OTTAWA – While the “Freedom Convoy” of truckers and protesters in Ottawa has died down considerably since last weekend, political rhetoric about it appears to be heating up.
Politicians on all sides have offered their opinion on the matter, with no consensus among them.
For example, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the protest is a continuation of disinformation, misinformation and conspiracy theories that have been peddled by those with “tinfoil hats” throughout the pandemic.
And Carleton MP and Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre has called the protestors “bright, joyful and peaceful Canadians championing freedom.”
The convoy, which brought thousands of people to Parliament Hill last weekend, originally started as a protest against the federal government’s announcement that as of Jan. 15 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.
However, along the way it turned into a fight against all COVID-19 public health measures and vaccine mandates, even though most were introduced by the province.
And by the time the convoy arrived in the nation’s capital the message had been further muddied, with the protest evolving to cover a litany of issues and complaints, including threats and obscenities directed at the prime minister, anti-vaccine and anti-mask misinformation, and even a few topics that had nothing to do with the pandemic.
Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong, who returned to Ottawa the evening of Jan. 30, said the Conservative Party is opposed to the mandate requiring cross-border truckers to be vaccinated.
“Our view is that the government needs to use some common sense and not exacerbate supply chain issues that are contributing to rising cost of living,” Chong told the Advertiser in a Jan. 31 interview.
He noted the federal government allowed unvaccinated truckers – upwards of 20,000 of them per day – to cross the border for close to two years to deliver “essential goods” during the pandemic.
Liberal MP Lloyd Longfield, who represents Guelph, disagreed, noting he is in favour of the vaccine mandate for truckers.
He noted a mandate is in place on both sides of the border, suggesting, as many have, that even if the Canadian government reversed course, it wouldn’t solve the issue.
“The U.S. has that in place for all countries, and for all occupations,” Longfield said.
“There isn’t an exemption for anybody going to the United States – you have to be vaccinated.
He stressed mandates are an attempt “to try and get us through this pandemic and the vaccine is one of the best tools that we have.”
Chong said he is calling on federal government officials to work with the U.S. government led by President Joe Biden on a solution.
Asked about the fact close to 90% of truckers are already vaccinated and continue to work, Chong said losing 10% of this workforce will have a “massive” impact on supply chain issues.
“According to the experts that I’ve talked to, it’s just a matter of time,” he said.
Longfield said he hopes the small percentage of truckers currently unvaccinated will eventually get their shots.
He added he recognizes labour shortages and the strained supply chain is an issue facing not only Canadians, but many places around the world.
“And so that’s another longer-term issue is how do we solve labour shortages that have that have come about through the pandemic,” he said.
As of Feb. 1, there have been no violent outbursts as some had feared leading up to the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa.
However, Ottawa Police have confirmed on social media that “several criminal investigations are underway in relation to the desecration of the National War Memorial/Terry Fox statue, threatening/illegal/intimidating behaviour to police/city workers and other individuals and damage to a city vehicle.”
An Ottawa homeless shelter, Shepherds of Good Hope, reported protesters harassed staff and took meals intended for the homeless.
Protesters also shut down Rideau Centre, a major mall close to Parliament Hill, for days after protestors refused to wear face coverings and harassed staff at stores. Several schools, other businesses and city services also shut down for days due to accessibility and safety concerns.
There were also reports of people impersonating Indigenous dancers and drummers, rocks thrown at an ambulance, racial slurs uttered towards a paramedic, verbal abuse hurled at staff at hotels and other establishments, and people urinating and defecating in public.
“That’s where they crossed the line,” Longfield stated of some of the disrespect on display last weekend.
“Peaceful protest is part of democracy but defacing monuments, flying racist flags, shouting racist comments to people going by on the street is not part of what we accept in Canada in terms of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“You have the freedom to protest, but you don’t have the freedom to attack other people.”
Chong said he has always supported “the rights of Canadians to peacefully protest,” which he said is what most of the participants in the “Freedom Convoy” are doing.
He said he strongly condemns those who “desecrated” the war memorial, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Terry Fox statue over the weekend, as well as those who took food from the homeless shelter and “displayed symbols of hate and bigotry.”
“That is completely unacceptable behaviour,” Chong said.
