Under persistent snowfall on Saturday morning, protesters gathered on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill – part of the weekend’s tide of strangers, well-wishers and onlookers who came out to support truckers camping at the city center for more than 15 days.
By afternoon the snow had stopped, but throughout the morning thick flakes coated the Canadian flags protesters wore as capes and bled ink onto handmade signs that were pinned to railings in iron gothic parliamentary buildings. Undaunted by the weather, posters rallied against vaccines, mask mandates and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
During discussions, many protesters stressed that their cause was unrelated to nationalist beliefs associated with similar protests elsewhere, particularly in the United States. But the American Confederate flag, the Gadsden flag (yellow with a snake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me”) and the Canadian Red Ensign, which experts say are symbols of white nationalism, have been spotted in Ottawa these last weeks.
On Saturday, one of the few black protesters in the crowd, a woman who only gave her first name, Sharon, because she said she was wary of journalists, carried a sign that read: “Do do i look like a white supremacist?
Sharon, a clinical social worker, has traveled three hours from her hometown to Ottawa to join protesters for the past three weeks. “Do you know how hurtful it is that your Prime Minister says we are a marginal minority with unacceptable beliefs?” she said, referring to Mr. Trudeau’s characterization of protesters this month.
“That means there are acceptable views to be had and unacceptable views,” she said, adding that she believed such thoughts were the purview of communist systems, not democracies. . “It implies that what should be considered Canadian is what he thinks.”
As she stood in a plaza outside Parliament, people led protesters in Christian prayers – ‘with a maple leaf in one hand and a cross in the other,’ a praying man said – and called out Canadian Saints to support their cause. Beside her, two people discussed animatedly how the government could track people with social media, and a woman wore a t-shirt with a QR code (a symbol of the Canadian government’s vaccine pass ) crossed out in red.
On Wellington Street, while pop music was playing, a man knocked on the door of a truck and asked the driver to sign his Canadian flag, which was covered in signatures.
Karl Braeker, 93, sat on an orange wool blanket at the Centennial Fountain in a light dusting of snow. Originally from Germany, Mr Braeker said he served in the German army as a teenager under the Nazis and emigrated to Canada in 1951.
“It’s very deep what brings me here: I grew up under Hitler in Germany,” he said. He had come in person concerned about reports that protesters shared white nationalist or Nazi sentiments. From his vantage point on the fountain, he said, he felt not.
Watching the protests, he said, had “brought back all my PTSD” from service in Hitler’s army. He said he hadn’t slept in days when the protest started, particularly after hearing that swastikas had been seen on flags. He asked his son to drive him here to see for himself. “I’ve always loved Canada for freedom,” Mr. Braeker said. “I had to come here to see.”
Mr. Braeker is not vaccinated but is not against others getting vaccinated. He said he was opposed to people getting the vaccine. He discovered that he sympathized with the protesters’ demands. In fact, he said, he felt the warrants had echoes of the totalitarian regime he grew up under.
“My MP told me it was just a bunch of neo-Nazis and malcontents trying to mess things up, but it’s the other way around,” he said. “These are Canadians I’ve known since the day I landed in Halifax in 1951, and I love this country.