By ROB GILLIES and TIM SULLIVAN – Associated Press
TORONTO (AP) — The streets around the Canadian Parliament are quiet now. Ottawa protesters who have sworn never to give up are largely gone, chased away by police in riot gear. The incessant howl of truckers’ horns has died down.
But the truckers’ protest, which has grown into the closure of a handful of border crossings between Canada and the United States and the closure of key parts of the capital for weeks, could reverberate for years in Canadian politics and maybe south of the border.
The protest, which initially targeted a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for cross-border truckers but also encompassed fury over the range of COVID-19 restrictions and hatred of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, reflected the spread of misinformation across the country. Canada and right-wing populism and anger.
“I think we started something here,” said Mark Suitor, a 33-year-old protester from Hamilton, Ont., as police regained control of the streets around the Houses of Parliament. Protesters had essentially occupied these streets for more than three weeks, embarrassing Trudeau and energizing Canada’s far right. Suitor believes the protests will divide the country, which he welcomes.
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“It’s going to be a very big divide in our country,” he said. “I don’t believe this is the end.”
While most analysts doubt the protests will mark a historic turning point in Canadian politics, they have rattled Canada’s two main parties.
“The protest gave liberals and conservatives a black eye,” said Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. Trudeau’s Liberals look bad for allowing protesters to foment weeks of chaos in the capital, he said, while Tories look bad for defending protesters, many of whom come from the furthest fringes from the right.
Conservatives “must be careful not to alienate more moderate voters, who are generally not sympathetic to protesters or right-wing populism in general,” said Daniel Béland, a professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal.
The so-called Freedom Convoy shook Canada’s reputation for civility, inspired convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands, and disrupted trade, causing economic damage on both sides of the border. Hundreds of trucks eventually filled the streets around Parliament, a demonstration that was part protest and part carnival.
Authorities moved quickly to reopen border crossings, but Ottawa police only issued warnings until recent days, even as hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters jammed city streets and besieged Parliament Hill.
Truckers ignored warnings that they faced arrest and could have their rigs seized and bank accounts frozen under new emergency powers Trudeau invoked. Truckers, parked in and around the streets of Parliament, honked their horns in defiance of a court injunction against honking, issued after residents said the constant noise made the neighborhood unlivable.
“It is high time that these illegal and dangerous activities cease,” Trudeau told parliament a few days ago, speaking a few hundred yards from the protests.
Authorities launched the largest police operation in Canadian history on Friday, arresting a series of protesters in Ottawa and ramping up that pressure on Saturday until the streets in front of Parliament were cleared. Eventually, police arrested at least 191 people and towed 79 vehicles. Many protesters backed down as the pressure mounted.
The protests in Ottawa – the movement’s last major stronghold – appeared to be largely over on Sunday. Fences and police checkpoints remained.
“The number of illegal protesters has decreased significantly over the past 24 hours,” Ottawa Police Acting Chief Steve Bell said.
Authorities also said 206 bank accounts had been frozen under power granted by the federal emergency law.
As in the United States, COVID-19 has quickly become a political issue in Canada.
Coronavirus health restrictions have become a political cudgel for Canada’s far-right, which has accused Trudeau of authoritarianism. But while the restrictions have clearly benefited the far-right People’s Party of Canada, things are more complicated for the Conservative Party.
Only recently have some conservative leaders fully embraced the pushback against vaccination mandates and coronavirus restrictions.
Even so, the protests could open the door to the kind of populism former President Donald Trump used to rush the White House.
Pierre Poilievre, who is running to become the next leader of the Conservative Party, cheered on the protesters, betting voters would support him. But it’s still unclear if it will take him to the top of the party, or if it will help or hurt him if there is a showdown between him and Trudeau or the next leader of the Liberal Party.
“Poilievre is clearly playing the populist playbook right now,” Beland said. “If he becomes Conservative leader, the party could effectively swing into Trump-style populism. However, it is unclear whether enough Canadians support this vision to make it appeal beyond the party base.
The protests have been cheered across the United States by Fox News personalities and conservatives like Trump. Millions of dollars in donations crossed the border for the protesters.
About 44% of the nearly $10 million in contributions to support the protesters came from US donors, according to an Associated Press analysis of leaked donor files. Prominent Republican politicians have praised the protesters.
But experts say US support for Canadian protesters is really aimed at energizing conservative politics in the United States, where a midterm election looms.
And some in the United States have pushed back.
“When I say democracy is fragile, I mean it,” said Bruce Heyman, US Ambassador to Canada during the Obama administration. “Defend our friend Canada and make your voice heard.
Meanwhile, although the situation in Ottawa appears to be winding down, there are new signs that the protests are not completely over.
Canada’s border agency warned late Saturday afternoon that operations of a key truck crossing from western Canada to the United States had been slowed by protesters, advising travelers to find an alternate route.
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