Cities in British Columbia faced another day of vehicle convoys and rallies, Saturday, in solidarity with protesters occupying downtown Ottawa opposing COVID-19 mandates.
Vancouver police said Saturday afternoon that “hundreds of vehicles” from a Lower Mainland convoy had entered the downtown core causing “significant congestion.”
Similar convoys took place on Vancouver Island and in Kelowna.
A large group opposed to COVID-19 measures, many draped in Canadian flags, faced off against a smaller group of counter-protesters at Robson and Burrard streets in a scene that was loud but generally peaceful.
Vancouver Police say five people were arrested, and have since been released.
“We’ve seen a few skirmishes between people, we’ve had some reports of eggs being thrown, rocks being thrown, nails being thrown on the pavement,” Vancouver police Sgt. Steve Addison said of the convoy and protests that wound their way through the city before reaching downtown.
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One 29-year-old man was apprehended near Robson and Burrard after he was seen wearing a balaclava and pulling a wagon full of egg cartons, according to police, who added he is an American citizen from Washington state.
He also reportedly had a knife in a sheath tied to his belt, and two eggs in his jacket pocket.
Police say another 29-year-old man was arrested after he stood in the middle of the road, told a driver in the protest convoy to go back to the valley, and started trying to push a vehicle backward.
“VPD officers tried to calm the man down and repeatedly encouraged him to leave the roadway, however officers were forced to arrest him when his behavior threatened to incite onlookers,” said VPD in a release.
Then, a 57-year-old man was arrested for mischief after he was seen kicking vehicles near Burrard and Davie, a 30-year-old man was arrested after reportedly walking through a crowd of protesters and challenging people to fights, and a 28-year-old man was arrested for mischief near Nelson and Burrard after witnesses flagged down officers and reported he was throwing eggs.
Addison said police worked throughout the day to mitigate traffic disruptions and resolve conflicts.
“We’ve also worked hard to create an environment where people, regardless of what side of the discussion they are on, can have the opportunity to peacefully, lawfully assemble and express their views,” he said.
Demonstrators vow peaceful protest
“There’s not a person here interested in any issues other than our freedom. Nobody wants to argue, nobody wants to fight, nobody wants to defile anything,” convoy participant Cliff Caron told Global News before hitting the road from Langley.
“We will not be honking our horns through the hospital zone. This is something that’s important to people and we need to wake up.”
Caron estimated more than 1,000 people had gathered in Langley to participate.
Noel Newsham said he was participating because he felt his rights and freedoms were in jeopardy.
“People just want their freedom,” he said.
“(We’re going to) just celebrate the day, celebrate being Canadian. Hopefully our rights will be restored, and that’s it. Just have a bit of fun and, hopefully, the hammer doesn’t come down on us.”
Counter-protesters disrupt convoy in Vancouver
A grassroots group of counter-protesters organized in Vancouver with the intent of showing “the convoy that there are lots of people in the city who will loudly oppose them and their message” and prevent the convoy from passing by Vancouver General and St. Paul’s hospitals, according to a post on Reddit.
Counter-protesters, many with bicycles, blocked the convoy at multiple locations, including a standoff on Terminal Avenue just east of Main Street that lasted for the better part of an hour.
At one point, Vancouver police could be seen removing a man who had laid down in the road, though it was not clear if he was arrested.
Police eventually said that the conflict had been “resolved” and that traffic resumed in both directions. Not long afterward, police said the convoy later split in “multiple directions” as it faced various counter-protest blockades.
Large crowds at the legislature
On Vancouver Island, a vehicle convoy left Campbell River early Saturday, travelling through Nanaimo before settling in for a rally at the provincial legislature.
By mid afternoon, about 2,500 people had made their way to the legislative precinct, some of them from the convoy, and some of them counter-protesting.
While there was plenty honking of noise, the scene here, too, remained generally peaceful.
“We’ve been at this for two-and-a-half years, and the outcomes have the same all the time,” convoy supporter Cris Bleck said.
“It’s time to try something new, take personal responsibility for our health I believe.”
Carrying a sign that said “good neighbours get vaccinated,” counter-protester Mielle Michaux said she was a health researcher and felt the need to speak up for the vulnerable.
“We’ve all suffered under COVID, we’ve all suffered under restrictions, but that’s a necessary part of getting through COVID,” she said.
“I don’t want to just be protecting young healthy people such as myself … There are a lot of people who can’t get vaccinated, there are elders who the vaccine is not as effective for because their immune system is not functioning as high, there are children who can’t get vaccinated — we all are going to have to make sacrifices in order to protect not just ourselves, but to protect people who are vulnerable in our society.”
Victoria police reported significant traffic disruptions in the downtown area, but so far have not noted any serious incidents.
By 4:30 p.m., police said crowds had thinned and that traffic was moving normally.
Safety concerns raised for health-care workers
On Friday, health officials sent a memo to staff at Vancouver hospitals advising them not to go outside during the protests, not to wear their scrubs or IDs outdoors and not to engage with any protesters.
BC Nurses’ Union president Aman Grewal said the situation was “not acceptable.”
“This is not tolerable that people are going to work where they should fear for their safety,” she told Global News.
“We are telling them to remain safe, be vigilant. And we’re hoping that the Vancouver Police Department, the health authorities are going to be enforcing the 20-metre bubble zone.”
Police in Vancouver and Victoria have said they will be monitoring the demonstrations, and Victoria police have taken the additional step of deploying cameras in the downtown core.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart issued a statement on Friday, citing the city’s 95 per cent vaccination rate, and telling the protesters to “make your point and go home.”
As of Friday, there were 946 British Columbians in hospital with COVID-19, while 252 people have died of COVID-19 complications since the start of the year.
Officials say 81.5 per cent of the province’s population had been double vaccinated, and data continues to show the unvaccinated at substantially higher risk of serious illness and death.
The events in B.C. come as the protest in Ottawa entered its second week.
That demonstration, which initially began as a convoy spearheaded by cross-border truckers upset at the elimination of their vaccine exemption, has morphed into an encampment near Parliament Hill espousing a variety of goals, ranging from the end of all COVID-19 mandates to the removal of the government.
Demonstrators in Ottawa have been accused of desecrating monuments and harassing downtown residents wearing masks. Some of the convoy’s organizers also have a documented history of white nationalism and racism.
On Friday, GoFundMe deactivated a $10 million fundraising campaign for the Ottawa protesters, saying what had begun as a sincere peaceful protest had evolved to violate its terms of service, “with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity.”
Similar convoys and demonstrations were also scheduled in cities across Canada.