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GoFundMe to return millions of dollars collected for Canadian anti-vaxx movement

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TORONTO/OTTAWA (REUTERS) - As thousands of people demonstrated in Canadian cities, online fundraiser GoFundMe said it would refund the millions of dollars collected for the anti-vaccine protest movement.

The mostly peaceful but noisy protests against vaccine mandates spread from Ottawa, the capital to financial hub Toronto, on Saturday (Feb 5).

The "Freedom Convoy" began as a movement against a Canadian vaccine requirement for cross-border truckers, but has turned into a rallying point against public health measures and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government.

"We're all sick and tired of the mandates, of the intimidation, of living in one big prison," said Toronto protester Robert, who did not give his last name.

Protesters have shut down downtown Ottawa for the past eight days, with some participants waving Confederate or Nazi flags and some saying they wanted to dissolve Canada's government.

"The protesters in Ottawa have made their point. The entire country heard their point," said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, who urged protesters to "go home and engage elected officials".

Ottawa police said hate crime charges were laid against four people and they were investigating threats against public figures jointly with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The well-organised blockade, which police say has relied partly on funding from sympathisers in the United States, saw protesters bring in portable saunas on Saturday to combat frigid temperatures.

One man rode through the area on horseback, carrying a Trump flag, social media videos showed. Former US president Donald Trump has spoken out in support of the truckers against "the harsh policies of far-left lunatic Justin Trudeau who has destroyed Canada with insane Covid-19 mandates".

GoFundMe took down the Freedom Convoy's donation page on Friday, saying it had violated the platform's terms of service due to unlawful activity. The group had raised about C$10.1 million (S$10.6 million).

The website originally said it would give refunds for any requests made by Feb 19 and would donate remaining funds to verified charities, but on Saturday, GoFundMe said it would refund all donations automatically.

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, who has previously criticised vaccine mandates, called GoFundMe "professional thieves". Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other Republican state lawmakers vowed to investigate the California-based company over the move.

About 5,000 people demonstrated in Ottawa, police said, while hundreds more gathered in Toronto, Canada's biggest city, and Quebec City, coinciding with the city's annual winter carnival. Four people were injured in Manitoba after a pickup truck drove into a crowd late on Friday, police said.

In Toronto, about 500 healthcare workers and supporters also rallied downtown in opposition to the trucker convoy, according to a Reuters witness.

Several Toronto healthcare workers said they received advice from their hospitals to not wear hospital scrubs in public in the light of the protest.

"The notion that we have to somehow skunk around or be afraid of who we are and what were doing, I think, is offensive and regrettable and... a sad commentary on our society," emergency room doctor Raghu Venugopal told Reuters.

Some Ottawa residents, who have endured near-incessant honking, smashed windows and harassment for wearing masks, criticised Ottawa police earlier this week for not doing more to end the blockade. One resident filed a class-action lawsuit against convoy organisers, seeking up to US$10 million (S$13.5 million) in damages and an injunction to end the protests.

Ottawa police, which warned on Friday of a crackdown on the protest and dedicated more officers, do not have enough resources to end the protests, the city's police chief said on Saturday. Mr Trudeau ruled out the use of troops against truckers in the capital earlier this week.

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