Political divisions were on display within the governing Liberals and the Conservative opposition Wednesday as downtown Ottawa remained choked by an anti-vaccine mandate protest and two provinces started moving to lift COVID-19 restrictions.
The government faced growing pressure Wednesday to provide a concrete pandemic endgame after a Quebec MP broke ranks and accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of trying to “demonize” people who have legitimate criticisms of the way the pandemic is being managed. He also called for a clear road map detailing how federal pandemic restrictions will be lifted.
The Conservative caucus also started showing new cracks whether it was time for the Ottawa protesters to move on.
“I don’t drive one of their trucks. But they’ve made their statement,” said Waugh. But he added one key caveat: “The Liberals need to move on. We’ve seen that out here. The convoy’s done one thing: changed minds in this country.”
Not all of his colleague agreed.
Conservative MP Rachael Thomas was asked about whether the protesters should leave Ottawa. “They should stay,” she quipped, passing reporters as she entered Parliament Hill.
Liberal ministers, including Trudeau himself, were forced to address the internal divisions that were exposed when Quebec Liberal MP Joel Lightbound broke ranks with his party, a move that cost him his position as the province’s caucus chairman.
Trudeau said he has spoken to Lightbound but showed no signs of bowing to the backbencher’s demand.
“We’re all tired. Yes, we’re all frustrated, but we continue to be there for each other. We continue to know that science and public health rules and guidance is the best way through this pandemic, is the way we’re going to get to the other side.”
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra called Lightbound a friend, but one with whom he now disagrees.
“It’s been frustrating and there’s an ongoing debate everywhere in society, including in our own Liberal caucus about when is this going to end? What kind of measures do we need?” he said.
“I understand people are frustrated, but we need to continue to follow the science and be there for Canadians.”
The debate in Ottawa is unfolding against the backdrop of decisions by the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan to end pandemic restrictions in the coming days.
Alberta has just ended its COVID-19 vaccine passport program for non-essential businesses and events. It will also lift its mask mandate for children 12 and under and for all students in schools on Monday.
Saskatchewan announced its proof of vaccination mandate will end on Monday, and indoor masking and self-isolation rules will stay in place until the end of the month.
Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the time is coming to move forward and think about living with the pandemic in the future, but the number of COVID-19 cases remains high and the safety of Canadians needs to be considered.
“It’s not going to be going away entirely,” he said “It’s a good time to be reflecting on that. But now is not the time to be dropping those kinds of restrictions.”
Ottawa’s municipal leaders were meeting Wednesday to discuss ways to address a demonstration that has seen the downtown capital shut down, with businesses closing out of safety concerns and residents complaining of harassment by protesters.
Several Ottawa city councillors have raised the idea of filing injunctions on behalf of the city to stop vehicles idling in the core, or to keep vehicles away from city transit routes.
Earlier this week, an Ottawa judge granted a 10-day injunction that orders truckers to stop honking their loud horns, which has led to the downtown core being noticeably quieter in recent days. The injunction was the result of a court action brought by a group of private citizens, not the city.
“It shouldn’t be up to residents to seek this kind of protection from the court on clearly public danger and harms,” Coun. Jeff Leiper said Wednesday, calling the idling downtown a “public menace.”
“I am very keen to see that the city begin seeking those injunctions.”
Federal officials have also been talking with City of Ottawa and provincial representatives to find solutions to end the protest that has sparked solidarity rallies across the country, some of which have blocked traffic at border crossings in Coutts, Alta., and Windsor, Ont.
Ottawa police say 23 people have been arrested in the ongoing anti-vaccine mandate protest in the city’s downtown, and there are 85 ongoing criminal investigations related to the nearly two-week-long demonstration.
More than 1,300 tickets have been issued to protesters.
Deputy Chief Steve Bell says officers are focused on hardening the perimeter around downtown and preventing fuel from getting to the trucks parked there, saying the 1,800 more officers Ottawa has requested would help that effort.
He says police are greatly concerned that almost 25 per cent of the 418 large vehicles still blockading Ottawa’s streets are occupied by families with children.
Bell says the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa has been called in to assess the situation, pointing out the frigid temperatures, access to sanitation, and risk to the children’s safety should there be a police operation in the area.
Police are not looking to remove the children, but rather want advice from the society about whether further steps are necessary.
With files from Stephanie Taylor and Mia Rabson.