Canadian truckers protesting in Ottawa appear set to stay

Demonstrators have paralysed the centre of the Canadian capital for more than a week, frustrating residents and businesses.

Protesters warm themselves by a charcoal fire on the sidewalk of Wellington street.
Protesters warm themselves by a fire on the sidewalk of Wellington Street in Ottawa, Canada [Roger Lemoyne/Al Jazeera]

Ottawa, Canada – The sound of blaring truck horns has been replaced by revving engines in the Canadian capital, still blockaded by truckers who appear to be settling in for the long haul.

Between and around the trucks that have halted city traffic, protesters have erected tents, barbecues, bales of hay for warmth and comfort. Children in snowsuits played with large plastic blocks in what looked like a makeshift outdoor kindergarten.

The demonstration launched in January and billed as a “Freedom Convoy” began in western Canada and descended on Ottawa, arriving on the 28th, paralysing the city centre.

On January 29, thousands of demonstrators and supporters flooded the streets and the open space in front of the Canadian Parliament Buildings.

What started as a protest against mandatory vaccinations for truckers in order to cross the border into the United States, has grown into broader dissent against the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and what is perceived as a tightening of individual rights and freedoms, highlighting the anti-vaccination movement.

Ottawa Canada, Trucker Protest
Two trucks block the entrance to Rideau street, one of the main commercial streets of downtown Ottawa [Roger Lemoyne/Al Jazeera]

The truckers have effectively shut down a swathe of Ottawa’s city centre, some 1.5km (0.93 miles) long, dubbed the Red Zone by Ottawa Police, where most businesses and office buildings remain closed. This section of the city is home to the seat of government, museums, office buildings and prime business real estate.

The number of protesters has dwindled to a few thousand in the Canadian capital, but police estimate more than four hundred trucks and other vehicles remained parked in the middle of roads, crisscrossing intersections, or within inches of police cruisers that delineate the Red Zone.

The hundreds of police officers deployed around the city, criticised at first for inaction, had issued more than 1,300 tickets and arrested 23 by Wednesday, according to part of the Ottawa police website dedicated to the demonstration. A Monday court injunction had already halted excruciatingly loud truck horn blasts, replaced by the regular revving of truck engines.

“We can stay here for months if we want,” said Harold Jonker, a 49-year-old trucker from the Niagara region, a five-hour drive from Ottawa.

“Our goal is pretty simple: remove all lockdowns and mandatory vaccination and bring the freedoms to this country. What we didn’t realise was how huge the support would be,” said Jonker.

Trucker Leo Schmidt told Al Jazeera he was not sure what to expect when he drove with the convoy from Steinbach, Alberta to Ottawa, more than 3,000 kilometres (1,864 miles).

Ottawa Canada, Trucker Protest
Children of protesters play in a makeshift outdoor kindergarten as Canadian truckers block the streets of Ottawa [Roger LeMoyne/Al Jazeera]

He had regularly crossed the US border as a long haul-trucker for 41 years but said the new regulations halted that, costing him thousands of dollars and he wanted his voice heard.

The convoy was organised by known far-right figures, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network has reported in detail. Confederate flags and at least one swastika were spotted during the first weekend of protests, drawing widespread condemnation from politicians and other observers.

“The swastika, that’s a problem. We think that was a set-up,” Schmidt said, without offering any evidence to back up the claim, adding organisers made sure it was removed. “There are people with a lot of agendas here, other political movers, I’m just a peon.”

On Wednesday morning, demonstrator Roze Ravensbergen fried eggs, bacon and toast on a hotplate on a folding picnic table. She handed out food to anyone who asked for it, creating a community vibe, while standing beside stacks of supplies of water, food and clothes. She said she planned to stay “as long as it takes” for the truckers’ demands to be met.

Ottawa Canada, Trucker Protest
Roze Ravensbergen serves breakfast to anyone who wants it on the street outside the Canadian parliament [Roger Lemoyne/Al Jazeera]

Ravensbergen, travelled with her husband and their three children from the Niagara Peninsula 500km (310 miles) away to support her brother-in-law whose truck has been parked on Wellington Street since January 28. Some family members sleep in the truck, she said, while she and the three children spend nights at a motel.

Among the protesters, there is a convivial party atmosphere, but for many Ottawa residents, resentment has been mounting.

Vehicles have occupied a main shopping thoroughfare, Rideau Street, a five-minute walk from Wellington Street and the Parliament of Canada. The Rideau Centre, a city centre shopping mall closed its doors on January 29 after maskless protesters flooded the building on the first day of the protest. It has not reopened and most of the businesses along the street are now closed as well.

Nearby, the 143-year-old Ottawa School of Art’s campus looks onto Byward Market, a tourist-friendly farmer’s market and home to art galleries, pubs and shops.

“This has definitely hurt us,” director Jeff Stellnick told Al Jazeera.

Unable to open in late January, and already struggling because of COVID-19 closures, the non-profit school is scrambling to move classes to another campus away from the protests and may hire security guards, he said.

“This isn’t really a demonstration about COVID, they want to overthrow the government. It’s like ‘welcome to the French Revolution,’” Stellnick said.

He said Ottawa hosts many regular demonstrations, often with more participants.

“When they’re done they go home. These guys think they have a lot of support, but the vast majority think they’re barking up the wrong tree”.

Ottawa Canada, Trucker Protest
Harold Jonker sits in the cab of his truck parked in front of the Parliament of Canada [Roger LeMoyne/Al Jazeera]

Beyond the centre of town, there is more evidence the truckers do not intend to leave soon.

One group had set up camp in the parking lot of the baseball stadium offered by the city as a vehicle overflow option. It has turned into a self-styled command post running supplies to those on Parliament Hill some six kilometres (3.7 miles) away. More than seventy vehicles of all types are parked in the lot where a tent, a wooden shack and several saunas have been installed.

Fuel is one of the truckers’ key necessities, and protesters have been playing cat-and-mouse with police who have arrested people for transporting it. To confound the authorities, protesters and their supporters have been wandering in and out of the Red Zone with empty fuel canisters, making it harder to spot the real transporters.

An Ottawa police officer told Al Jazeera: “We are just trying to keep a line open with the protesters. We want this to end peacefully.” He declined to identify himself, but his uniform read M Bickford.

Moving the protesters without their consent would not be easy, most are large rig heavy trucks that would be no match for towing vehicles authorities have at their disposal.

Jonker said any towing company with the capacity to move them, would not, “because we’re their customers. They’ll never touch us.”

Source: Al Jazeera