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Hospitals, police prepare for planned protest outside Ontario legislature


TORONTO — A protest expected outside the Ontario legislature this weekend started to disrupt Toronto's downtown core on Friday as police blocked off roads and beefed up security in what they described as moves to ensure public safety.

Large buses and police cars were parked across roadways near Queen's Park to prevent trucks and other protest vehicles from cutting off access to a nearby downtown stretch known as "hospital row," and police said traffic in the core was already moving slowly as a result.

It's not yet clear how many people intend to descend on Queen's Park on Saturday in solidarity with the so-called "Freedom Convoy" against COVID-19 measures that's set up shop in the nation's capital, but Toronto Police Chief James Ramer said his force is looking to Ottawa and relying on "intelligence" from other police forces in forming its plans. 

"Given the information that we've received, we feel these steps are appropriate," Ramer said at a Friday news conference. 

The police service has also sent extra officers to the core in an effort to keep the peace, should the situation devolve.

"It's very much a fluid and very dynamic situation," Ramer said. "It requires us to be nimble and agile and have to adapt. I can't speak to specific strategies, nor will I, frankly, it's just simply to know that we are examining a number of contingencies ... We will do our very best to address public safety." 

Police warned that the stretch of University Avenue between College and Queen streets, and the portion of College Street from University to Yonge Street, could be shuttered all weekend. 

Ramer said the force has also set up "staging areas" for people who bring their trucks to the protest, as many have done in Ottawa, so that there's "minimal disruption."

"If they plan to demonstrate, they can travel by foot or public transit to Queen's Park and they can demonstrate in person. But vehicles will not be congregating around Queen's Park," he said.

Social media video posted Friday, however, showed several large tractors parked just north of the legislature.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, also at the press conference, said he had been in touch with his provincial and federal counterparts, who had both offered support, should the city need it.

He also urged protesters who want to cause mayhem to stay home. 

"Peaceful and respectful is the way we do things here," Tory said. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, speaking to media Friday after a joint press conference with other premiers, said he, too, hopes things remain peaceful.

"Any harassment, or acts of hatred or acts of violence will have zero tolerance, absolutely zero tolerance," he said. 

Ford also suggested the protesters should be a little patient, as the province is in the process of easing restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

"The public health measures are being lifted as we speak," he said. Restaurants and gyms were allowed to reopen at half capacity across Ontario on Monday, and more measures are set to ease on Feb. 21.

Meanwhile, three hospitals near the legislature postponed a small number of appointments in anticipation of the protest.

Mount Sinai Hospital said it recommended its ambulatory clinics review appointments and reschedule non-urgent care, while Women's College Hospital said its urgent care clinic would not offer in-person appointments Saturday, though it opened an additional clinic on Friday.

The Hospital for Sick Children also rescheduled some appointments.

"The majority of postponed appointments are for non-urgent ultrasounds. Appointments that can’t be postponed due to medical reasons will proceed," said Jessamine Luck, a spokeswoman for SickKids.

"Plans are in place to help ensure staffing levels are maintained and any disruptions to patient care are minimized."

Online, protest organizers have said the planned rally is in support of a convoy that travelled to the nation's capital last Saturday. 

Ottawa police said that at the height of that protest, thousands of people were in attendance, but it has since dwindled to a rowdy few hundred. 

The protest against pandemic measures, which has immobilized Ottawa's downtown with scores of large trucks, is an "increasingly volatile and increasingly dangerous demonstration," city Police Chief Peter Sloly said at a news conference Friday.

Police in that city expect as many as 400 more trucks and up to 2,000 people on foot will arrive this weekend for the protest. In addition, as many as 1,000 people could join counter-demonstrations downtown Ottawa. 

Canada Unity, the group behind the Ottawa convoy, originated during the 2019 pro-pipeline convoy to the capital but morphed into an anti-COVID restrictions protest after the pandemic began. 

It has been holding protests in the Ottawa area for months, demanding Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and the Senate force federal and provincial governments to lift all restrictions, and more recently protesting a requirement that truck drivers be vaccinated in order to eschew isolation requirements when crossing the border.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2022.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly said the emergency department at Women's College Hospital would remain open. In fact, it does not have an emergency department.

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