WINDSOR, ON – Canadians who have occupied downtown Ottawa, disrupted travel and trade with the United States and inspired counterfeit protests from New Zealand to the Netherlands strike a common note when asked about their motivation: decisions about their health should not be made by the government.
“We stand for freedom,” said Karen Driedger, 40, who homeschools her children and has attended protests in Ottawa and Windsor. “We believe it should be everyone’s personal decision what they inject into their body.”
The refrain is not new in a pandemic-weary world, two years after the COVID-19 virus prompted curfews and shutdowns, mask mandates and debates over vaccine requirements. Still, the timing of the protests raised some eyebrows, as they began just as many of the toughest pandemic-era restrictions were being lifted in Canada, the United States and Europe; experts say antipathy toward Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a significant underlying force.
The protests opposite that have fueled frustrations across the country and the world have been aided by publicity and support from far-right and anti-vaccine groups. And influential Americans such as former US President Donald Trump and billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk have joined the protesters.
Most Canadians supported the pandemic restrictions, which health officials say are necessary to protect the public from a virus that has killed at least 5.8 million people worldwide. The vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and the death rate from COVID-19 is one-third that of the United States.
Trudeau called the protesters “marginal” and authorities have prepared for violence because some have expressed hope that the rally will become the Canadian equivalent of last January’s riot in the United States Capitol by Trump supporters.
The Canadian “freedom convoy” was announced last month by a group founded by conspiracy theorist QAnon and other organizers, and includes former far-right Alberta party leader Maverick.
Protesters who spoke to The Associated Press this week defended their actions and argued they represented many other frustrated residents.
Don Stephens, a 65-year-old retired graphic designer, said he came to Ottawa twice to show his support for the protesters. He considers them as the representatives of a “silent majority which aspired to make its voice heard”.
Mat Mackenzie, a 36-year-old trucker from Ontario, said he had been among the protesters in Ottawa for 15 days, feeling “a duty” to show his opposition. Citizens should be responsible for making decisions about masks, vaccines and other COVID mitigation efforts, not government officials, he said.
“I can tell you that probably 90% of the truckers here are vaccinated. We’re here for freedom of choice,” Mackenzie said. “And that’s what we’re here to fight for.”
Michael Kempa, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, said the protest had two faces. It’s not just about vaccination mandates and other COVID restrictions; Organizers have said they want to oust Trudeau’s Liberal government and help form a new one, he said.
“In many ways, the friendly protesters are acting like the foot soldiers of the organizers,” Kempa said. “We are seeing a tremendous amount of misinformation. People who are legitimately angry are manipulated by the protest leadership. »
Many Canadians were outraged by the rude behavior of some protesters. Some urinated on the National War Memorial and danced at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, while others carried signs and flags with swastikas and used the statue of Canadian hero Terry Fox to post an anti statement. -vaccine, prompting widespread condemnation.
Images of protests across Canada have inflamed imitators elsewhere.
In Paris, the police on Saturday prevented a threat of blockade of the French capital. Corn a few dozen vehicles were able to disrupt traffic on the famous Champs-Elysées, prompting the police to fire tear gas to disperse the crowd.
“The convoys are for the restoration of our freedoms,” said Pierre-Louis Garnier, a 64-year-old man who took part in a demonstration in Paris on Friday to welcome an anticipated convoy that never materialized.
In the Netherlands, dozens of trucks and other vehicles, some waving Canadian flags, crashed into The Hague, the historic Dutch parliamentary complex.
“We now live in a police state,” Hans Evenstain, a 76-year-old protester, said on Sunday. “It’s not a good life anymore. We want to move freely and that is why we are here for ourselves and for our children and our grandchildren.
In Belgium, federal police were urging people to avoid Brussels on Monday as a convoy is expected to gather in the country’s capital and at the headquarters of the 27-nation European Union.
In the New Zealand capital of Wellington, authorities turned to blasting out Barry Manilow songs and the ’90s dance hit “Macarena” looped to break up a convoy of protesters camped outside Parliament this week.
In Windsor, where protesters had blocked the entrance to the Ambassador Bridge, which is a crucial conduit for the auto industry in the United States and Canada, police moved to end the protest Sunday, arrest of a dozen demonstrators and beginning of the towing of vehicles.
Before Sunday’s crackdown, the shutdown often looked like a block party.
Protesters moved around, carrying Canadian flags affixed to the ends of hockey sticks as music blared and food was handed out. They put up signs bearing slogans such as “Freedom is essential”, “Say no to compulsory vaccines” and “End of mandates”.
Troy Holman, a 32-year-old Windsor resident who has attended the protest every day since it began on Monday, said he believed the government had gone too far with its COVID-19 restrictions, which had an impact negative about his wife’s small business.
“If we didn’t do something like that, nobody would pay attention to us,” he said on Friday. “Unfortunately, we have to be here, because that’s what will get the government’s attention.”
Shaffrey reported from Ottawa and Foody reported from Chicago. Associated Press reporters Rob Gillies in Toronto, Elaine Ganley in Paris, Thomas Adamson in The Hague and Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand contributed to this story.
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