By Mia Rabson, Mike Blanchfield and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he will neither meet with nor be intimidated by the convoy of Canadians he says spent the last few days harassing local businesses, waving Nazi flags and stealing food from the homeless.
Speaking to Canadians from isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 Monday, Trudeau said “freedom of expression, assembly and association are cornerstones of democracy.”
“But Nazi symbolism, racist imagery, and desecration of war memorials are not,” he said Monday from a location in the National Capital Region that is not being made public for security reasons.
“It is an insult to memory and truth. Hate can never be the answer.”
Trudeau and his family were moved Saturday as thousands of people converged all over Ottawa, including some near his official residence on the grounds of Rideau Hall.
On Monday, he said Canadians were “shocked and frankly disgusted” by some of the behaviour of individuals participating in a massive protest in Ottawa over the weekend. He said “it has to stop.”
“I want to be very clear: We are not intimidated by those who hurl insults and abuse small-business workers and steal food from the homeless,” he said. “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.”
Canada Unity, the group behind the convoy, originated during the 2019 pro-pipeline convoy to Ottawa but morphed into an anti-COVID restrictions protest after the pandemic began. It has been holding protests in and around Ottawa for months and demanding Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and the Senate force federal and provincial governments to lift all restrictions, which is a constitutional impossibility.
The vaccine mandate for truckers that took effect on both side of the Canada-U.S. border earlier this month added more fire to the demands and helped trigger the bigger convoy that descended on Ottawa in the last week.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole spoke live on Facebook Monday afternoon and said the protesters were motivated by “fear that the world is changing.”
“Fear that they will be left behind. Fear that they have no voice in this society. Fear that life will never return to normal.”
He also accused Trudeau of fearmongering when there were only “a handful of unacceptable incidents this weekend.”
Those included, he said, people waving hateful flags — including swastikas and the Confederate flag — and reports of people disrespecting the National War Memorial. Those reports included that people urinated on the site and danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Ottawa Police Service is investigating those reports, as well as numerous others. An Ottawa homeless shelter said Saturday that one of its clients was assaulted by convoy participants, who also entered their facility and threatened and intimidated staff into serving them food.
The Ottawa Paramedic Association reported that paramedics asked for police escorts after rocks were hurled at an ambulance from a truck in the convoy.
Local residents reported witnessing convoy members defecating and urinating in their yards, and one said they came across a protester using their backyard for a bathroom while availing himself of their outdoor outlet to charge his phone.
Several local businesses and workers reported being intimidated by some participants, and many eventually locked their doors and closed for safety reasons.
They remained closed Monday, even as provincial restrictions that had prevented them from any in-person dining were lifted.
Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said Monday nobody wants lockdown rules eased more than small-business owners but now they can’t open because of this protest.
“It is so disappointing to see,” Kelly said.
Kelly said a downtown spa owner, who did not want to be identified, was despondent when up to 90 per cent of clients cancelled their bookings for this week out of fear of the protesters.
An elementary school and two city-run daycares downtown were closed Monday for safety reasons, and the Rideau Centre shopping mall remained shuttered for a third day after Canada Unity told convoy members to flood area malls without face masks.
Ottawa City Coun. Catherine McKenney said residents had been resigned to the disruptions on the weekend but are now fed up. Ontario Heritage Minister Lisa MacLeod, who represents an Ottawa riding, said on Twitter Monday it was time for things to end.
“The residents and families of Ottawa need to return to work and school,” she wrote. “To the protesters remaining — you’ve been heard — please go home.”
The crowds thinned considerably Monday, with a few hundred people outside Parliament Hill, but those that remain say they intend to stay until all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. That includes vaccine passports and gathering limits, which are the purview of provincial governments.
One convoy leader addressing the crowd Monday said the trucks that have been idling for days along Wellington Street were running low on fuel, but people are being dispatched to bring in jerry cans to keep them going.
Several MPs skirted the protest to attend the first sitting of the House of Commons since mid-December Monday, though most MPs are still participating virtually because of COVID-19.
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault looked stricken as he spoke of the harassment and intimidation people felt over the weekend. NDP MP Charlie Angus said Ottawa was being held hostage and Quebec Conservative Pierre Paul-Hus said he didn’t like what had happened at the National War Memorial.
But Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen said Trudeau was “gaslighting” the protesters, who deserve the chance to be heard. She said the protesters she met with from her home province of Manitoba Sunday are “good people, patriotic, peace-loving.”
“They want to be heard,” she said, as truck horns blared in the background. “This is not a fringe minority. Although the prime minister might not agree with their views he should be listening to them and giving them some respect.”
The protest also triggered some hot tempers and shouting matches during the first question period of 2022 Monday.
Trudeau said during his news conference he will not meet with anyone involved. He said he has attended protests on the Hill in the past, including taking a knee to support the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. But he said he attends when he agrees with a cause or supports a group’s right to express their concerns.
“I have also chosen to not go anywhere near protests that have expressed hateful rhetoric, violence toward fellow citizens, and a disrespect not just of science, but of the front-line health workers and quite frankly, the 90 per cent of truckers who have been doing the right thing to keep Canadians safe, to put food on our tables,” he said.
“Canadians know where I stand. This is a moment for responsible leaders to think carefully about where they stand and who they stand with.”