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'Blurred lines' - Ottawa archdiocese says there's no easy take on trucker protests

While Catholics in Ottawa are divided over the protests which have embroiled their city for two weeks, the Archbishop of Ottawa-Cornwall will continue encouraging vaccines, but not require them for church attendance, according to an archdiocesan spokesman.

Demonstrations in Ottawa, Canada, on Jan 29, 2022. Credit: Véronic Gagnon/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

“It is fair to say that there are many different responses at this stage of the pandemic in the Catholic community, just as there is in the wider population. Similarly, there are differences of opinion about the current protest,” Fr. Geoff Kerslake, a spokesman for the archbishop told The Pillar Friday.

“We all want to return to life that resembles our pre-pandemic existence and we want the best for each other. There are disagreements about the best means to achieve that goal and we need to be patient with one another, really listening to each other’s experience, fear, anxieties and hopes, praying with and for each other, asking for healing, strength and hope from God as we move together through this challenging time,” Kerslake added.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared on Feb. 11 a state of emergency for the Canadian province, in which the country’s capital city has seen two weeks of massive demonstrations over coronavirus restrictions. Those protests, which Ottawa’s mayor has called an “insurrection,” had grown by Friday to include a five-day blockade of the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario and the U.S. city of Detroit, which is the busiest border crossing between the U.S. and Canada.

The bridge, over which passes reportedly 25% of trade between the two countries, is especially critical to automotive production, and U.S. automakers have reported production delays caused by the supply line interruption.

Protests kicked off in other Canadian cities in recent weeks, and at other U.S.-Canada border crossings.

The protests began when so-called “Freedom Convoys” of truckers were organized in January as demonstrations against the requirement that truckers be vaccinated to cross the U.S.-Canada border.

When the convoys converged on central Ottawa in late January, they developed into large, ongoing protests against a raft of Canadian coronavirus restrictions.

Those protests shut down parts of the city, and have become a focus of debate across Canada and the U.S., especially as some protestors have been denounced for the use of racist symbols and language, and been accused of damaging public property.

Parishioners and clerics themselves have been split in Ottawa, with some attending or supporting protests, distributing rosaries to protestors in some cases, and others opposing them.

Kerslake said that among Ottawa Catholics, “some continue to support the original goal of not forcing people to get vaccinated (in particular the truckers) and see the protest as about that issue. Others have seen the lines blur, and think that the point has been made, and it is time for the protest to leave so life in the city can return to normal.”

“What began as a weekend protest against mandatory vaccination for truckers has become more diverse. Further complicating matters is the reality the protest has attracted people with other goals,” Kerslake explained.

“In the initial protest two weekends ago, the media picked up images of some people carrying flags or symbols that represent ideologies that are racist or hateful, such as a swastika. The initial protest saw some unacceptable behavior which was catalogued in the news, and in the almost two weeks after the protest, there were some further incidents by individuals that have affected the public perception of the protest,” the priest added.

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While Catholic dioceses in some parts of Canada have required vaccine passports to attend Mass, or even continued to cancel public Masses, the Ottawa archdiocese has no vaccine requirement, even while it encourages vaccination and does require masks at Masses.

Some Ottawa Catholics have told The Pillar that with parishes and clergy fractured over pandemic restrictions, their archbishop was in a “difficult position” addressing things even before the protests came to town. Local divisions have intensified since the protestors came to town, Catholics told The Pillar.

Archbishop Marcel Damphousse “has not imposed vaccine passports on the churches in our archdiocese. He has publicly stated that he encourages Catholics to get vaccinated for their sake and for the sake of reducing the strain on the health care system but the decision to be vaccinated must be freely made,” Kerslake told The Pillar. “He has not imposed vaccine passports to attend the Mass or other liturgies.”

The archbishop’s goal, Kerslake said, “has been and remains to keep our churches open and as safe as possible, listening to the health experts in the different levels of government and helping our parishes understand what the regulations require.”

“Archbishop Damphousse has received correspondence from people both pro and anti-vaccine, as well as from people who wish him to impose vaccine passports and from those thanking him for not imposing vaccine passports,” Kerslake added.

“Many Catholics have been vaccinated here in the archdiocese, but some still are reluctant or resist getting vaccinated for various reasons,” the priest said.

The priest said that the protests have impacted liturgical life in Ottawa.

“One of the downtown churches, St. Patrick Basilica, close to the main street of the protest, closed its doors last weekend and live-streamed the Mass for many reasons. It is located close to the main protest site.”

A parishioner at the basilica told The Pillar that during the first weekend of protests, protestors loudly banged on the church doors during a Saturday afternoon Mass.

When a security guard opened the locked church door, several protestors rushed into the church alcove shouting, and police were called. One parishioner held closed doors to the church’s nave to prevent the protestors from entering the Mass.

Because police were overwhelmed with other protest calls, it took them the entire Mass to reach the parish, and parishioners had to leave after Mass through another door. Masses were held the next day, but cancelled for the following week, and are scheduled only tentatively for next weekend.

Another church, “Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, which is located further from Wellington Street, remained open for the weekend Masses. There were some minor incidents which were handled as pastorally as possible,” Kerslake told The Pillar.

While the protests have been subject to international media attention, Kerslake emphasized that he thinks there have been also “good news stories” amid the protests, which have not received the same kind of attention.

“One parish downtown, which runs a number of programs supporting the most vulnerable people in our community, including the homeless, [along with] support for women at risk and other initiatives, had their parking lot filled up with protestors, preventing parishioners from parking, including the elderly who rely on parking on site.”

“When a parish employee created a note and left it on the windshields of the cars explaining the need for those parking spaces, and that the money from the parking went to support these programs, the parish received additional donations – both money and supplies – in the following week. What began as an inconvenience and a negative thing, turned into something positive,” the priest said.

He also mentioned a soup kitchen in Ottawa, Shepherds of Good Hope, which was the subject of media attention after protestors went there for a free meal and apparently harassed staff and clientele. The organization said a staff member and a client were assaulted by protestors, who reportedly used a racial slur at a security guard.

“Once it became public knowledge, the Shepherds began to receive a lot of public support for the great work they do…since that incident, they have received $750,000 in donations,” Kerslake mentioned.

On the whole, “life downtown has been affected by the noise, traffic closures and the behavior of some individuals. The reporting has largely focused on the negative effects of this ongoing protest, and many local residents are frustrated at the lack of a resolution. Residents are accustomed to large demonstrations but not ones that continue for a prolonged period of time with a lot of noise and other disruptions,” the priest said.

While he said there have also been “positive activities…which do not receive as much attention in the media, such as outreach to the homeless” amid the protests, “the 12 hours a day blowing of airhorns downtown, and the disruption of traffic, made life difficult for residents in the area.”

For its part, the priest said, the archdiocese is praying for a peaceful resolution, and Kerslake said he thinks that’s what most Catholics in the archdiocese hope for.

“I would say that everyone wants the same basic thing: to return to life as normal as soon as possible,” he said.

“The challenge is the disagreement on the best means to achieve the goal we are all praying for.”

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