OTTAWA — Thousands of protesters are expected to continue a weekend-long rally to oppose COVID-19 restrictions and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government in Ottawa’s downtown core on Saturday.

Protesters descended on Parliament Hill Friday morning, and the crowd grew steadily in size throughout the day as big rigs rolled into downtown to oppose vaccine mandates, including cross-border requirements for truckers.

Police have warned their intelligence is flagging the potential for violence.

But the atmosphere Friday was more like a festival, as protesters danced in front of the Centennial Flame to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” carrying signs that read “coercion does not equal consent” and “mandate freedom.”

The noise at times was overwhelming, with people cheering, car horns blaring, music blasting and vehicles circling in a constant parade. Expletive-laden signs and decals targeting Trudeau were a dominant theme around downtown.

Meanwhile Ottawa residents have been told by police to avoid the downtown core this weekend if possible.

Hundreds more vehicles are expected by Saturday, from Western Canada, Quebec, and the Maritimes and the Parliamentary Protective Service expects as many as 10,000 protesters.

Ottawa police are working with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, RCMP and other agencies to identify any potential threats to public safety.

Though the aim of the protest is ostensibly to oppose vaccine mandates for truck drivers crossing the Canada-U.S. border, attendees said that is only a small part of their demands.

“We’re not going to allow a small group of scumbags to control our bloodstream and health,” said Jason Estey over a loudspeaker as protesters circled around him on Parliament Hill Friday.

After his impromptu speech, Estey said he feels the vaccine mandates imposed by Trudeau’s government infringe on people’s rights.

“I’m honoured and privileged to be out with this amazing positive vibe, to feel and experience it, and to know we are going to crush the establishment, this deep state shadow government here in Canada and we’re going to have our rights restored,” he said.

Organizers of the group that mainly planned the truckers’ convoy, Canada Unity, are expected to address the crowds Saturday.

The memo being pushed by Canada Unity unlawfully demands Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and the Senate force the 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.

Fatigue and frustration about the pandemic measures were a theme of Friday’s demonstration.

George Broharov said he was drawn to the protest in Ottawa from his home in Hamilton because of the repeating cycles of lockdowns and public-health restrictions.

“It’s about people being mandated, obligated to do what they don’t want to do. I disagree with that,” he said.

While the federal government has imposed a vaccine mandate for federally regulated workers and at the border, almost all COVID-19 restrictions fall to provincial jurisdiction. That includes mask mandates, business and school closures, and other public and private gathering limits.

It’s unclear how long protesters intend to stay on Parliament Hill.

Some protesters said they wouldn’t leave until public-health restrictions and mandates are lifted, or Trudeau is forced out as prime minister.

Others are not so optimistic the government and will fold to their demands.

“It’s a nice thought, but I don’t think anything will happen immediately,” said Phil Powers, a truck driver from Oshawa, Ont., who parked his trailer truck in front of Parliament Hill on Wellington Street for the weekend.

“This is the Canadian space to have the debate, so that’s why we’re here.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2022.