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Canadian truck drivers block border crossing and protest at capital over vaccine rule

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Canadian truck drivers have been blocking a border crossing with Montana and shutting down traffic in the capital, Ottawa. The so-called Freedom Convoy began almost a week ago as a protest over truckers losing their right to cross the U.S.-Canada border unvaccinated. The protesters include members of Canada's far right, as Emma Jacobs reports from Ottawa.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK HORN HONKING)

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: In front of Parliament, the air smells of diesel exhaust from idling engines. Truck horns blare constantly as they have for days.

DAN BRUBACHER: Don't tell me I need to be vaccinated. Don't you dare tell my kids that they need to be vaccinated.

JACOBS: Dan Brubacher, who drove five hours to arrive here last Friday, mans a table piled with donated food. Underneath is a cardboard box.

BRUBACHER: Baby wipes - so if you can't have a shower, there's other options (laughter).

JACOBS: The convoy is having an impact well beyond Parliament Hill. For blocks, many businesses are closed. Jared Shecter, who works at a coffee shop that has stayed open for takeout, says protesters coming in argue about being asked to wear masks.

JARED SHECTER: Yeah, it's been very tough on, like, all of us, all the staff here.

JACOBS: There have been other incidents blamed by the mayor on the convoy and its supporters - an assault at a homeless shelter, vandalism and epithets shouted at neighbors. Signs for QAnon, right-wing militias and confederate and Nazi flags have been spotted amid the protesters.

SHECTER: Like, a lot of people are saying it feels like an occupation.

JACOBS: Canada's vaccination rate is more than 90%, including among truckers, but many Canadians do share some concerns about the extent of vaccine mandates and lockdowns. Protesters insist far-right groups are a marginal part of their movement - some suggesting those behaving badly are outside agitators or even government plants. But Elizabeth Simons with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network says some convoy organizers, including the creator of a GoFundMe that has raised more than $7 million U.S., have ties to far-right groups.

ELIZABETH SIMONS: Not everyone there is violent or racist or hateful, but there are absolutely networks and movements, like, sub-movements, who are looking to exploit it and are looking to use it to further their own agenda.

JACOBS: The range of ideologies has complicated politicians' responses. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has a breakthrough infection of COVID right now, told reporters Monday the convoy's concerns...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Are heard but are a continuation of what we've unfortunately seen in disinformation and misinformation online, conspiracy theories, about microchips, about, you know, God knows what else that go with the tinfoil hats.

JACOBS: Conservative Party leader Erin O'Toole put out an early video praising the convoy and met with members before they reached Ottawa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIN O'TOOLE: Truckers have been our COVID heroes, period.

JACOBS: But pollster Joseph Angolano noted O'Toole walked some of that back after convoy supporters vandalized a war memorial and a member of O'Toole's party in parliament did an interview that turned out to have a swastika in the background.

JOSEPH ANGOLANO: I don't think he wants to be associated with that, and he is in a tough position. He's in a very, very tough position.

JACOBS: O'Toole, who has been trying to hold the center in his party while fending off a growing populist wing, was ousted as Conservative Party leader by his own members today in a no-confidence vote. Meanwhile, in Ottawa, it's not clear how police would clear the protest. Ottawa's mayor says it's costing the city a million dollars a day. For now, the protester, Brubacher, says he'll stay as long as it takes for mandates to be lifted.

BRUBACHER: If the grass grows here, I'll be mowing the lawn, I guess.

JACOBS: And he adds that, quote, "Justin Trudeau needs to pay the price for what he's done."

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Ottawa.

(SOUNDBITE OF HM SURF'S "HORSE BETTING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.