Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada on Monday lashed out at protests against pandemic restrictions over the weekend in Ottawa, chastising demonstrators for desecrating war memorials, wielding Nazi symbols and stealing food from the homeless. The protest was a culmination of a group of Canadian truckers and their supporters who drove from Western Canada to Ottawa to challenge government vaccine mandates.
Speaking from self-isolation after he and two of his children tested positive for the coronavirus, Mr. Trudeau said he understood the frustrations of Canadians, exasperated by a pandemic that has taken a heavy toll. But he criticized the protesters for flying “racist flags,” hurling abuse at small business owners, spreading disinformation and, in one case, going to a homeless shelter in downtown Ottawa and demanding food.
“There is no place in our country for threats, violence or hatred,” he said, adding that the convoy was not representative of a majority of truckers, 90 percent of whom are vaccinated.
An Ottawa law enforcement spokeswoman said Monday that the police had begun several criminal investigations following the desecration of monuments and other threatening behavior during the weekend protests in Canada’s capital.
A loosely organized “Freedom Convoy” of trucks initially began as a response to a regulation requiring truckers returning from the United States to show proof of vaccination. But the protest grew into a more general rallying cry by people opposed to pandemic restrictions and to Mr. Trudeau.
During the weekend protests, the House of Commons was not in session and many lawmakers were not in town. Some people said they planned to continue to protest as Parliament resumed on Monday, even as the numbers of protesters were dwindling.
The demonstrations dominated social media in Canada and received wide media coverage. Ottawa police on Monday said 8,000 protesters had been in downtown Ottawa on Saturday, a small fraction of the numbers claimed by some convoy participants and organizers. Ahead of the demonstrations, Mr. Trudeau dismissed the protesters as a “small fringe minority” and said they would not lead his government to reverse the vaccine mandate.
As in much of the rest of the world, Canadians are suffering pandemic exhaustion after enduring months of truncated lives, illness and death, lockdowns, and shuttered restaurants, houses of worship and gyms. But in a country with a strong deference to scientific authority and a vaunted universal health care system, opinion polls have consistently shown strong support for public health measures aimed at containing the coronavirus. More than 77 percent of Canadians are fully vaccinated.
Prof. Andrew McDougall, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said the convoy had channeled public frustration with pandemic restrictions but did not represent a meaningful political shift in a country where a majority supported vaccination against the coronavirus.
While the convoy failed to become a national movement, organizers raised about 9.2 million Canadian dollars, or $7.2 million, on GoFundMe during the group’s cross-country trip.
“To the extent that the convoy is anti-vax and anti-science, it is on the margins of Canadian society,” Professor McDougall said. “It is not the beginning of a movement but the most extreme manifestation we have seen of frustration about pandemic restrictions.”
A key organizer of the “Freedom Convoy” was Tamara Lich, 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.
Scott Moe, the premier of Saskatchewan, who leads the right-leaning Saskatchewan Party, referenced comments Mr. Trudeau made last week, suggesting he had mischaracterized the scope of the dissent against pandemic restrictions. “There are strong opinions on both sides of this issue, but neither side is a ‘small, fringe minority’ with ‘unacceptable views,’ he wrote on Twitter, quoting Mr. Trudeau.
Candice Bergen, deputy leader of the Conservative Party, wrote on Twitter that Canadians fed up with lockdowns “deserved to be heard.”
While the protests were, at times, unruly, a majority of the protesters were peaceful. Nevertheless, urine stains were seen on snow covering the National War Memorial on Sunday morning. Police towed vehicles that protesters had parked on the memorial and Jim Watson, Ottawa’s mayor, said protesters had disrespected the country’s war dead.
Many Canadians reacted with disgust after images on social media showed anti-vaccine signs placed on a statue of Terry Fox, a national hero who lost a leg to cancer and who died in 1981 at age 22 after running halfway across the country to raise money for cancer research. Demonstrators were also seen dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Shepherds of Good Hope, a homeless shelter in downtown Ottawa, said that members of its staff were harassed by protesters who arrived on Saturday and demanded that the shelter feed them.
“Friends, it’s been a difficult 24 hours,” read a post on the organization’s Twitter account. “Staff harassed for meals. A service user and security guard assaulted. Through it all, you have donated and filled our hearts with gratitude.”
The Rideau Centre, a major shopping mall, closed its doors on Saturday after large numbers of protesters who were not wearing masks swarmed the mall, and yelled and hectored store employees and security guards trying to enforce public health measures.
Residents in downtown Ottawa said online and on radio talk shows that the round-the-clock horn-honking by truck drivers, the fumes of idling vehicles and the aggressive behavior of some had made them prisoners in their own homes.
Some protesters carried Canadian flags upside down; at least one flag had swastikas drawn on it.
Some people, who may not have been involved with the convoy itself, had called for an attack on Parliament similar to the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol. But such calls for violence have been criticized by the convoy’s organizers, as well as by many protesters on the streets.
David Hofmann, an associate sociology professor at the University of New Brunswick, who studies far-right groups, said the convoy had been seized upon by members of the far right as a vehicle for recruitment and mobilization.
“This is a small minority of far-right individuals who have glommed onto this larger protest in order to gain visibility, to rabble-rouse and to recruit,” he said. “This is a standard tactic that the far-right uses in Canada.”
Ian Austen contributed reporting from Ottawa.