In advance of a convoy protest against COVID-19 health measures in Toronto this weekend, police and city officials say they are doing whatever they can to minimize disruption for residents and provide a safe space for demonstrators to voice their concerns.
At a news conference Friday afternoon, interim Chief of Police James Ramer said people can expect to see officers in the downtown core near Queen’s Park and in “other areas around the city” at times during the weekend.
“Our objectives will be to ensure public safety and to limit disruption to the city and its residents as much as possible,” Ramer said.
Even before vehicles and protesters arrived, police closed some roads in the downtown core Friday morning to most traffic to ensure access to hospitals near Queen’s Park.
In a series of tweets, Toronto police said in order to “protect Hospital Row,” University Avenue between College Street and Queen Street, and College Street from University Avenue to Yonge Street, would be closed from 11:30 a.m. Friday onwards to “normal traffic and any convoys.
“Hospital staff, workers, patients, family and people collecting patients will have access,” police said. “These closures could remain in place all weekend. We will continue to assess the situation and make any adjustments where needed. We will continue to update the public.
“Please avoid demo areas, where possible, as it is likely to cause delays.”
Flyers advertising a “convoy for freedom” at Queen’s Park have been circulating on social media this week. In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Toronto police said there will be a “large police presence in and around the downtown core” Saturday.
Mayor John Tory said he is hoping for a “respectful, peaceful protest,” and urged anyone who has plans to do otherwise to “stay home.
“Peaceful and respectful is the way we do things here,” Tory said.
The mayor also noted that about 90 per cent of Toronto residents have had a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and about 60 per cent have had a third dose, which he said shows the bulk of the city is on the same page when it comes to fighting against the virus’s spread.
Protest in Ottawa continues
A pandemic restrictions protest in Ottawa has been going on for a week, with vehicles parked and honking on roads leading to Parliament Hill since last Friday, and widespread reports of threats and harassment in the area.
Ottawa police said Friday they will increase their presence and further restrict access to the city’s downtown to control what’s expected to be another weekend of noisy protests, but they warn the situation remains volatile and dangerous.
Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly also said in a Friday news conference that he and other unnamed city officials have received death threats in the last two days that are under investigation.
Ramer said Toronto police have been keeping an eye on the protests in Ottawa, and are going to “strongly encourage” staging areas for vehicles where they will cause “minimal disruption.”
He would not specify exactly where those areas would be, but did say those locations are being discussed with protest organizers.
“Vehicles will not be congregating around Queen’s Park,” he said.
A group of health-care workers is also planning a counter-protest in the area Saturday, said Dr. Phillip Berger, a physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto who is one of the counter-protest organizers.
He said the group has no interest in verbal or physical confrontations, but it does intend to create a street presence in the area to show support for health-care workers.
“We just want to show Torontonians that health-care workers have the right to walk any street they want to in downtown Toronto, and defend the interests of ailing Torontonians,” Berger told CBC News.
“We’re not going to be intimidated, we’re not afraid, and we expect that the protesters will behave in a Canadian-like way, and leave us alone and let us express our opinions, which differ from theirs.”
Ramer was also asked Friday how long police plan to allow any protests to continue, considering disruption in Ottawa has continued for a week now. He said the “intention” is to not allow people to camp or stay for “any duration of time.
“We’ll assess the event as it goes,” he said.
A right to protest, but not ‘occupy,’ councillor says
In a joint statement issued Friday morning, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) and Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) called for calm amid the ongoing protest in Ottawa and in advance of any protest in Toronto.
“We strongly urge those exercising their right to freedom of expression to do so peacefully, and in a manner that is respectful to residents, patients seeking care, health care personnel performing their duties and businesses who are only just now reopening,” OHA head Anthony Dale and and OCC President and CEO Rocco Rossi said.
“There have been many sacrifices already made throughout the pandemic. Let’s not add to the burden and loss of those who have already given so much.”
Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents Toronto Centre, said on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning Friday that Toronto has the advantage of hindsight, and can learn from how things have unfolded in Ottawa over the last week.
“There are of course a number of measures that are going to be taken to ensure that we can create almost a ‘no-go zone’ I would say, in the downtown,” she said.
“We want to protect public assets, [and] ensure transportation routes remain open, but at the same time we welcome the protesters, they have a right to lawful, peaceful protest — but they don’t have a right to occupy. I think it’s important that we try to strike that balance and maintain public safety and order at all times.”
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