Thousands of Canadians used their Saturday to demonstrate against the Conservative government's decision to postpone the winter session of Parliament.

In Ottawa, a crowd estimated in the thousands gathered in front of Parliament to hear speeches from the NDP's Jack Layton and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

"I have heard your message, you have said loud and clear: you do not want Parliament to shut down when a prime minister is facing questions that he must answer," said Ignatieff.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper requested that Parliament be prorogued as opposition parties pressed the Conservatives in December on the Afghan prisoner abuse issue.

Ignatieff accused Harper of playing to apathy and cynicism -- a gamble which will harm the Conservatives' political fortunes.

"He had no idea that you would be here today," Ignatieff said, referring to Harper.

Ignatieff stressed that the show of protest was a good sign for Canadian democracy, and that the demonstrations are important, "because you're defending an absolutely fundamental principle of our democracy."

The NDP's Layton said that people need their government to work on their behalf, and to push for climate change legislation and positive economic policies

"I get the impression that you'd like your representatives to work on your behalf starting tomorrow," said Layton.

Harper has said that the pause is needed so his government can revamp its economic policies.

Right across the country, rallies were held.

In Toronto, thousands people gathered at Yonge-Dundas square for a rally in the city's downtown, police said. Some estimates put the crowd at 3,000 while others put the crowd at as high as 7,000.

Many in the crowd clutched placards and chanted slogans, including "the people, united, will never be defeated."

In Halifax, hundreds gathered near the province's legislature and shouted slogans against the government. Speakers included Liberal MP Geoff Regan and ex-provincial NDP leader Robert Chisholm.

Some of the demonstrators carried signs that read "Stand Up to Harper." Those signs also had the NDP logo on them.

In Edmonton, about 250 people braved icy temperatures and mixed political activism with humour.

Many of them chanted "Yes to perogies, no to prorogation!"

Others in the crowd were more serious about their participation.

"I came to Canada to escape dictatorship," said Pakistani immigrant Massoud Hasson, 66.

Exceeded expectations

Ottawa rally organizer Jesse Root said the demonstrations exceeded estimates in many cities.

"I think it's no doubt that it was a success today," he told CTV News Channel Saturday afternoon.

"The people who were there were of all ages, all political stripes, all backgrounds," he said.

"The turnout was really representative of the power of this movement and the diversity of the movement."

Root added that since Parliament was prorogued, more than 30 bills have been left in parliamentary purgatory. He also said that the Tories have been forced to change their talking points in order to deflect criticism over the postponement.

"We've seen the Conservatives' excuse change over the last three weeks as we've seen this movement grow."

The protests began with a Facebook group that has now attracted upwards of 210,000 members.

The pause also coincides with next month's Olympics, with some critics complaining that the government is muting criticism as the world comes to Vancouver. Parliament will resume again in early March.

Organizer Jonathan Allen said the protests are a reaction against what many feel is an abuse of power by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government.

The protests are being billed as non-partisan events, Allen added.

"We've got Conservative supporters working within the groups as well, because they don't like the precedent that is being set, and they don't like the fact that this is the second prorogation in the course of a year."

Parliament was also suspended in December 2008, in response to an opposition plan that aimed to dethrone the Conservatives.

"We bestow upon the government the authority to govern, but we do not bestow upon them the authority to abuse their constitutional privileges," said Allen.

He said protests will also take place in major cities in other countries.

"These are concerned expatriate Canadians that are not happy with the fact that the government has decided to prorogue Parliament for partisan purposes, as opposed to the good of the state."

With files from The Canadian Press