Vehicles from the protest convoy are parked blocking lanes on a road, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022 in Ottawa. Residents of the national capital are again being told to avoid traveling downtown as a convoy of trucks and cars snarl traffic protesting government-imposed vaccine mandates and COVID-19 restrictions. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)
Thousands in Ottawa protesting Covid-19 mandates
02:50 - Source: CNN
Ottawa CNN  — 

A massive protest by Canadian truckers and others against Covid-19 mandates has been growing for weeks, crippling three US border crossings and downtown Ottawa – with no end in sight.

So, why are the demonstrations happening now? What exactly are they about? And what’s being done to address them? Here are some key questions and answers about Canada’s Covid-19 protests.

What are truckers protesting in Canada?

Thousands of truckers are participating in the so-called “Freedom Convoy,” fighting a vaccine mandate that is forcing all Canadian truckers crossing the US-Canadian border to be fully vaccinated or face quarantine in their homes for two weeks when they return.

The rule went into effect in mid-January in Canada and January 22 in the United States. The US Department of Homeland Security now requires noncitizens entering the United States via border crossings or ferry terminals along the US northern and southern borders be fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

A man takes part in a Freedom Convoy protest in Ottawa on February 2.

Before this mandate, truckers were exempted from the vaccine requirement and permitted to cross the border, at times testing for Covid-19, even during the 18-month period that the border was closed to nonessential traffic. Truckers were considered vital to keeping supply chains functioning normally.

Nearly 90% of Canada’s truckers are fully vaccinated and eligible to cross the border, according to the Canadian government. So, the protesting truckers represent a “small, fringe minority,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, adding early on that his government did not expect the vaccine mandate to significantly affect supply chains.

How have the protests evolved?

The Freedom Convoy of truckers began its protest in January in Canada’s western provinces, with the goal of reaching the nation’s capital, Ottawa, and continuing to protest until the vaccine mandate was lifted.

On its cross-country journey, the protest has attracted support from thousands more Canadians, even some who are fully vaccinated, who say they want all Covid-19 preventative measures dropped, including mask mandates, lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings.

A large, noisy convoy, including hundreds of trucks and other vehicles, descended January 29 on Ottawa. Since then, they have snarled traffic and honked often and loudly. Protesters in more than 60 vehicles also disrupted traffic at Ottawa International Airport on Thursday, circling the arrivals and departure terminals, airport officials said.

In several other large Canadian cities and towns, protest crowds emerged over the first weekend of February with hundreds of trucks and thousands of protesters. Rallies also took place in Toronto, Quebec City, Vancouver and Winnipeg.

Meantime, Friday marked the fifth day protesters impeded access to the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario – the busiest international crossing in North America.

In addition, a mix of semi-trailers and farm equipment shut down the border crossing connecting Emerson, Manitoba, and Pembina, North Dakota, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Manitoba. The Coutts access point between Alberta and Montana has also been blocked.

Similar protests soon could erupt in the United States, including around Sunday’s Super Bowl in Southern California, American officials warn. Right-wing media outlets have raised the prospect of like-minded rallies in the US and offered positive coverage of those in Canada.

What do the protesters want?

Protesters will remain in Ottawa “for as long as it takes for governments across Canada to end all mandates” associated with Covid-19, Freedom Convoy organizers said last week in a statement.

Some want Trudeau to speak with them and hear their opposition to the mandates and restrictions, those protesters told CNN. Trudeau has no intention of meeting with protesters, who hold views “unacceptable” to most Canadians, he has said.

What has the impact been on Canadians?

The blockades have slowed the movement of goods and caused production problems at car manufacturing plants along the border. Ford, General Motors and Stellantis have all announced auto production issues in Canada.

The Ambassador Bridge “is too essential to both of our national economies, and … puts a lot of bread on the table for our families on both sides of the border,” Windsor, Ontario, Mayor Drew Dilkens told CNN this week.

In Ottawa, residents and service providers in the downtown core feel like hostages in a city under siege, they’ve told CNN. Most businesses in the area have been forced to close; they include a large mall next to the protest site.

People protest Covid-19 vaccine mandates in Ottawa on February 5.

Dozens of trucks remain in Ottawa’s downtown core in what local officials have described as an “occupation.” The police chief calls it “unlawful,” as property damage, thefts and mischief have been reported, along with hundreds of alleged hate crimes. Some 1,000 calls related to the demonstration have been received, plus 25 arrests made and more than 1,500 traffic and other tickets issued, police said Thursday.

