A protest that is not focused on truck drivers poses a bigger question for politicians who want to embrace it

Protesters arrive in Parliament Hill for the haulier convoy’s protest against vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions in Ottawa on January 29, 2022.LARS HAGBERG / AFP / Getty Images

Day 1 of the hauliers’ protest on Parliament Hill was not Canada’s Capitol uprising on January 6, as some feared. Nor was it all that focused on hauliers. And certainly not on the cross-border vaccination mandates that started the convoy rolling.

But by the time the crowds had seriously mustered in minus-20 weather, the protest had already changed Canadian politics.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe sent a letter promising that his government would stop requiring vaccination certificates to enter places like restaurants. Conservative MPs, especially the potential leader candidate Pierre Poilievre, had already promised to personally greet protesting truck drivers, pushing dizzying party leader Erin O’Toole to say he would meet some of the protesters – which he did on Friday, 90 kilometers away. , and expressed its opposition to vaccine claims that could cause truck drivers to lose their jobs.

Nearly one in five Canadian hauliers is South Asian, but many do not see themselves represented in the haulier convoy

Still, the protests on the hill last Saturday have not sharpened on it. The protest signs were not about the specific complaint that truck drivers originally raised – the repeal of exemptions from both the Canadian and US governments, which means that truck drivers now have to be vaccinated to cross the border. There was not much talk about supply chains either.

This was a protest against COVID-19 public health measures across the board – against vaccine mandates, yes, but for many, also against any vaccine requirements to enter restaurants or shops, rules on wearing masks, restrictions on assemblies or anything else.

It is a completely different reason for politicians to embrace. And it’s still not clear where it’s going after day one.

There were plenty of semifinals on the streets of Ottawa, but the drivers mostly sat in the cabs of their trucks. Most of the people on Parliament Hill had come in pickups and cars or on foot. For the most part, in the bitingly cold but sunny daytime, they came smiling and honking. There were a lot of four-letter signs pointing to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but well, those are protest things.

That is not to say that it was all cheerful and clear-cut. There was a cacophony of views from protesters and people who clung to them, from conspiracy theorists to street preachers. One had a sign claiming that Mr Trudeau is the son of Fidel Castro. One showed a swastika. A few wore sweatshirts with the logo of the right-wing extremist Quebec anti-immigrant group La Meute. A fair number clearly did not think that COVID-19 is very serious.

But not much was heard of the bizarre “memorandum of understanding” drawn up by a group of protest organizers, Canada Unity, which is supposed to lead to Governor-General Mary Simon and unelected senators taking over the government. There were families. And by and large, people are demanding that all restrictions on public health end.

“That’s all, lockdowns, mandates, everything,” said a smiling woman who gave her name as Dawn, from Arnprior, Ont. Justin, a 27-year-old protester from Belleville, Ont., Agreed that the restrictions should all go away. “We have been through this for two years and nothing has improved. The only thing that has changed is that our freedoms have been cut off,” he said.

Surely many Canadians will return to the way things were two years ago. But the thing is, opinion polls suggest that very many of them blame the unvaccinated for the restrictions and have shown a widespread taste for getting tougher against the unvaccinated.

Mr. Trudeau has made a political case out of it. But then it is mostly provincial governments that have introduced vaccine passports and restrictions – most recently for fear of the collapse of health systems at a time when the minority of unvaccinated people are far more likely to end up in hospital, and especially the intensive care unit beds.

Quebec’s Prime Minister François Legault has demanded vaccination proof to enter mega-stores and threatened to impose a significant tax on the unvaccinated. There was a large contingent of Quebeckers at the protest on Saturday, yet Mr Legault, a center-right prime minister facing an election in October, is doubling the number of restrictions. Presumably, he thinks that is what most people want.

But there are some federal conservatives who think that may change, and COVID-19 fatigue feeds anger over vaccine mandates and restrictions.

Some Tory lawmakers, such as Edmonton lawmaker Michael Cooper, could be seen on Hill Saturday giving an “attaboy” to protesters. Sir. Poilievre tweeted a photo of himself handing donuts to a truck driver, and an anti-restriction slogan popular with protesters, “Freedom from Fear.”

But now that it’s clear that the protests are clearly not just about cross-border rules for truck drivers, the question now is whether the Conservatives and other premieres than Mr Moe will still embrace it.

Part of that answer may depend on whether the civilian mood remains over days of cold protests. Mr. Trudeau has no plans to make a face. Parliament resumes its sitting on Monday. It is not clear how the protest will develop. From day one, it was not mostly about the hauliers.

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