By Steve Scherer
OTTAWA, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Canada's beleaguered Conservative opposition leader is backing a trucker protest against the Liberal government's strict COVID-19 vaccine mandates, with critics warning the movement is led by far-right activists with a history of trying to incite violence.
The so-called "Freedom Convoy" - due to bring hundreds of trucks to Ottawa from east and west on Saturday - started out as a protest against a vaccine requirement for cross-border truckers, but has turned into a demonstration against government overreach during the pandemic with a strong anti-vax streak.
"Put an end to the vaccine mandates and all things COVID! It is time for the tyranny and corruption to end," Action4Canada, one of the organizers, said on its Web site. They are vowing to stay in Ottawa until the mandates are reversed.
Canada's Anti-Hate Network, an independent watchdog, said the convoy organizers, a few of whom have described the protest as Canada's equivalent of the storming of Capitol Hill in Washington a year ago, are not truckers but far-right agitators.
Organizers insist the demonstration will be peaceful.
Some tractors, trucks and SUV's began driving past Parliament and blowing their horns on Friday morning. Ottawa police said on Friday they would be out in force and ready to arrest anyone who breaks the law.
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole has opposed vaccine mandates since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced them on the eve of last September's election campaign. O'Toole has called for negative COVID tests to be accepted as well because some of his voters say the requirements infringe personal freedom.
Facing calls for a leadership review due to the election loss and flagging support in opinion polls, O'Toole has said he would meet the truckers and posted a video blaming Trudeau for potential supply chain problems the trucker mandate may cause.
Among past Conservative voters, there was a 26 percentage point drop since year's vote of those who have a favorable view of O'Toole, an Angus Reid Institute poll from this week showed.
"The convoy itself is becoming a symbol of the fatigue and the division we're seeing in this country," O'Toole told reporters on Thursday.
Some 20%-25% of Conservative party voters oppose vaccine mandates, the highest rate among the parties in parliament, according to polls. Canada is now in the middle of a spike in Omicron variant cases that is straining hospitals.
Convoy participants have threatened and harassed journalists trying to interview them on their way to Ottawa. Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly said on Friday convoy supporters are "inciting hate, violence, and in some cases criminality" on social media.
In an editorial published Thursday in the Toronto Sun, O'Toole acknowledged he was concerned the protest could be hijacked by "individuals who plan to use (it) as a means for violence.... (which would) only serve to delegitimize valid and reasonable concerns".
Trudeau said this week the convoy represented a "small fringe minority" who "do not represent the views of Canadians." About 90% of Canada's cross-border truckers and 77% of the population has had two shots.
Just as a rock-throwing anti-vaxxer during last year's campaign brought Trudeau sympathy and support, disruptions resulting from the protest could bolster Trudeau at O'Toole's expense.
"This is a country that's all about peace, order and good government," said David Coletto, chief executive officer of Abacus Data polling company, so if there is violence or chaos, the Conservatives will be seen as "cheerleaders".
"This is a political gift to the Liberals," Coletto said.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer, additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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