OTTAWA — The political tension around protests on Parliament Hill thickened Monday as the Liberals and Conservatives denounced each other’s responses to the demonstrations, even as the anti-vaccination mandate crowd began to thin.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested those opposed to COVID-19 vaccination mandates who flocked to Parliament Hill over the weekend have fallen prey to conspiracy theories about “microchips, about God knows what else that go with tinfoil hats.”
And acts of hate that occurred during the protest — like waving Nazi flags and the desecrating of the National War Memorial — should give politicians like Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole pause before they cast their lot with the demonstrators, Trudeau said.
“I think Erin O’Toole is going to need to reflect very carefully on how he’s walking a path that supports these people who do not represent truckers, let alone the vast majority of Canadians,” Trudeau told a news conference Monday.
The “Freedom Convoy” protest was spurred by a requirement for commercial truckers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to drive across the Canada-U.S. border. The U.S. imposed a similar rule. Thousands of protesters converged on Ottawa to protest the vaccination mandates.
While the Canadian Trucking Alliances said the vast majority of truckers are vaccinated, the demonstration also drew people from outside the industry who voiced concerns and frustrations with ongoing pandemic restrictions. Those are the people the Conservatives have said they are supporting, and O’Toole met with a handful of truckers on their way into Ottawa on Friday.
Over the course of the weekend, some protesters refused to wear masks inside shopping malls and harassed staff, leading to widespread business closures downtown. Workers at a homeless shelter were threatened, protesters danced on the National War Monument, and Nazi flags and other racist images were displayed in the crowd.
On Monday, O’Toole denounced those behind what he called the “handful of unacceptable incidents.”
What is driving the protests are anger and fear, he told a Facebook Live event, which are the product of the politics Trudeau was playing with by campaigning on vaccination mandates last year.
“We as a country need to ask ourselves, how did we end up with division and vaccine politics that look more like America’s than anywhere else? How did Canada, a country that has always prized dialogue, discussion, moderation, end up with this anger and spite in our politics?” O’Toole asked.
“The prime minister must ask himself. Yes, he won, but at what cost?”
Trudeau announced Monday that he had tested positive for COVID-19, a diagnosis that came after one of his children tested positive last week.
He will remain in isolation for at least five days, but said his government won’t be cowed by the display on the streets, nor will it meet with the protesters, calling them an affront to those who have done “the right thing” and been vaccinated to help end the pandemic.
“Canadians know where I stand,” he said. “This is a moment for responsible leaders to think carefully about where they stand and who they stand with.”
The fight over the protests dominated much of the year’s first question period in the House of Commons, and Liberal House Leader Mark Holland’s plea for all sides to tone it down was met with jeers from across the aisle.
The lone olive branch extend by the Tories to the Liberals was a wish for Trudeau’s speedy recovery, and O’Toole’s acknowledgment that his own family has had COVID-19.
O’Toole’s diagnosis came just as he was set to take his seat in the Commons in the fall of 2020 as the newly elected party leader, an inauspicious beginning to what’s been a challenging 18 months in the job.
Amid calls to step down and direct challenges from his MPs, O’Toole’s defence of the truckers and meeting with them capped a particularly difficult few weeks, which included a presentation to caucus on the party’s failure to win last year’s election.
Among the report’s conclusions was that O’Toole failed to be authentic and take definitive positions on issues that were important to voters, something he alluded to in his remarks Monday.
Polls suggest a shift is underway on how Canadians view COVID-19 restrictions.
An Angus Reid survey released Monday found that 54 per cent say its time to remove restrictions, an increase of 15 percentage points since the question was asked last earlier in January.
The survey found that among those who voted Conservative in the last election, 81 per cent agreed or strongly agreed it is time for restrictions to lift, while only 34 per cent of Liberals felt the same way.
The online survey of 1,688 Canadians was conducted on Jan. 27 and 28. Online polls aren’t considered random but are less reliable than traditional polling methods.
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz