PUSLINCH – The steady sound of air horns blared from eastbound Highway 401 transport trucks passing under Highway 6 in Puslinch, where at 10:30am on Jan. 27, around 50 people had gathered in anticipation of the arrival of a convoy destined for Ottawa.
In November the federal government announced that all Canadian truckers wanting to cross the border from the United States would need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to avoid a 14-day quarantine.
The policy came into effect on Jan 15 and one week later the U.S. government instituted a similar policy for unvaccinated truckers.
Many truckers have spoken out against the mandates and have joined the “Freedom Convoy” scheduled to arrive in Ottawa on Jan. 29.
Canadian flags crackled in the biting wind as those gathered on the 401 overpass threw gloved fists in the air in response to the blaring horns. Children huddled close to parents who lined an adjacent snow-covered bank in an attempt to stay warm.
Tom Fischer stood with a Canadian flag pointing toward the highway of passing trucks, the wooden pole tucked into a coat pocket, and an American flag pointing behind him.
“It’s intentional,” Fischer told the Advertiser.
“I hear there’s a lot of U.S. truckers who have come up, so it’s a little bit of a thanks to them … but the Canadian one’s at the front.”
Fischer had been fighting the chill for nearly an hour to show his support of the convoy rumoured to be making its way past Guelph around 11am.
The convoy was sporadic throughout the day. Dozens of vehicles that visually indicated involvement in the convoy passed by intermittently in small groups.
“It just goes to show how fed up everyone is for a ‘small fringe group,’” Fischer said of the overpass gathering, referencing a remark from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
During a Jan. 26 press conference Trudeau said, “The small fringe minority of people who are on their way to Ottawa, who are holding unacceptable views that they are expressing, do not represent the views of Canadians.”
Fischer said people are growing increasingly fed up with lockdowns and a “lack of freedom of choice” during the pandemic.
“If you have to show your papers to get into a restaurant, that’s not free,” he added.
April Tosh stood with fellow Guelph resident Brandy Burns, holding a fabric sign reading “true north strong and free,” “support the truckers” and an expletive about Trudeau.
Tosh, an unemployed personal support worker, said: “I was needed and recognized for the first year until they mandated the vaccine [for health care workers] and then I became a nobody.”
Unvaccinated, she was forced to take a leave from working in health care. For the two women, the convoy has become about more than vaccine mandates for truckers.
The truckers, they said, “are the voice for all the little voices – the ones that can’t be heard.”
“It’s about freedom, everyone coming together and seeing what’s happening,” said Burns.
Tosh added: “People are realizing they’ve had enough. We need to come together, it’s important.”
Guelph resident Tiffany Dorman considers herself a “freedom fighter.”
“I’m fighting for our rights and freedom, vaccinated or not,” said Dorman, equating herself with her grandfather, Martin Dorman, who she says fought in the Second World War and Korean War.
By noon, the convoy hadn’t arrived and the word was travelling among the group that the convoy was somewhere around Oxford County.
Many broke away to warm themselves in vehicles parked at the nearby Aberfoyle carpool parking lot, checking social media and listening to CB radios for word on when the convoy would arrive.
By 2pm, the gathering had swelled to around 150 people, hooting and hollering every few minutes as trucks adorned in Canadian flags and other signs and items passed by.
Farmers show support
An hour later, nine farm tractors inched across the Highway 6 overpass, and proceeded to turn onto the eastbound 401 onramp.
But instead of heading to the highway, the tractors bounced off the rampway and onto a snow-covered area bisecting the 401 and the offramp leading to Highway 6 south, forming a line facing toward passing traffic.
Andrew Binnendyk, a dairy farmer, said it was a last-minute decision, made on Thursday morning, to fire up the tractors.
Consisting of farmers from Wellington County, the group slowly made its way over the span of an hour to the overpass.
Elora-area resident Harry Cnossen, also a dairy farmer, said group members feel their freedoms are being taken away and they need to support the convoy.
For both men, the convoy had become about more than the mandate faced by truckers.
“This whole convoy is not only [about] the trucker vaccine, it’s all across Canada – we’re losing our freedoms,” Binnendyk said.
“Because the right to work has been taken away because you choose not to get a vaccine,” Cnossen added.
Clint and Nav Mitchell and their three children, aged four to seven, stood watching over the highway after the gathering dwindled to less than 40 and the blaring horns had become less frequent.
“Our parents are immigrants and they came to Canada for a better life and to give us better lives and we’re stuck here under lockdowns and we don’t have freedom of choice,” Nav said.
With family working in trucking, the convoy was personal for the couple.
“They’re our supply chain,” Nav said.
“I think they’re moving in the right direction, and [this] will eventually get change, for the truck industry for sure because supply will go down, we need product, look at how many trucks we have in Canada and America coming across the border; this can’t happen,” Clint said.
“This is a joke, we shouldn’t even be out here right now doing this.”
Size of convoy unknown
Estimates on the number of trucks and people participating in the convoy vary greatly depending on the source, from a couple thousand to many times that amount.
Regardless, it will surely snarl traffic and severely limit the movement of goods and people in and around Ottawa and, to a lesser extent, along the route.
Canada Unity, a group associated with the event, has produced what it calls a “memorandum of understanding” it plans to somehow present to the governor general. Organizers mistakenly believe the document could force federal, provincial and municipal governments to resign if they don’t rescind COVID-19 public health measures and re-hire anyone fired for not complying with vaccination mandates.
Online, some people have threatened damage in Ottawa or promoted violence against the prime minister and other officials.
However, Tamara Lich, an organizer of the convoy, has stated in a Facebook video that extremists do not represent the movement.
“As you know, we are on our way to Ottawa to hold a peaceful protest,” Lich says in the video.
“I just want to put it out there that nobody in this convoy will be inciting violence or uttering threats. That is not what we’re here to do.”
Lich, an official from the western separatist Maverick Party, started a GoFundMe page on Jan. 14 that has raised over $6.4 million as of Jan. 27.
Originally the campaign description stated the funds would be disbursed to truckers to cover the cost of fuel, food and other expenses to partake in the convoy.
It was later altered to state an arrangement was made to send the money directly to a bulk fuel supplier, with excess funds going to a veteran’s organization.
There have been conflicting reports in the media about whether or not GoFundMe has withheld the funds pending more information about dispersal.
Trudeau, CTA: about 90% of truckers vaccinated
In his Jan. 26 press conference, Trudeau said “close to 90 per cent” of truckers in Canada “are vaccinated.”
The Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) has confirmed the vaccination rate among truck drivers is similar to the overall population. As of Jan. 27, about 88% of Canadians aged five and older have received at least one dose.
“Accordingly, most of our nation’s hard-working truck drivers are continuing to move cross-border and domestic freight to ensure our economy continues to function,” CTA officials noted in a Jan. 22 statement.
“[The CTA] does not support and strongly disapproves of any protests on public roadways, highways, and bridges. CTA believes such actions – especially those that interfere with public safety – are not how disagreements with government policies should be expressed.”
The CTA estimates as many as 16,000 of the 120,000 Canadian truck drivers who regularly cross the Canada-U.S. border may be out of work due to the new vaccine mandate for truckers.
The alliance urges truckers who want to protest government policies “to hold an organized, lawful event on Parliament Hill or contact their local MP.
“What is not acceptable is disrupting the motoring public on highways and commerce at the border.”
-With files from Chris Daponte