TORONTO/OTTAWA—Canadian cities, including the financial hub Toronto, faced disruptions on Saturday as protests against vaccine mandates spread from the capital of Ottawa, raising fears of clashes with counter protesters.
The so-called "Freedom Convoy" began as a movement against a vaccine requirement for cross-border truckers, but has turned into a rallying point against public health measures and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government.
“We're all sick and tired of the mandates, of the intimidation, of living in one big prison,” said Robert, a Toronto protester who did not give his last name. “We just want to go back to normal without having to take into our veins the poison which they call vaccines.”
Protesters have shut down downtown Ottawa for the past eight days, with some participants waving Confederate or Nazi flags and some saying they wanted to dissolve Canada's government.
The well-organized blockade, which police say has relied partly on funding from sympathizers in the United States, saw protesters bring in portable saunas on Saturday to combat frigid temperatures. One man rode through the area on horseback, carrying a Trump flag, social media videos showed. The former U.S. president has spoken out in support of the truckers against "the harsh policies of far-left lunatic Justin Trudeau who has destroyed Canada with insane COVID mandates."
GoFundMe took down the Freedom Convoy's donation page on Friday, saying it violated the platform's terms of service due to unlawful activity. The group had raised about C$10.1 million.
In a confusingly worded statement, the website said it would give refunds to those who request it by February 19 and work with organizers to distribute the rest to verified charities.
On Saturday, GoFundMe said it would refund all donations automatically but not before Tesla CEO Elon Musk called the company "professional thieves." Florida Governor Rick DeSantis and other Republican state lawmakers vowed to investigate the California-based company over the move.
Toronto police ramped-up their presence in the city and closed a major downtown avenue, which is home to several hospitals, fearing protesters would otherwise impede access. Entry was limited to hospital staff, patients and family.
About 500 healthcare workers and supporters rallied in downtown Toronto, near the site of the planned trucker convoy demonstrations, according to a Reuters eyewitness.
Several Toronto healthcare workers said they received advice from their hospitals to not wear hospital scrubs in public in light of the protest. Police said this was not their advice.
"The notion that we have to somehow skulk around or be afraid of who we are and what were doing, I think, is offensive and regrettable and, I think, a sad commentary on our society," emergency room doctor Raghu Venugopal told Reuters.
Some protest vehicles arrived in Quebec City for a planned Saturday protest, coinciding with the city's annual winter carnival. Meanwhile, trucks blocked traffic near Manitoba's provincial legislature in Winnipeg on Friday and demonstrations were expected in Montreal, Calgary and Regina. Some cities erected barricades to keep protesters away from legislature buildings or banned traffic around them.
Some Ottawa residents, subjected to near-incessant honking, smashed windows and harassment for wearing masks, criticized Ottawa Police earlier this week for not doing more to end the blockade. An Ottawa resident filed a class action lawsuit against convoy organizers, seeking up to $10 million in damages.
Ottawa police warned on Friday of a crackdown on the protest and dedicated 150 officers to "patrolling and addressing unlawful and threatening conduct in the most-impacted neighborhoods."
"This remains ... an increasingly volatile and increasingly dangerous demonstration," Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said on Friday, adding protesters in the Canadian capital "remain highly organized, well-funded, extremely committed to resisting all attempts to end the demonstration safely."