Struggling to tame the boisterous trucker movement that has prompted a state of emergency in Ottawa, Trudeau conceded Monday that the “pandemic has sucked for all Canadians.”
“But Canadians know the way to get through it is continuing to listen to science, continuing to lean on each other,” he added, pledging unspecified federal support for local authorities.
Federal police have already deployed on the streets of the capital, as demonstrators waving Canadian flags and anti-Trudeau slogans dug in.
Under a light snowfall, the truckers warmed themselves by open pit fires and played street hockey.
A court on Monday ordered their incessant loud honking to stop—so they have turned instead to revving the engines of their big rigs.
The “Freedom Convoy” began in January in western Canada—launched by truckers angry with requirements to either be vaccinated, or to test and isolate, when crossing the US-Canadian border.
Protester Martin Desforges, 46, told AFP he was determined to stay “until the end,” which organizers said would come only when all pandemic restrictions are lifted.
“I’m against wearing a mask, all distancing measures and restaurant closures,” he told AFP.
“Getting vaccinated should be a decision between a person and their doctor,” echoed fellow protester John Hawley-Wight, “not the government.”
More than 80 percent of Canadians five years or older are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
Vaccine mandates for travelers are set by the federal government, but most other Covid measures are the responsibility of provincial authorities.
Only one province, Saskatchewan, has so far announced an imminent lifting of all pandemic restrictions. But others have started easing what are among the most stringent measures in the world, as hospitalizations start to trend downward.
‘Living in fear’
From the original opposition to vaccine requirements for truckers, the movement has morphed into a broader protest against Covid-19 health restrictions and Trudeau’s Liberal government, and put a spotlight on pandemic curbs around the world.
Inspired by the Canada protests, a convoy of trucks and campervans blocked streets near New Zealand’s parliament in Wellington Tuesday to protest against Covid restrictions and vaccinations at home.
Calls have multiplied on social media for similar rallies in Europe and the United States.
According to a Leger poll, 44 per cent of vaccinated Canadians “sympathize with the concerns and frustrations” voiced by the truckers.
Back in Ottawa, main opposition Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen sided with the demonstrators, calling them “passionate, patriotic and peaceful.”
They’ve also received support from former US president Donald Trump and several Republican lawmakers, as well as billionaire Elon Musk.
Ottawa’s police chief said the protesters had received funding from US sources. After GoFundMe ended a trucker fundraising campaign, citing violence, another popped up on GiveSendGo that had raised more than US$5 million as of Monday night.
The mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, has urged tougher policing to “end this siege” that has infuriated local residents with incessant honking and diesel fumes.
“The occupation has turned into an aggressive and hateful occupation of our neighborhoods,” he said in a letter to Trudeau Monday. “People are living in fear and are terrified.”
Protests in solidarity with the truckers were held in almost every major Canadian city over the weekend.
Key border crossings in Ontario and Alberta for Canada-US trade were also partially blocked by truckers and farmers, which Transport Minister Omar Alghabra warned Tuesday could “have serious implications on our economy, on our supply chain.”
Prior to his address to parliament, Trudeau was facing accusations of underestimating the protest movement—dismissing it as a “fringe minority” and “a few people shouting and waving swastikas,” and refusing to meet with the group.
For Felix Mathieu, a politics professor at the University of Winnipeg, Trudeau had been sitting on the sidelines in hope the movement would “run out of steam”—but two weeks in, there was no sign of that happening yet.