Many people, including supporters of the protest as well as several Conservative MPs, have pointed out not all truckers and protesters should be judged based on the actions of “a few.”
On social media Poilievre called the protestors “bright, joyful and peaceful Canadians championing freedom.”
The Carleton MP has called on the Liberal government, and in particular the prime minister, to “respect the thousands of people who are fighting for their livelihoods right now who are trying to do their best to get this country back on track.”
Chong agreed Trudeau needs to tone down his rhetoric.
“I believe the prime minister needs to bring Canadians together rather than pitting one Canadian versus another,” Chong said.
In a Jan. 31 press conference, Trudeau, who had tested positive for COVID-19 and was isolating, said the pandemic is frustrating for everyone but his government will not reverse the vaccine mandate for truckers.
“I want to be very clear: we’re not intimidated by those who hurl abuse at small business workers and steal food from the homeless,” Trudeau said.
“We won’t give in to those who fly racist flags. And we won’t cave to those who engage in vandalism, or dishonour the memory of our veterans.”
Asked why he won’t meet with truckers, Trudeau said he will “not go anywhere near protests that have expressed hateful rhetoric, violence towards fellow citizens and a disrespect not just of science, but of the frontline health workers and, quite frankly, the 90% of truckers who have been doing the right thing to keep Canadians safe, to put food on our tables.”
Trudeau added the concerns of protestors in Ottawa have been heard, but he called them “a continuation” of “disinformation and misinformation online, conspiracy [theories] about microchips, about God knows what else that goes with the tinfoil hats.”
Chong condemned those type of statements, suggesting Canadians, and particularly their leaders, “need to bridge divides and come together” to finally get past the pandemic
How long will it last?
Images from Ottawa showed a much smaller crowd on Monday and Tuesday, but Longfield said there are still lines of trucks flooding the downtown core.
“I can see that there has been some thinning out, but there’s still, I can hear the horns as we’re talking,” he said during a Feb. 1 interview.
Longfield said protests are “a part of life” for those living and working in Ottawa.
“And we hope that the protesters, once they’ve made their point, that they do go back to where they come from, so that the businesses in the downtown and the people working in the downtown are able to continue on,” he said.
Longfield commended the police forces that joined on Parliament Hill to monitor the protests, noting they did a good job maintaining the peace.
By Tuesday, Ottawa’s mayor and other politicians, including Ontario Premier Doug Ford, were calling on the protesters to leave.
“I hear the protesters, the province hears the protesters, the country hears the protesters — now, it’s time to let the people in Ottawa get back to their lives,” Ford told the press on Tuesday.
“People have to move on. We have to let the people of Ottawa live their lives.”
Chong said he is not concerned about the protest in Ottawa and on Parliament Hill dragging on.
“I have confidence in the men and women … of law enforcement to manage this protest,” he said.
The Advertiser was unable to reach Perth-Wellington MP John Nater by the print edition deadline Tuesday evening.
Contacted by phone in Ottawa on Tuesday morning, legislative assistant Keith Mitchell said Nater would be in committee meetings all day but would attempt to respond during a break.
In a written statement provided on Feb. 2, Nater said, “All Canadians have the constitutional right to protest and demonstrate peacefully.
“It is important in our democracy that Canadians are free to criticize their government and hold it to account for the decisions it has made.”
However, Nater pointed out the right to protest also includes “responsibility and respect for the rights of others, respect for property, respect for diversity, and respect for the symbols of this country.
“Harmful rhetoric, dangerous accusations, and intolerance for the views of others will only lead to further division and will not solve the challenges our nation faces,” he stated.
Nater says he as been “deeply disturbed by the images of divisiveness and intolerance we have seen flaunted over the past several days in downtown Ottawa, including acts that have desecrated sites and landmarks which are prominent symbols of the freedom we value so highly in this country.”
Calling on everyone “from the prime minister to each protester” to deescalate the situation, Nater said further disruptions to supply chains will only make things worse for Canadians who are already struggling.
“The government has a responsibility to listen to Canadians as they consider their actions and make the best decisions possible, even under difficult circumstances.,” Nater stated.
“Unfortunately many Canadians, including some truck drivers, feel they are not being heard.”
With Parliament resuming, Nater indicated he hopes “we will all listen to reason and to each other, and work together in the best interest of all Canadians.”