A judge this week signed a temporary injunction that prevents protesters in Ottawa from using horns during their demonstrations, court documents show.

In Windsor, Dilkens secured a court injunction Friday to help put an end to the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge. The injunction, which will give police more power to end the ongoing protest takes effect this evening after giving protesters an opportunity to clear the area, Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz said.

At one point during the hearing, when responding to counsel representing the protesters, Chief Justice Morawetz said the protesters demands for freedom are resulting in the direct denial of freedom for many others in society. “We’re dealing with millions of dollars of damage each and every day,” he said.

“If they refuse to leave, then police will have operational plans identified, we have resources that have come here from across the province of Ontario and from across Canada with support from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and one by one we’ll start towing the cars if required,” Dilkens said.

People hold signs and wave flags along Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill on February 5 as part of the Freedom Convoy protest.

What has PM Justin Trudeau said about all this?

Trudeau, who is fully vaccinated and boosted, has said the protesters do not represent the vast majority of Canadians, about 80% of whom have opted to get fully vaccinated. Most believe public health restrictions save lives, the Prime Minister has said.

He implored protesters parked in trucks right outside the parliament building Monday to end their demonstration.

“Individuals are trying to blockade our economy, our democracy and our fellow citizens’ daily lives. It has to stop,” Trudeau said during an emergency debate in Ottawa that marked his first public appearance since isolating after he and some members of his family contracted the coronavirus.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that protesters have a right to voice their concerns but said residents don’t deserve to be harassed in their own neighborhoods.

“This 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, continuing to be there for each other,” Trudeau said after underscoring that Canadians are tired of Covid-19 health restrictions.

By Thursday, the Prime Minister was employing stronger language in a series of tweets: “The illegal blockades and occupations happening across the country … (are) harming the communities they’re taking place in – and they’re hurting jobs, businesses, and our country’s economy.”

Trudeau had spoken with Windsor’s mayor “about the illegal blockade of the Ambassador Bridge … because it is causing real harm to workers and economies on both sides of the border,” he tweeted. He’d also spoken with opposition party leaders, asking all lawmakers to “denounce these illegal acts – and to call for an end to these blockades.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question from the media availability on January 31.

About 80% of Canadians are vaccinated. Why so much angst now?

Almost 4 of every 5 Canadians are vaccinated, according to the Canadian government. However, provincial governments and the federal government have enforced various vaccine mandates, stoking ire among those politically opposed and fatigue among others as the pandemic hits its two-year mark.

At the federal and provincial level, Canada has enforced some of the strictest Covid-19 measures in the world, with widespread mask mandates and restrictions on the size of gatherings, not only at large events and restaurants but also in private homes.

A vocal minority of Canadians says they agree with the truckers’ protest, saying is it time to drop most Covid-19 restrictions. With so many Canadians complying for so long with vaccine and mask mandates and other Covid-19 measures, some say public health officials and government leaders are now going too far.

As one couple who said they are fully vaccinated feel they did their part and now they want to move on, they told CNN.

Had Canadians staged serious protests over Covid-19 rules before this?

Various smaller protests took place across the country against health measures and mandates in 2020 and 2021. However, this is the largest and most widespread protest of its kind to date during the pandemic.

What Covid-19 rules are in place for Canadians who are not truckers?

Several provinces are beginning to drop some mitigation measures and allow the reopening of restaurant dining rooms, theaters, cinemas and gyms, albeit with capacity restrictions.

Decisions about most of these health restrictions and how and when to ease them are determined not by the Trudeau government but by individual provinces.

There is still a federal vaccine mandate for passengers traveling by air domestically or internationally. In addition, all federal public servants are required to be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment.

How might the Covid-19 protests end?

Possible solutions include persuading protesters to disburse voluntarily; the government giving into demands; and police removing the protesters. Military force is considered highly unlikely as Canada’s armed forces are not a police force and they “are not involved in law enforcement in this situation,” Defense Minister Anita Anand told CNN.

The Trudeau government will send more officers to protests across the country, saying Thursday the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada’s national police force, continues to show decisive action.

“The RCMP are going to be sending additional reinforcements to Ottawa. I also can advise that the RCMP will be sending reinforcements to Windsor and in addition to that the RCMP have added additional resources at Coutts, in Alberta,” said Marco Mendicino, Canada’s public safety minister.

“Our top priority is to make sure that these illegal blockades end,” he said.

CNN’s Sharif Paget contributed to this report.