Who are the protesters and what do they want?


The demonstrations shaking the nation’s capital began as a protest against the mandatory vaccination of truck drivers crossing the U.S.-Canada border. They have morphed into a battle cry against pandemic restrictions as a whole, and the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Mr. Trudeau, who is isolating after testing positive for Covid-19 last week, has sought to downplay the scope and influence of the protesters, calling them a “small fringe minority,” and lashing out at them for desecrating war memorials, wielding Nazi symbols, spreading disinformation and stealing food from the homeless during protests in Ottawa.

During the pandemic, repeated polls have shown that a majority of Canadians support public health measures to contain the pandemic, but the number of Canadians who would like to see restrictions end has risen in recent weeks, and the demonstrations have tapped into pandemic fatigue across the country after months of lockdowns.

More than two-thirds of Canadians said they had “very little in common” with how the Ottawa protesters see things, while 32 percent said they had “a lot in common,” according to a survey conducted last week by Abacus Data, a research firm.

Police and analysts say the protests, which have galvanized thousands of demonstrators in Ottawa, Quebec City, Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, among other places, have no single leader, but encompass an assortment of people, many of them on the political right.

A key organizer of the “Freedom Convoy” that arrived in Ottawa last week is Tamara Lich, who was previously secretary of the relatively new Maverick Party, a right-of-center group that was started to promote the separation of Canada’s three western Prairie Provinces from the rest of the country.

Ms. Lich, a former fitness instructor who has sung and played guitar in an Alberta band called Blind Monday, played a leading role in organizing a GoFundMe campaign that raised about 10 million Canadian dollars, about $7.8 million, for the cause. But the online service has turned over only about 1 million dollars of that. After consulting the police, the company closed the campaign and is refunding the rest of the money to donors, citing “violence and other unlawful activity” during the demonstrations.

Ms. Lich has called for the federal government to strike down pandemic restrictions in Canada, such as provincial vaccine mandates and rules requiring masks. But Canada has a federal system in which provincial governments have considerable constitutional power, including over health care regulations.

“Our departure will be based on the prime minister doing what is right, ending all mandates and restrictions on our freedoms,” Ms. Lich said at a news conference in Ottawa last week, during which she did not take questions. “We will continue our protest until we see a clear plan for their elimination.”

Another main organizer of the truck convoy is a group calling itself Canada Unity, which has published a “memorandum of understanding” calling on Canada’s appointed senators and Canada’s Governor General (the representative of Queen Elizabeth II in Canada’s constitutional monarchy) to abolish all Covid-19 related restrictions and to allow all unvaccinated workers whose employment was terminated because of vaccine mandates to get their jobs back.

Members of the far-right People’s Party of Canada are also well represented among the protesters in Ottawa. The party has no seats in the federal Parliament. Its leader, Maxime Bernier, has denounced vaccine mandates and has preciously railed against immigration and multiculturalism.

Andrew McDougall, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, described the protests not as a mass national movement but, rather as “the most extreme manifestation we have seen of frustration about pandemic restrictions.”

“To the extend that the convoy is anti-vax and anti-science,” he added, “it is on the margins of Canadian society.”

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