Canada's public safety minister says multiple levels of police and national security forces are preparing to deal with any threats that could erupt from extremists who have latched on to a massive truck convoy that began descending on the nation's capital Friday.
As hundreds of trucks and other protesters make their way to Ottawa to demonstrate against vaccine mandates and other public health measures imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19, Marco Mendicino said there must be lines drawn between free speech and risks to public safety.
"We have to put our trust in the trained professionals that work within law enforcement, that work within the intelligence community, to draw those boundaries," he said in an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
Mendicino said there have been signs of "flagrant extremism" by some organizers of the protests, including the equating of vaccine mandates to the fascist regime of Nazi-era Germany, the display of Confederate flags — a symbol of white supremacy — and inciting people to overthrow the government through violence.
"Frankly, there's just too much of that from the leaders of this convoy, which is not about freedom. And it's certainly not about truckers," he told guest host Nil Köksal.
Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that the protest organizers initially told his force the demonstration would be a weekend event, but that "the option of going into the week is also still on the table."
Sloly said any decision to bring the protest to a close early or let it extend beyond the weekend would be based on public safety and that security services will be asking a number of key questions as the protest unfolds such as: "Are there lives at risk, are there elements of critical infrastructure that cannot function sufficiently, or at all."
He also said his force currently has solid communication lines open with protest leaders but if that were to change, and police feel that promises made to them to ensure public safety meant the situation was no longer "predictable," a decision could be made to shut the protest down.
Sloly said that his force is well resourced and that the number of officers and equipment can be swiftly reduced or increased depending on how the demonstration goes.
Friday evening the Ottawa Police Service told CBC News that Ottawa Police will be augmented with officers from forces in Toronto, Durham, London, York and the Ontario Provincial Police.
WATCH | Protest convoy begins to arrive in Ottawa:
The bulk of the trucking protest had yet to arrive in Ottawa Friday evening but tractor trailers, motor homes and pick up trucks already brought parts of Ottawa to a standstill around 5 p.m. Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill was completely blocked with vehicles and demonstrators waving flags.
Drivers honked horns up and down the street as participants in the protest walked alongside their vehicles waving flags shouting slogans and cheering.
Those not participating in the protest have told CBC the build-up to the protest and the arrival of the trucks have caused anxiety over concerns the protests will get out of hand.
Vaccines are not the enemy
Earlier in the day, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos defended his government's vaccination push as the convoy of protesters opposed to vaccine mandates began descending on the city. "The enemy is not vaccination. The enemy is COVID-19 and the best tool to fight this enemy is to be vaccinated," he said during a public health briefing Friday morning.
"We understand now there is frustration around COVID-19, but we also know that the only way to exit COVID-19 is to get vaccinated."
The protest was billed initially as a demonstration by Canadian truck drivers against new vaccination rules in their industry — but those with broader concerns about public health measures and the federal government's handling of the pandemic have fastened themselves to the movement.
Some of those tied to the protest have vowed to stay until all vaccine mandates are repealed or the government somehow resigns.
Earlier Friday, Ottawa police said they don't know yet how many people will show up this weekend.
Sloly described the situation as "unique, fluid, risky and significant" and said police and security resources, including cameras, will be bolstered throughout the downtown.
"Let me be very clear. We are prepared to investigate, arrest if necessary, charge and prosecute anyone who acts violently or breaks the law in the demonstrations or in association with the demonstrations," he said.
"We have seen in other jurisdictions where these behaviours have led to people getting injured, killed and/or incarcerated. We're doing everything we can to ensure that that does not happen again."
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole met with some of the truck drivers participating in the protest and afterwards called in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to meet with demonstrators and "hear their concerns."
"Truckers are our neighbours, our family and most importantly, the are our fellow Canadians," he said.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance and the Ontario Trucking Association have both come out against the convoy, saying 90 per cent of cross-border truckers are vaccinated.
Earlier in the day O'Toole urged politicians to lower the temperature and said the government's insistence on making vaccines mandatory is unjustly causing people to lose their jobs.
Trudeau, who is self-isolating after one of his children tested positive for COVID-19, has called the protesters a "fringe minority."
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh denounced the convoy earlier this week and accused its organizers of voicing "inflammatory, divisive and hateful comments."