Canada provinces move to ease Covid rules as trucker protest hardens
Truckers paralyzing the Canadian capital in anger at Covid rules showed no sign of backing down Tuesday, as several of the nation's provinces announced it was time to roll back restrictions that count among the world's toughest.
With authorities struggling to bring the protest movement to heel, Saskatchewan in the country's west said Tuesday it was ready to lift all pandemic restrictions, with Quebec and Alberta also signaling plans to ease measures.
And in the capital, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau -- who a day earlier issued a stern warning the protests "had to stop" -- appeared to shift tone, saying he understood "how frustrated everyone is" and that "the time is coming when we will be able to relax."
"We're all sick and tired of restrictions, of mandates, of having to make sacrifices," Trudeau said, adding, however, that vaccine mandates were the "way to avoid further restrictions."
The so-called "Freedom Convoy" began in January in western Canada -- launched in anger at requirements truckers either be vaccinated, or test and isolate, when crossing the US-Canadian border.
Having snowballed into an occupation of the Canadian capital, the protest has sparked solidarity rallies across the nation and abroad, and by Tuesday had forced the temporary closure of a key US border bridge, the busiest international land-border crossing in North America.
Amid a state of emergency in Ottawa, federal police have deployed among demonstrators waving Canadian flags and anti-Trudeau placards.
Trudeau emerged from his own bout with Covid Monday night to address an emergency House of Commons debate on the protests, now in their second week and fast becoming a rallying cry for far-right and anti-vaccine groups.
Briefing reporters Tuesday, Ottawa Deputy Police Chief Steve Bell said his agents had made 22 arrests to date.
"Our message to demonstrators remains the same: Don't come. And if you do, there will be consequences," he said.
- 'Fed up' -
Under light snowfall, the truckers have been warming themselves by open pit fires and playing street hockey.
Since a court ordered their incessant loud honking to stop, they have turned instead to revving the engines of their big rigs.
Protester Martin Desforges, 46, told AFP he was determined to stay "until the end," which organizers said would come only when all pandemic restrictions were lifted.
"I'm against wearing a mask, all distancing measures and restaurant closures," he said.
"Getting vaccinated should be a decision between a person and their doctor," echoed fellow protester John Hawley-Wight, "not the government."
More than 80 percent of Canadians aged five and up are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
"The population is fed up. I'm fed up. We're all fed up," said Francois Legault, premier of Quebec province, which announced it would lift most Covid restrictions by mid-March, with hospitalizations now trending downward.
"Right now, we can take a calculated risk and finally turn the page," he said.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe announced a lifting in coming weeks of Covid restrictions including requiring testing or proof of vaccine status for businesses and public venues -- saying the "policy has run its course."
Vaccine mandates for travelers are set by Canada's federal government, but most other Covid measures are the responsibility of provincial authorities.
- 'Living in fear' -
From the original opposition to vaccine requirements, the trucker movement has morphed into a broader protest against Covid-related restrictions and Trudeau's Liberal government, and put a spotlight on pandemic curbs around the world.
Key US-Canada border crossings in Ontario and Alberta have been partially blocked by truckers and farmers, with Transport Minister Omar Alghabra warning Tuesday of "serious implications on our economy, on our supply chain."
Inspired by the Canada protests, a convoy of trucks and campervans blocked streets near New Zealand's parliament in Wellington Tuesday to protest against Covid restrictions and vaccinations, while calls have multiplied on social media for similar rallies in Europe and the United States.
The truckers have received US support ranging from former president Donald Trump to the billionaire Elon Musk, while at home, according to a Leger poll, 44 percent of vaccinated Canadians sympathize with their "concerns and frustrations."