Crowds cheered, waved flags and hoisted signs in Ontario and New Brunswick on Thursday as parts of a large national convoy of truckers headed for Ottawa to protest the federal government's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border drivers.
The movement, which began in British Columbia days earlier, has been picking up participants across the country, with local truckers joining in at different points.
In a packed mall parking lot north of Toronto, supporters threw cash and food up to truckers in their vehicles on Thursday, while others held up signs protesting the government as transport trucks gradually rolled out.
Mike Fabinski, who has been a trucker for 20 years, said the federal vaccine mandate means he won't be able to work cross-border routes any more.
"You want to be vaccinated, go ahead, your choice. I don't want to be vaccinated, that's my choice," said the Barrie, Ont., resident. "I was going non-stop until they started last Saturday. Now I cannot go. I cannot work no more."
Rob Irons said he showed up to support the truckers because he believes the vaccine mandate will cause supply chain issues.
"It makes no sense when these truckers never, rarely get out of their truck," he said. "The don't give (the virus) to anybody. I don't understand it."
Others said they planned to join the convoy and make the trek to Ottawa, where a weekend protest is planned.
"It's all about peace. It's all about freedom. It's all about getting the Canadian way of life back. We are not here to turn it to violence," said Dean Brown, who was planning to drive to the capital.
"The people who are in charge of this (convoy) are blocking people who are insisting or suggesting violence."
The federal government ended truckers' exemption to the vaccine mandate on Jan. 15, meaning Canadian truck drivers need to be fully vaccinated if they want to avoid a two-week quarantine when they cross into Canada from the U.S.
Some with extreme, far-right views have latched onto the protest against the mandate. One online video includes a man expressing hope the rally will turn into the Canadian equivalent of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance, which has condemned the convoy protest, says more than 85 per cent of the 120,000 Canadian truck drivers who regularly traverse the border are vaccinated, but that up to 16,000 may be sidelined due to the new restriction, exacerbating supply chain problems.
Out east, hundreds of people waving signs and Canadian flags lined the sides of the Trans-Canada highway and an overpass in Lincoln, N.B., to show their support for a part of the convoy headed to Ottawa from Atlantic Canada. Many of the signs read "Freedom", "Canada Proud" and "Know Your Human Rights".
"We're standing up for our freedoms. We're just fighting for our right to choose," said Sharon Lee Saulnier of Jemseg, N.B. as she waited for the trucks to arrive.
Chris Harrison of Hampton, N.B. said he was there to voice his opposition to the COVID-19 vaccines.
"I'm here because I believe in freedom," Harrison said. "We should have a choice."
Roger Reid, a trucker from Hantz County, N.S., stepped out of his truck and was greeted by people with bags of food and other supplies. Reid said he was taking part in an effort to restore rights and freedoms.
"It's got nothing to do with the vaccines anymore," he said. "They tell us to do the vaccine, they tell us to do this and that, and they keep taking everything away from us. It's for everybody, not just us."
The Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association doesn't support the convoy, with its executive director saying the protest has gone beyond vaccine mandates.
"It's at a point where it's not even about the trucking and vaccine mandate, it's about freedom and all kinds of groups are in it, and trucking is in the forefront because it started with us, and I'm afraid it doesn't look good for the industry," Jean-Marc Picard said in an interview Thursday.
Picard said he's concerned about talk of blockades at the New Brunswick borders with Nova Scotia and Quebec this weekend.
When asked about the convoy, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said he knows people are tired of COVID-19 and of restrictions.
"It isn't about trying to restrict people from their basic rights and freedoms. It's about finding a path to protect everyone's health and safety," Higgs said. "It's not about our country losing our freedoms, we all value that."
Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he understands "where the truckers are coming from" but also encouraged vaccination against COVID-19.
"I support truckers, but I also support getting vaccinated," he said in a radio interview with AM800.
In a joint release earlier this week the federal government and Canadian Trucking Alliance acknowledged "unprecedented challenges" to a sector that ships the vast majority of food and consumer products, but stressed vaccination as the route to economic health.
Police in Ottawa have said they are planning for as many as 2,000 demonstrators in the city on Saturday.