The big rigs began rolling into downtown Ottawa midday Friday, as a planned anti-vaccine mandate protest began to swell in number and energy, with some in attendance promising to stay put until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is forced out.
The Ottawa Police Service said it was calling in reinforcements to help keep the peace as hundreds of vehicles and long-haul trucks continued their trek toward the capital to demand an end to all COVID-19 restrictions, including vaccine passports, from every level of government.
Robyn May, a business owner from Long Point, was there with her husband in hockey jerseys and maple leaf hats, toting anti-Trudeau signs.
"We are not a free country," May said, adding government mandates forced her business to close at times during the pandemic.
When asked how long she thinks the protest will last, she said she plans to stay until "Justin Trudeau is no longer our prime minister."
Thus far the atmosphere has been generally party-like with some setting up barbecues on the sidewalk, and many honking horns, playing instruments and blaring music.
Still, downtown Ottawa was locked down as some associated with the convoy threatened violence and police said they were getting intelligence on threats being made.
"Even during the course of this conference call, we've had new intelligence coming in, in regards to local threats," Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said during a briefing Friday.
He said Ottawa police are working with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, RCMP and other agencies to identify any potential threats to public safety.
"That will continue and we will be as prepared as possible to identify those individuals or groups that may seek to come here physically to cause harm to the city, to disrupt lawful demonstrations, or that may be inciting hate and/or criminal violence online," he said.
While the protest has largely been billed as being against a new vaccine mandate for commercial truck drivers at the border, its origins go back long before that policy was conceived.
The memorandum of understanding being pushed by organizer Canada Unity demands, despite lacking any legal or Constitutional authority, that Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and the Senate force Trudeau and all provincial governments to eliminate all COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates. The document fails to mention truckers at all.
Cars line Wellington Street
Through the morning, about 100 people lined the sidewalk outside the gates to Parliament Hill. Cars and pickup trucks lined the north side of Wellington Street, far past the Parliament buildings.
By late afternoon at least 1,000 people were on hand, as the convoy from southern Ontario began to show up. More convoys from Western Canada, Quebec and the Maritimes are expected before Saturday.
Police blocked part of the road in front of the Parliament buildings for emergency vehicles.
Around a core of truckers, including a big rig with an anti-Trudeau slogan, were supporters with banners protesting the prime minister and QR codes, which are needed to access restaurants and bars and, in Quebec, some big supermarkets.
Jay Koster made the trip from Fergus to watch the protest and said he was "frustrated" with Trudeau and the Liberal government when it comes to vaccine mandates.
"People who choose not to get a vaccine, they're Canadians," he said. "We're Canadians and we appreciate our freedom."
Fran Adair, who travelled with her family to the protest from Sarnia, was sleeping in her van, parked outside the Parliament buildings. She said she wanted the situation to "go back to the way it was" and was opposed to vaccine mandates.
"Vaccines are not working. It's a joke," she said.
Two doses of an mRNA vaccine are 75 to 80 per cent effective against severe illness from Omicron, according to Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization. A booster shot reduces the risk further, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reporting that a third dose is at least 90 per cent effective at preventing hospitalization, including for the variant.
Sloly confirmed his officers had already dealt with some of the protesters, and that such interactions had so far been peaceful.
The police chief nonetheless acknowledged concerns about "parallel demonstrations," as some with extreme, far-right and white supremacist views have latched onto the protest as the convoy has crossed the country.
In the morning, one lone counter-protester argued with members of the convoy crowd about their insistence that vaccines don't work, and held up a "vaccines save lives" sign with a camera attached, and a sticker warning the protesters they were being filmed.
Another group of four people stood on one street corner with signs protesting white nationalism.
Rallies planned for weekend
There are rallies planned for Saturday and Sunday, but many are not looking to leave in just a few days.
Ashley Piche, a 33-year-old life coach, was part of a large group from Sudbury. She said she was planning to stay for around a week to "hold it down."
She said she is "not an anti-vaxxer" but did not want to be part of an "experimental" vaccine and should have the freedom to choose whether to get vaccinated.
Sloly and Acting Deputy Chief Patricia Ferguson sought to reassure Ottawa residents and business owners that the police service was prepared – and would not hesitate to act if there is violence.
"We have reassigned and deployed Ottawa police officers and we have called for assistance from other police agencies to ensure we have appropriate resources to manage any eventuality," Ferguson said.
"Our officers are here to protect the rights of individuals to demonstrate peacefully and in accordance with the law. We are also interested to intervene when violence and laws are broken and to restore peace."
While the size of the convoy has been a source of debate, the Kingston Police Service said Friday morning that it had counted 17 full tractor trailers, 104 big rigs without trailers, 424 passenger vehicles and six recreational vehicles leaving the city.
Ferguson said Ottawa police are in contact with eight different convoy organizers, and that plans had been laid to ease the protesters' movement through the city while ensuring first responders can travel unimpeded in emergencies.
Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said no single border measure is completely effective, but she compared public health restrictions to Swiss cheese, in which each slice has holes, but layering them helps to form a strong level of protection.
"With the improved availability and access to vaccinations, I think you've seen that the government has increased those vaccine requirements as time goes by because we just know how effective vaccines are," she told a COVID-19 briefing on Friday.