This weekend’s protests in Ottawa against vaccine mandates saw thousands of people and a convoy of trucks and other vehicles descend on the centre of the Canadian capital.
Amid cries of “freedom”, demands for a removal of all Covid-19 restrictions, and attacks against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government, there were also swastikas and other Nazi imagery, public urination, harassment of local businesses and a soup kitchen, and national outcry over the treatment of a statue and war memorial.
“Over the past few days, Canadians were shocked and frankly, disgusted by the behaviour displayed by some people protesting in our nation’s capital,” Prime Minister Trudeau said during an address from the National Capital Region on Monday.
“I want to be very clear, we are not intimidated by those who hurl insults and abuse at small business workers, and steal food from the homeless. We won’t give in to those who fly racist flags. We won’t cave to those who engage in vandalism or dishonour the memory of our veterans,” he said.
Here are some of the most controversial moments from the past few days.
Desecration of National War Memorial and Terry Fox statue
Ottawa police have launched a criminal investigation after video surfaced of protesters climbing atop a cenotaph and dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There are also reports of people urinating at the site. The chief of Canada’s defence staff said he was “sickened” by the incident.
Another photo from the protests showed the statue of Terry Fox, a national figure, draped in an upside down Canadian flag and a sign reading “mandate freedom.” A historical figure in Canada, Fox lost a leg to bone cancer in his early years and then launched a fundraising trek across Canada in 1980.
On Sunday barricades were erected around national monuments to prevent further access to them. Several vehicles parked at the National War Memorial were towed away.
Harassment of local businesses and soup kitchen
When thousands of protesters and heavy trucks arrived in the downtown area, there were no public conveniences open and no food laid on. There are reports of local businesses being harassed and a nearby mall was shut down when people entered and flouted mask mandates and other Covid precautions.
A soup kitchen in Ottawa said that members of the convoy protest harassed its staff for meals, while one community member was assaulted and a security guard called “racial slurs.”
In a tweet, the Shepherds of Good Hope said meals were provided to truckers after some issues, but stated that it would not be providing food for the convoy in the future.
Later on Sunday officials added more details to what happened at their facility on Saturday.
“Friends, it’s been a difficult 24 hours. Staff harassed for meals. A service user and security guard assaulted. Through it all, you have donated and filled our hearts with gratitude. Every cent will support people experiencing homelessness. Thank you,” they tweeted.
Nazi symbols and confederate flags
Photos from the protest show Nazi imagery such as swastikas and SS symbols intended as a criticism of what is seen as tyrannical overreach by the Trudeau government by some of the protesters. In some incidences these were inscribed on upside down Canadian flags — a traditional way of signalling protest, danger, or distress relating to a nation.
More confusing was the presence of confederate flags from the US civil war being raised above the throng. Commonly associated with racism, slavery, segregation, and white supremacist views, its presence in the Canadian capital is perhaps more jarring even than its appearance in the January 6 storming of the US Capitol by pro-Trump rioters.
At least one Trump 2024 flag was also spotted in the crowd.
Trump rally support
Lending his support to the truckers was former US President Donald Trump, who gave them a shout-out at a rally in Conroe, Texas on Saturday.
Mr Trump praised the convoy protesters for “doing more to defend American freedom than our own leaders by far”.
“We want those great Canadian truckers to know that we are with them all the way,” he told his supporters.
The former president was joined in his praise of the truckers by his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, who expressed his support for the convoy in a video posted to Facebook earlier in the week, saying: “We need to see more of this here in the US.”
Elon Musk: Truckers ‘rule’
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, and the world’s current richest man, tweeted his support for the freedom convoy ahead of the weekend’s protest.
“Canadian truckers rule,” he wrote on Thursday. Mr Musk has not been shy in the past about his dislike for vaccine mandates, noting that while he and his family are vaccinated, a state-imposed requirement to get shots of the vaccine to work or travel, represented an “erosion of freedom”.
Mr Musk’s tweet did receive several replies noting that more than 85 per cent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated.
The organisers of the Canadian freedom convoy Tamara Lich, Benjamin Dichter, and Chris Barber held a press conference over the weekend, but banned many mainstream media outlets.
“We omitted certain news agencies from this press conference, including The Toronto Star and the CBC who are banned from this press conference. And the reason they were banned is twofold. First, this entire week the CBC, Toronto Star – Yahoo News were retweeting and reposting with a few others – kept putting stories out that our GoFundMe was frozen or suspended because of nefarious reasons. You know ‘right-wing truckers,’ ‘dangerous people,’ and it was hysterical, me and Tamara were talking,” Mr Dichter said.
Stretching city resources to breaking point
With gridlocked streets, freezing temperatures, and thousands of people to police, Ottawa’s first responders, transportation, and other municipal services were either under severe stress or overwhelmed. Snow removal, garbage collection, and public transport were all impacted, but police maintain that they kept the situation calm and avoided a riot forming.
A news release on Sunday said law enforcement had been actively and patiently managing the demonstration, despite multiple cases of disruptive, inappropriate and threatening behaviour from demonstrators.
They are now working with organisers to facilitate the safe departure of individuals and vehicles and to ensure safety ask people to continue to avoid downtown.
Police avoided ticketing and towing vehicles so as not to instigate confrontations with demonstrators. Still, confrontations and the need for de-escalation were regularly required.
The Ottawa Police estimates the financial costs of the policing the event stand at more than $800,000 a day.
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