As a crowd of more than 100 angry protesters shouted insults, banged on garbage bins and tangled verbally with police on Sunday, it was hard to know where to look.
On one side of the VeriForm Inc. loading bay was Liberal leader Justin Trudeau — flanked by his deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland, and local MPs — making a cheerful announcement about climate change funding at this green-friendly metal fabricator.
On the other, cordoned behind a giant media bus with police guarding the perimeter, was a volatile crowd whose frothing outrage threatened to drown out the object of their wrath, exuding his sunny unflappability only a few dozen meters away.
“I hear you,” the seasoned politician responded to a wail of protest sirens in the background.
“Sirens in the background reveal this is a climate emergency!”
It was the only time Trudeau ad libbed, attempting to turn the tables in the face of the protesters’ unrelenting howls over vaccination policies they fear will turn Canada into a socialist country.
“You thought you would have a secret, peaceful event,” shouted one person in the mostly unmasked crowd peppered with signs, buttons and inverted Canadian flags.
This was a reference to Trudeau’s cancelled appearance in Bolton, Ont. on Friday, aborted by the Liberal campaign when angry protesters outnumbered Liberal supporters and safety couldn’t be guaranteed.
It was a move organizers hoped to avoid in Cambridge.
But while they insisted the Lindsay Road protest was smaller and less frenetic, the atmosphere was tense, the sense of inchoate rage palpable.
And efforts to deflect travelling protesters — in case word slipped out — by redirecting media from a Hespeler Road meeting place to the site of the actual announcement didn’t do much to stem the tide.
“Justin Castro!” shouted wild-eyed protesters, alluding to a conspiracy theory that falsely claims Justin is the son of communist leader Fidel.
“Stop this vaccine tyranny! All of you have blood on your hands. Communism, no! FREEDOM!”
It wasn’t always clear what the protesters — many with beards, man-buns, mullets and Trump-styled “Make Ontario Great Again!” caps — were incensed about.
The Liberal push for mandatory vaccines in some settings and vaccine passports was clearly No. 1.
But there were also references to human trafficking and Nazi Germany, religious exhortations and complaints about “media meatballs who look at us like we’re the crazies,” with a personal animus toward Trudeau that seemed to take on a life of its own.
“LOCK HIM UP!” they shouted, adapting the Trumpian riff used against former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. “Shame on all of you!”
In the end, the protest delayed Trudeau’s planned announcement about reducing carbon emissions — which includes a $5,000 rebate on zero-emission vehicles — by an hour.
It also created a visible disruption while he was speaking, with media attention wavering between his boilerplate election speech and the horde of incensed protesters screaming obscenities from the sidelines.
“I’m not going to back down on a message that Canadians know is the right path forward,” Trudeau responded when pressed by media for a reaction. “And that’s why Canadians need to choose to move Canada forward in this pivotal time.”
Pushed further, he displayed glimmers of a fighting spirit that broke through his Teflon exterior and summoned memories of an earlier, more combative Trudeau.
“This needs to make us ever more convinced of the importance of the choice in this election,” he insisted as people shouted “Smash the Commies!” and one sign pictured him beside a noose, hands tied behind his back.
“Do we fall into division and hatred and racism and violence, or do we say no?
“You know what? That doesn’t work to get us to back down. That won’t scare Canadians from standing up for what’s right.
“And I know Canadians. I’ve met with people from coast to coast to coast.
“If you threaten them with violence and try to scare them away from what’s right, we double down. And we move forward into the future we know our kids and grandkids deserve.”
Impeccably attired in a green tie and powder blue shirt, sleeves rolled, with a wisp of hair swinging over his forehead, the 49-year-old politician still boasts the rock star aura that helped catapult him to power in the 2015 election.
But with liberal fortunes sagging at the polls, and protests mounting on the road, the Paul McCartney of politicians seems to understand victory will not be handed to him without a fight.
“I do think we need to understand that people have had a tough year, that the world is changing rapidly, that there is fear, there is anxiety out there,” he noted over the din of honking horns and frenzied calls for his ouster.
“But let me be also very, very clear: I am absolutely resolute in my conviction to continue to move Canada forward.”