Ottawa police say they have been in touch with leaders of a trucker convoy over weekend protest plans in the capital and are getting ready for several scenarios — including violence.
Chief Peter Sloly told the police services board Wednesday that he is working with the RCMP and intelligence bodies to prepare for the protests against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers.
Sloly said the convoy organizers have been co-operative in telling police about their plans for the protest, which he predicts could last several days, but the situation is evolving rapidly.
Deputy Chief Steve Bell said police are "tracing parallel groups" that are preparing to join the truckers, as well as counter-protesters, and are monitoring social media.
Ottawa police estimate there could be up to 2,000 demonstrators, but this number is shifting quickly, and warn residents against travelling downtown during the event.
Sloly said while police support the right to peaceful protest, officers will be prepared to move protesters out of the demonstration zone should the situation become violent or threatening.
Some supporters of the convoy, including some Conservative MPs, have taken to social media to warn the vaccine mandate for truckers will leave store shelves empty. Some have gone so far as to predict Canadians will starve.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has assured Canadians there's no reason to fear food shortages will result from a small minority of truck drivers refusing to comply with the vaccine mandate.
In an interview, Alghabra said the large grocery store chains and other retailers have assured him they have plenty of goods to provide their customers, despite some labour shortages and supply chain bottlenecks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moreover, he said there's been no "measurable impact" on the number of trucks crossing the border since the vaccine mandate went into effect on Jan. 15. Last week, he said almost 100,000 trucks crossed the border — about the same as usual for this time of year.
"I don't want to minimize the fact that we have to remain vigilant and work together to address these issues (of supply chain disruptions)," Alghabra told The Canadian Press, adding he plans to hold a summit on the issue with retailers on Monday.
"But this notion that we're going to starve is really unfortunate and does disservice to Canadians, to Canadian society and to the debate that we need to be having."
Others with more extreme, far-right views have latched onto the protest. One online video includes a man expressing hope the rally will turn into the Canadian equivalent of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump.
Donald Trump Jr. took to social media Tuesday to endorse the Canadian truck convoy's fight against "tyranny" and to urge Americans to follow suit.
A group called Canada Unity is organizing the movement, which its members refer to as the "freedom convoy."
A "memorandum of understanding," posted on the Canada Unity website, says its coalition is opposed to restrictions and mandates related to COVID-19, rules it deems are "unconstitutional, discriminatory and segregating."
The memorandum's goal, it says, is to form a committee with the Senate and Governor General that would override all levels of Canadian government to stop the use of vaccine passports, waive fines linked to COVID-19 and reinstate employees who were fired for breaking COVID-19 rules.
If the Senate and Governor General refuse to join such a committee, the group says they should "resign their lawful positions of authority immediately."
Carissima Mathen, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said seeking to override all levels of government policy would not work, because the body who initially put the policy in place must be the one to reverse it. Alternatively, that policy could be undone by Parliament passing a law.
Mathen, who specializes in the Constitution, added the Governor General has very little involvement with the legal system in Canada.
Alghabra said he is "concerned about the small number of far-right, vocal opposition that is polluting much of our political debate."
"It's something that we all need to be aware of, we all need to call out," he said.
"But at the same time, let's not lose sight of this, that the vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, the vast majority of truckers are vaccinated. Truckers as you and I are speaking today are delivering goods for Canadians."
The Canadian Trucking Alliance has estimated that about 15 per cent of truckers — as many as 16,000 — are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19. It has strongly denounced any protests on public roadways, highways and bridges and has urged all truckers to get inoculated.
Alghabra said representatives of large grocery chains and other retailers have assured him the truckers' vaccine mandate has had no measurable impact on their ability to stock their shelves.
"They are offended and hurt by this perception that people are trying to create that they are not able to deliver for their customers."
Alghabra took particular aim at Conservative MPs, some of whom have offered full-throated support for the truck convoy. Some Conservatives have posted pictures of empty grocery store shelves, at least one of which turned out to be a stock photo of a British store.
"It's irresponsible for anybody to spread fear … for political gains," Alghabra said.
A day after refusing to say whether he supported the truck convoy heading to Ottawa, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole appeared in a Facebook live event Tuesday evening to say he understands why many truckers, especially independent ones, are upset.
"You can understand why there's some frustration and why people are protesting," O'Toole said.
On Wednesday, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business also urged the federal government to reverse its vaccination policy for truckers. The organization represents 95,000 small- and medium-sized businesses, including about 500 in the trucking sector.
Earlier, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce had urged the government to give truckers more time to get vaccinated while the Canadian Manufacturing Coalition has also called for the vaccine mandate to be scrapped entirely.
But Alghabra said it would accomplish nothing to postpone or scrap the requirement that truckers entering Canada be fully immunized, since the United States has imposed the same requirement on truckers entering that country.
"It won't really make a difference. The U.S. has a mandate," he said.
The best way to end supply chain disruptions is to end the pandemic and the best way to do that is to get vaccinated, which is what the vaccine mandate is all about, he argued.