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Ottawa girds for another day of gridlock as truckers’ park-in protest rolls on

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OTTAWA — Residents of the national capital are again being told to avoid travelling downtown as a convoy of trucks and cars snarl traffic protesting government-imposed vaccine mandates and COVID-19 restrictions.

The truck traffic in the city’s core by Parliament Hill has made many streets downtown impassable to vehicles, police say.

Other streets have been closed and local police say they are working to mitigate the impacts of the gridlock on residents and businesses downtown.

It’s not clear when the convoy of vehicles plans end their park-in protest as some protesters have vowed not to move until all their demands are met.

Sitting in his truck, Scott Ocelak said he was warned he was locked into his spot until Sunday, but planned to stay until Tuesday at the latest.

The demonstration was initially aimed at denouncing vaccine mandates for truck drivers crossing the Canada-U.S. border, but the movement has morphed into a protest against a variety of COVID-19 restrictions and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.

“Everyone’s united and we just needed a spark, and this is the spark that we needed,” Ocelak said Saturday. “We’re all on board and we’re all here together. It’s end all mandates for everybody.”

A memo being pushed by Canada Unity, the group that mainly planned the convoy, unlawfully demands Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and the Senate force federal and provincial governments to lift all COVID-19 restrictions, including vaccine mandates. It does not mention truckers, and was initially sent to the Senate and Simon on Dec. 11.

“They need to listen and they say they’re not going to listen, they’re not going to change,” said Eric Simmons, who drove in from Oshawa, Ont., to see the protest up close.

“People are losing their jobs because they don’t want to get the vaccine. I don’t want the vaccine.”

The vast majority of truck drivers are vaccinated. The Canadian Trucking Alliance has previously estimated about 10 per cent of drivers were affected when vaccinations became a requirement to cross the Canada-U.S. border this month.

The mood Saturday was largely peaceful and jovial, with the smell of marijuana wafting alongside an airing of conspiracy theories about vaccines themselves. Police says there were no incidents of violence or injuries reported on Saturday, but are planning to maintain a heavy presence Sunday.

Events Saturday were tarred by protestors who jumped on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and others who fastened an inverted Canadian flag and anti-vaccine sign to a statue of Terry Fox. Both actions generated vocal denunciations.

Condemnations also poured in from federal politicians of all stripes against protesters seen carrying Confederate flags, as well as flags and signs bearing Nazi symbols and slogans.

One such Nazi image was captured in the background of a television interview with Conservative MP Michael Cooper.

The mayors of the two towns overlapping his Alberta riding, Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron, in a joint statement called on Cooper to apologize for “his behavior and lack of judgment.”

In a statement late Saturday, Cooper said he didn’t know someone “with whom I’m not associated” was flying a Canadian flag with a swastika drawn on it “some distance behind my back” as he did a television interview.

He said he condemns Nazism and said whoever flew the flag with the symbol “should be eternally ashamed,” adding that the person didn’t represent those who acted responsibly whom Cooper supported.

Fellow Alberta Conservative Damien Kurek was also at the protest Saturday and in a tweet condemned “any signs of hate, antisemitism, or disrespect.” He wrote that many protestors he spoke with believed those signs “are disgraceful and don’t represent those involved.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2022.

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COVID-19

HIV spike among B.C. drug users associated with COVID-19 lockdown, research says

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By Brieanna Charlebois in Vancouver

A new study says reduced access to HIV services during early COVID-19 lockdowns in British Columbia was associated with a “sharp increase” in HIV transmission among some drug users.

The study by University of British Columbia researchers says that while reduced social interaction during the March-May 2020 lockdown worked to reduce HIV transmission, that may not have “outweighed” the increase caused by reduced access to services.

The study, published in Lancet Regional Health, found that fewer people started HIV antiretroviral therapy or undertook viral load testing under lockdown, while visits to overdose prevention services and safe consumption sites also decreased.

The overall number of new HIV diagnoses in B.C. continues a decades-long decline.

But Dr. Jeffrey Joy, lead author of the report published on Friday, said he found a “surprising” spike in transmission among some drug users during lockdown.

Joy said transmission rates for such people had previously been fairly stable for about a decade.

“That’s because there’s been really good penetration of treatment and prevention services into those populations,” he said in an interview.

B.C. was a global leader in epidemic monitoring, which means the results are likely applicable elsewhere, Joy said.

