions such as vaccine mandates and lockdowns.

"After a week, it's time to end the protest in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa and it's also time to end the restrictions that are at the basis of this protest," said Berthold, who has not promoted the protest on his Twitter account.

The MP accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of "pouring oil on the fire."

Shortly after question period, Bergen's office put out a statement asking Trudeau for a plan to end the protests. "We all want an end to the demonstrations and we all want an end to the restrictions," the statement said.

Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen rises during question period in the House of Commons. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

During Bergen's first question period appearance as opposition leader Thursday, she asked the government when it was going to reach out to the protesters to find common ground and end the protest. 

"Where is the olive branch? Because Canadians are looking for an olive branch," she said. "The government doesn't have to agree. They don't even have to like the protesters ... but they need to provide a solution."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also said there has been "a lack of leadership from Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau" and accused Trudeau of "raising tensions instead of moving to de-escalate."

Trudeau said earlier this week he has no intention of negotiating with the protesters and has condemned some of their actions. He remains in isolation after he and two of his children tested positive for COVID-19.

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