With a pandemic restrictions protest in Ottawa nearing the one-week mark, city officials in Toronto say they are preparing for a similar demonstration scheduled for Queen’s Park on Saturday.
Flyers for a “convoy for freedom” in Toronto have been circulating on social media this week, and Toronto police spokesperson Connie Osborne told CBC News that the service is aware of them.
In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Toronto police said there will be a “large police presence in and around the downtown core” Saturday, adding that there will be road closures to “ensure unimpeded access to hospitals.
“We have robust plans in place and are speaking with organizers to limit disruption,” the statement reads. “The safety of the public is vital and emergency access routes to hospitals will be protected. Patients and health-care workers must be able to get to hospitals, and this remains a priority for police.
“Anyone who attempts to disrupt hospital or emergency operations will be subject to enforcement.”
In a statement issued Thursday morning, Mayor John Tory said he supports Toronto police “taking necessary action to prepare for this protest with a focus on doing everything they can to protect the safety of Toronto residents and businesses and to minimize any disruptions to Toronto residents and businesses as much as possible.
“Any protest in the area of Queen’s Park absolutely cannot block off access to the hospitals around the legislature — people should not be blocked from receiving emergency care or any medical care and hospital workers, who have been frontline heroes throughout the pandemic, should be able to freely and safely come and go from their workplace.”
In a statement, the University Health Network said hospitals in the downtown core are aware of the planned protests, and are working with police to ensure patients and staff can access sites as needed.
Protest continues in Ottawa
Ottawa’s protest has seen vehicles parked and honking on roads leading to Parliament Hill since Friday, with widespread reports of threats and harassment in the area. Local police have said they’ve chosen not to step in when they see laws being broken because the threat of violence is too high, though law enforcement officials said Thursday they have now started ticketing protesters for traffic-related offences.
Crowds swelled to between 5,000 to 18,000 people last Saturday, according to Ottawa police, with the city estimating 3,000 came to the Hill on Sunday. Police said Tuesday night that 250 people remained, without offering a vehicle count.
The scope of the road closures and size of the area the City of Ottawa has instructed people to avoid has dropped since Saturday, but still takes up swaths of both residential and business districts. Many businesses and services have chosen to close.
Considering Queen’s Park’s proximity to several nearby health-care facilities, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath again called on the province to implement safety zones that would prohibit protests near hospitals, schools and clinics.
“Patients and health care workers should never have to walk through a gauntlet of hate to get into a hospital or vaccine clinic,” Horwath said in a statement. “And there are growing concerns that access to some hospitals could be blocked. [Premier] Doug Ford has the option right now to prevent that from happening, and I’m asking him to take it.”
Protesters need to let people ‘get back to their lives,’ Ford says
Speaking on Hamilton radio station AM900 CHML Thursday, Ford said he hoped for a “peaceful protest.
“We live in a democracy, if people want to come down and protest, God bless ’em. I understand their frustration. I really do,” the premier said.
But at a press conference earlier this week, Ford also said protesters in Ottawa “have to move on.
“You know, I hear you. I hear the protesters. The province hears the protesters. The country hears the protesters,” Ford said.
“Now it’s time to let the people in Ottawa get back to their lives. These businesses that have been closed for a while now — the restaurants want to reopen.”
In his statement, Tory also noted that this is the first weekend many businesses like restaurants have been allowed to reopen for indoor service, after the province’s latest round of public health restrictions meant to curb the spread of the Omicron variant ease.
“The notion that any protest would keep these businesses — hit hard by the pandemic — from being open or drive customers away is unacceptable,” Tory said.
“As Mayor, I cannot direct police enforcement — no elected official can — but I have made it clear to Chief [James] Ramer that we must do everything we can to avoid the type of situation currently faced by Ottawa residents and businesses.”