“We are uniquely positioned to find these things,” he said. “The reason that I thought it was important to do this study and get it out there is (because) it’s probably happening everywhere, but other places don’t monitor their HIV epidemic in the same way that we do.”

Rachel Miller, a co-author of the report, said health authorities need to consider innovative solutions so the measures “put in place to address one health crisis don’t inadvertently exacerbate another.”

“These services are the front-line defence in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Many of them faced disruptions, closures, capacity limits and other challenges,” Miller said in a news release.

“Maintaining access and engagement with HIV services is absolutely essential to preventing regression in epidemic control and unnecessary harm.”

The Health Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Researchers said the spike among “select groups” could be attributed to a combination of factors, including housing instability and diminished trust, increasing barriers for many people who normally receive HIV services.

British Columbia is set to become the first province in Canada to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs in January, after receiving a temporary federal exemption in May.

Joy said this decision, alongside measures like safe supply and safe needle exchanges, will make a difference preventing similar issues in the future.

“The take-home message here is, in times of crisis and public health emergency or other crises, we need to support those really vulnerable populations more, not less,” he said.

“Minimally, we need to give them continuity and the access to their services that they depend on. Otherwise, it just leads to problems that can have long, long-term consequences.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2022.

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Tragedies unite Humboldt Broncos mom and James Smith Cree Nation artist

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By Mickey Djuric in Regina

Celeste Leray-Leicht received many condolence gifts after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash that claimed the life of her son, but it was a beaded green and yellow ribbon with a white heart that stood out.

Leray-Leicht wore it for years after her son Jacob Leicht died. It now lives on her vehicle’s visor, next to a photo of her children when they were little, alongside a poppy.

She always felt a connection to the beaded ribbon because of the heart.

“My son Jacob, he was a Valentine baby, so I’m drawn to hearts,” Leray-Leicht said from her home in Humboldt, Sask., east of Saskatoon.

On April 6, 2018, near Tisdale, Sask., 16 people were killed and 13 were injured when an inexperienced truck driver ran a stop sign, crashing into a bus that was taking the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team to a playoff game.

Leray-Leicht’s son played with the Broncos and was 19 when he died in the crash.

She never knew who gifted her the beaded pin, but she found out when she headed out to James Smith Cree Nation, northeast of Saskatoon, to drop off food and other donations earlier this month.

Bernard Constant Community School on the reserve has become a gathering hub after a stabbing rampage on Sept. 4 that killed 10 people, nine of whom were James Smith Cree Nation members. Eighteen others were injured. Both suspects have died.

The school is where funerals and wakes were held, where volunteers continue to cook throughout the day to keep members fed as they recover. It’s also where people come to pray.

On Sept. 11, it became the place where two women, dealing with devastating loss, came face to face for the first time.

While in the school’s gym, Leray-Leicht met Lissa Bear, who is a member of James Smith Cree Nation, and has been grieving alongside her community.

She’s also the Indigenous artist who anonymously gifted her the beaded ribbon that had always reminded Leray-Leicht of Jacob.

To Leray-Leicht’s surprise, Bear had approached her saying she had sent her the pin years ago.

“And I said ‘I just looked at that pin half an hour ago,” Leray-Leicht said. “We were kindred spirits. We instantly hit it off.”

Leray-Leicht said it was remarkable to meet Bear, despite the tragedies that unite them.

“I think God is in the details and I don’t really believe in coincidences too much. I think we’ll become good friends,” said Leray-Leicht. “It was just so special to me.”

Bear declined to comment, but gave consent to Leray-Leicht to share the story.

Humboldt and James Smith Cree Nation are 125 kilometres apart, but are connected through their grief.

Since the mass stabbing, families from Humboldt have silently attended funerals, donated food and offered support to people in the Indigenous community.

“As adults and leaders in the community, it’s our responsibility to try and find as many supports as we can for our youth and for our adults without reliving the trauma over and over again,” Leray-Leicht said.

Students in Humboldt wrote messages of hope on hearts for James Smith Cree Nation, something a nearby community did for them in 2018 after the bus crash.

At a vigil in Humboldt on Sept. 14, the hearts were placed in baskets alongside chocolate Hershey hugs, and were given to James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns. They asked him to pass them along to the youth of his community.

“When asked ‘what do you need?’ and they say prayers, I can relate,” said Leray-Leicht, who helped plan the vigil. “That’s all I remember thinking — ‘That’s what we needed, too.’ Prayers to lift us up to survive this devastating loss.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2022.

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