Windsor (Canada), Feb 13 (AP) Canadians who have occupied downtown Ottawa, disrupted travel and trade with the U.S. and inspired copycat protests from New Zealand to the Netherlands sound a common note when asked about their motivation: Decisions about their health shouldn't be made by the government.

“We stand for freedom,” said Karen Driedger, 40, who home-schools her kids and attended protests in Ottawa and Windsor. “We believe that it should be everyone's personal decision what they inject into their bodies.”

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The refrain isn't new to a pandemic-weary world, two years after the COVID-19 virus prompted curfews and closures, face-mask mandates and debates over vaccine requirements. Though it comes just as many of the toughest pandemic-era restrictions are being lifted across Canada, the U.S. and Europe — and experts say antipathy toward Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also a significant force.

Still, the in-your-face protests of some truck drivers and others who have shut down the Canadian capital, and a vital economic link between Windsor and Detroit, have fueled frustrations around the country and world, aided by publicity and support from far-right and anti-vaccine groups.

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Influential Americans such as former U.S. President Donald Trump and billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk have rallied behind the protesters, and they've received publicity and support from far-right and anti-vaccine groups.

Trudeau has labelled the protesters a “fringe,” and authorities have braced for violence because some have expressed hope that the rally will become the Canadian equivalent of last January's riot at the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

The Canadian “freedom convoy” was announced last month by a group founded by a QAnon conspiracy theory supporter and other organizers, and includes the ex-leader of Alberta's far-right Maverick Party.

Protesters who spoke to The Associated Press this week defended their actions and argued that they represent many more frustrated residents.

Don Stephens, a 65-year-old retired graphic designer, said he's come into Ottawa twice to show support for protesters there. He views them as representatives of a “silent majority that had been longing to have their voice heard.”

Mat Mackenzie, a 36-year-old trucker from Ontario, said he's been among the protesters in Ottawa for 15 days, feeling “a duty” to show his opposition. Citizens should be in charge of making decisions around masks, vaccines and other COVID mitigation efforts, not government officials, he said.

“I can tell you 90% of truckers here are likely vaccinated. We're here for freedom of choice," Mackenzie said. "And that's what we're here to fight for.”

Michael Kempa, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, said there are two faces of the protest. It isn't just about vaccine mandates and other COVID restrictions; organizers have said they want to oust Trudeau's Liberal government and be part of forming a new one, he said.

“In many ways, the friendly face protesters are acting as the foot soldiers of the organizers,” Kempa said. “We are seeing a huge amount of misinformation. People who are legitimately angry are being manipulated by the protest leadership.”

Many Canadians have been outraged over the crude behavior of some demonstrators. Some urinated on the National War Memorial and danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, while others carried signs and flags with swastikas and used the statue of Canadian hero Terry Fox to display an anti-vaccine statement, sparking widespread condemnation.

Most Canadians have been supportive of the pandemic restrictions, which health officials have stressed are necessary to protect the public from a virus that has killed at least 5.8 million people globally. The vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and the COVID-19 death rate is one-third that of the United States.

The images of protests across Canada have ignited copycats elsewhere.

In Paris, police prevented a threatened blockade of the French capital on Saturday. But a few dozen vehicles were able to disrupt traffic on the famed Champs-Elysees, prompting police to fire tear gas to disperse the crowd.

"The convoys are for the restoring of our liberties,” said Pierre-Louis Garnier, a 64-year-old who attended a protest in Paris on Friday to welcome an anticipated convoy that never materialised. (AP)

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