The first trucks in a massive national convoy that was organized to protest the federal government's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border drivers are due to arrive in the Ottawa area today.
The convoy of big rigs has been gaining participants and supporters as it rolls across the country from all directions for a weekend rally in the capital.
In Toronto Thursday crowds of people lined part of the route, waving Canadian flags and holding up signs denouncing the vaccine mandate as they cheered the truckers on.
Some with extreme, far-right views have latched onto the protest, which has been condemned by the Canadian Trucking Alliance.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has warned people not to dismiss the protesters as simple freedom fighters, saying nobody wants to see the Parliament Hill demonstration descend into anti-government violence.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said Thursday that he would meet with some of the truckers, adding that he and his MP's have long stood against the vaccine mandate they now face. But he also denounced those involved in the convoy who are espousing racist and extremist ideas.
Meanwhile, police in Ottawa stressed they would not tolerate any criminal behaviour as they made plans to deal with thousands of demonstrators at Saturday's so called "freedom rally."
Several thousand people are expected in Ottawa as early as Friday as part of the Canada Unity group demanding an end to vaccine mandates and COVID-19 restrictions. Some of the group's leaders are calling for a peaceful event, but statements from some associated with the group have included threats of violence.
Mendicino said multiple police forces — including the Ottawa Police Service, RCMP and Parliamentary Protective Service — are co-ordinating the response and are making decisions independent of any government involvement.
"Police and our partners are focused on providing a safe environment for the community and demonstrators," the Ottawa Police Service said in a statement on Twitter.
"We are aware of inappropriate and threatening language on social media related to this event. We welcome peaceful demonstrations. That said, public safety is paramount — there will be consequences for persons engaging in criminal conduct, violence and/or activities promoting hate."
The road in front of Parliament Hill is to be closed to general traffic, with two lanes reserved for the convoy and two for emergency vehicles.
Buildings in the Parliamentary district are being closed and locked except for essential staff as of Friday and workers warned of threats of physical damage.
Christian Laplante, an asset manager at Public Services and Procurement Canada, also said "vulnerable areas on Crown sites are being secured as a precautionary measure."
"There are some security concerns regarding the anticipated energy and disruptive goals of this convoy," he wrote Friday to people with offices in government buildings in the area.
"Please be prepared to secure your operations as you see fit."
Kim Ayotte, the City of Ottawa's general manager of emergency and protective services, said in a statement Thursday that "impacts are anticipated to be felt" from Friday to Sunday as demonstrators arriveinthe downtown core.
The city is working with the Ottawa Police Service to develop traffic and parking management plans, and updates will be shared throughout the weekend, said Ayotte.
He said the city is working with police and other partners to ensure the safety of the public is maintained, and that dedicated lanes are kept clear for emergency vehicles.
The protest was spawned after truckers stopped being exempted from the vaccine mandate at the Canadian border on Jan. 15. It means non-Canadian truckers won't be allowed in unless they are vaccinated and unvaccinated Canadians need to quarantine for two weeks after delivering their load.
The United States policy preventing unvaccinated Canadian truckers from entering the U.S. took effect Jan. 22.
A GoFundMe page set up by organizers has garnered $6.4 million in donations. The money is to go toward the cost of fuel, food, and accommodations for participating protesters, according to the fundraising campaign page.
A spokesperson for GoFundMe said in a statement Thursday that it is following its "standard verification process" and working with the campaign organizer to ensure funds are distributed as the organizer has stated, in compliance with the law and its terms of service.
An initial $1 million has been withdrawn by the organizer to cover fuel costs of participants "who are peacefully protesting," the spokesperson said.
Canada Unity's website includes a "memorandum of understanding" demanding Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and the Senate join with them to order the federal and all provincial and territorial governments to lift any remaining COVID-19 restrictions, waive all fines and cancel "illegal" vaccine passports.
There is nothing in the Constitution allowing for such orders to occur and Mendicino said nobody should "trivialize the organizers' distorted claims that this is a protest about freedom."
"It's not," he said Thursday in an interview. "It's about a fringe group, many of whom are not truckers, who are spreading lies, about vaccines, about health workers, and frankly, about the media. And the vast majority of Canadians reject those extremist views. And they understand that if we really want to safeguard our freedoms and vaccines and vaccine mandates are the best way to get ourselves out of the pandemic."
Canada Unity organizer Tamara Lich, a member of the Maverick Party, which advocates for greater autonomy for Western Canada or its separation from the country, has urged people to remain peaceful and asked convoy participants to report anyone inciting violence or spouting hatred.
But there are links between some convoy participants and white supremacist ideology, and in one YouTube video, that has since been taken down, one man pushed for the protest to become a repeat of the riot that overtook the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., a year ago.
In another video posted Thursday on the group's Facebook page, one supporter said "failure is not an option. Surrender is not an option."
Mendicino said there are bright lines around hate speech, lies and calls for violence that cannot be measured as free speech or legitimate protest.
"I think there has to be a very clear point of departure from what is free speech and expression and the kind of incitement to encourage others to take up arms, to create a Jan. 6 riot type event here in Canada," he said. "And there needs to be a very bright line of condemnation and denunciation around that."
The Canadian Trucking Alliance has disavowed the protest and said more than 85 per cent of truckers are vaccinated. Many truckers have also posted on social media they continue to do their jobs and that the convoy doesn't speak for them.