“Freedom convoy” protesters demonstrated in parts of the Greater Toronto Area Thursday, as groups continue to head to Ottawa ahead of a protest this week against COVID-related mandates.
Truckers and supportive protesters are heading to Ottawa from east and west parts of the country, as well as from southern Ontario where routes were scheduled to depart from several locations Thursday including Windsor, Sarnia, Niagara and Toronto, according to the organizers’ website.
The website indicated that the convoys would be passing through the Toronto area in the late morning hours, into the afternoon.
Demonstrators gathered throughout parts of the GTA Thursday, with some groups on top of overpasses in anticipation of convoys moving through.
A large crowd, with many waving Canadian flags, gathered at Highway 401 and Keele Street.
Protesters also gathered at Vaughan Mills, where a convoy was set to depart around the noon hour.
The groups are scheduled to arrive in Kingston Thursday evening, and begin heading to Ottawa on Friday, the website said.
Among the topics at-issue for demonstrators is the Canadian government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers to avoid quarantine.
Mike Fabinski, a truck driver from Barrie, Ont., said the vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers means he won’t be able to work cross-border routes any more.
“You want to be vaccinated, go ahead, your choice. I don’t want to be vaccinated, that’s my choice,” he said.
Fabinski said he’s been a truck driver for 20 years but has not been able to travel to the U.S. since the federal mandate came to effect on Jan 15.
“I was going non-stop until they started last Saturday,” he said. “Now I cannot go. I cannot work no more.”
Organizers of the protest describe the mandate for cross-border truckers to avoid quarantine as an example of political overreach resulting in economic harm, arguing the policy hurts small businesses and denies some workers the means to survive.
Some business leaders and conservative politicians have also urged the government to reverse course on the mandate, with supply chain issues being a reason cited.
The United States has also imposed a vaccine mandate for truckers.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touted on Monday as the “biggest trucker association in Canada,” has spoken out against the convoy, saying protests on public roadways are “not how disagreements with government policies should be expressed.”
Trudeau has also said that the vast majority of truckers in Canada are vaccinated and won’t be impacted by the cross-border vaccine mandate.
The protest also now seems to be targeting COVID-related mandates generally, beyond the one for cross-border truckers.
“What I’m calling for is basically lockdowns and restrictions to be lifted like the rest of the world is starting to do,” protester Mark Smith told Global News in Drumbo, Ont.
“There’s a freedom movement actually across the world right now and we’re all getting together just trying to get our lives back. And we’re hoping with all this rally and freedom convoy going on, we’ll accomplish this.”
Some with extreme, far-right views have latched onto the protest, though many demonstrators who spoke to the media have rejected suggestions that there may be violence.
Smith said he doesn’t want to see any problems or violence.
Government officials say current COVID-related mandates and restrictions that are in place are necessary to protect public health.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Provincial Police has warned of possible delays on roadways as a result of convoys moving through.
OPP Sgt. Kerry Schmidt told Global News he was aware of an incident around 9:30 a.m., where the convoy resulted an ambulance being delayed as it was heading southbound on Highway 400.
— with files from Kevin Nielsen, Rachel Gilmore and The Canadian Press