Friday, April 19

Ottawa protests: tensions grow as ‘intolerable’ truck blockade paralyzes Canada capital | Canada

For nearly a week, Paul Aubue, has lived and slept in the cab of his truck, parked in downtown Ottawa.

The 64-year-old grandfather traveled from New Brunswick to join hundreds of others as they descended on the Canadian capital. Aubue, the owner of a trucking company, said he’d been driven to protest by a recent requirement that truckers be vaccinated against Covid.

“I’m here for freedom. This whole thing has been going on for two years and it seems everyday there’s something more. We don’t need a vaccine passport,” he said, adding that the family had dissuaded him from getting vaccinated. “People die everyday, people born every day – that’s nature.”

The vast majority of truckers – and Canadians – are vaccinated against the coronavirus, however. And most Canadians, even though they’ve grown tired of the pandemic, also say they’re against the sustained protestswhich have paralyzed central Ottawa and forced businesses to close.

Paul Aubue: 'This whole thing has been going on for two years and it seems everyday there's something more.  We don't need a vaccine passport.'
Paul Aubue: ‘This whole thing has been going on for two years and it seems everyday there’s something more. We don’t need a vaccine passport.’ Photograph: Amru Salahuddien

But as tensions rise between protesters and local officials, analysts say the recent events could signal the birth of a growing populist movement which could potentially reshape Canadian politics.

Despite the cold, Aubue said he’s been well taken care of by organizers and some residents who oppose public health measures. He says he’s received hot meals and fuel to run the truck’s generator for heat.

Another protester, Philip Grenier, said he would remain in Ottawa “for as long as it takes” for the federal government to repeal pandemic restrictions – although almost all such rules fall under provincial jurisdiction.

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But for local people say the protests – which have included honking truck horns, but also allegations of assault and intimidation – have left them frustrated, fed up and – at times – in fear of leaving their homes.

A local woman who gave her name as Jennifer said that she’d been harassed by a group of men wearing Canada flags as capes and shouting “Freedom!” before two other men in an idling truck called her a “dumb cunt sheep” for wearing a mask.

“I’m just done with these people,” she said.

When Tim Abray, a communications consultant, attempted to take a picture of the protests, he was confronted by three men who grabbed and shoved him. He said nearby police officers failed to intervene.

Supporter of the 'freedom' convoy stands with a Canadian flag in front of the parliament hill in Ottawa on Thursday.
Supporter of the ‘freedom’ convoy stands with a Canadian flag in front of the parliament hill in Ottawa on Thursday. Photograph: Amru Salahuddien

Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly called the protests “intolerable” and unprecedented,” and the force says it has laid charges against three people and have 25 active investigations into incidents including the desecration of the National War Memorial and the harassment of employees and clients at a soup kitchen.

On Thursday, Justin Trudeau rejected suggestions that the military might be called in to end the protest. “One has to be very, very cautious before deploying military in situations involving Canadians,” he told reporters, adding that a military response was not on the cards “right now”.

But Ottawa police say the situation has become increasingly difficult to navigate.

Police say that a number of blockade members are believed to be armed, and amid growing calls for counter protests, there is growing of fear that violence could erupt.

Officers say their strategy has been to defuse tensions, but critics say that other demonstrations, including those by Indigenous peoples, are often met with force.

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“It’s OK if angry white men do it, because they are politically aligned with you, but it’s not OK if Indigenous people peacefully protect their own rights,” Indigenous lawyer and professor Pam Palmater told APTN News.

The pandemic – and the public health restrictions that came with it – have brought together a number of disparate movements and ideologies, including far-right and separatist groups.

“The pushback to government overreach or public health policies brought QAnon, the Proud Boys and ‘sovereign citizens’ or anti-government people into the same room,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a researcher into extremism and populism movements at Queen’s University. On Thursday, Roman Didulus, the self-proclaimed “Queen of Canada” arrived in Ottawa along with her supporters. Didulo, a QAnon linked conspiracy theorist, was recently arrested after calling on her 70,000 online supporters to shoot health-care workers.

“These groups have proven they can mobilize very quickly and actually get people to give up their lives and go on a trip across the country, which is not an easy thing to do in the middle of winter,” said Amarasingam. “But I’ve been thinking about where all this energy goes when, inevitably, nothing happens, because their goals are so lofty that they’re never going to be met. How do they actually get out of this and save face?”

The group organizing the protest has already raised more than C$10m online, although the fundraiser was paused by GoFundMe on Wednesday. But members of Trudeau’s Liberal party and the Ontario provincial premier are unlikely to meet the protesters’ demand for an audience.

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But the spectacle has caught the attention of influential far-right voices in the United States, including former president Donald Trump and his areand Fox News Host Tucker Carlson. Tesla founder Elon Musk also tweeted his support of the truck convoy. On Wednesday, Ottawa police said a “significant” amount of the funding and organizing was coming from the United States.

A protester walks around parked vehicles in front of Parliament hill, in Ottawa, Thursday.
A protester walks around parked vehicles in front of Parliament hill, in Ottawa, Thursday. Photograph: Canadian Press/REX/Shutterstock

US politics was dramatically reshaped by the Tea party movement in the 2008s, changing the makeup of Congress and shifting political rhetoric. Canada’s electoral system tends to reward more centrist parties, but the recent protest has elevated the profile of previously fringe characters, including those who espouse Islamophobic and xenophobic views.

With a vacuum in the Conservative party leadership, high-profile members of the party have actively courted the protesters, suggesting they see value in what could be a growing populist movement.

Conservative politicians, including the former party leader, have posed with protesters outside parliament, in a stunt that Ottawa’s mayor described as an “absolute disgrace”.

But the willingness of MP to embrace the protesters speaks to the mainstreaming of more fringe views, say experts.

“They’re hedging their bets to see where the political current goes, and how this movement drives broader political and electoral trends. They want to be the ones that ride the fence for as long as possible to decide where their allegiances are in order to keep their jobs,” said Amarasingam.

“If Canadian populism becomes this anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and racist fringe and if some elected officials feel like that segment of the population is useful, that’s going to color the discourse in terms of how we actually do politics in Canada. That’s a larger concern,” said Amarasingam. “If it goes the way of the United States, that’s just as destructive, even if we don’t have somebody in power.”

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