Tensions Mount in Ottawa as Police Warn Protesting Truckers to Leave
OTTAWA, Ontario — A showdown appeared to be shaping up in Ottawa’s nearly three-week siege by truckers protesting the country’s COVID-19 restrictions as police in the capital warned drivers Wednesday to leave immediately or risk arrest.
The big rigs parked outside Parliament represented the movement’s last stronghold after demonstrators abandoned their sole remaining truck blockade along the U.S. border.
When that happened, border crossings were opened again after more than two weeks of civil unrest. The focus was on the capital and drivers defiantly tore apart warnings telling them not to leave.
Authorities in yellow “police liaison” vests went from rig to rig, knocking on the doors and handing truckers leaflets informing them they could be prosecuted, lose their licenses and see their vehicles seized under Canada’s Emergencies Act. The police also started ticketing cars.
One protester shouted, “I will never go home!” Some threw the warning into a toilet put out on the street. In their trucks, protesters honked their horns loudly in a chorus which echoed throughout the city.
Just before Wednesday night, police issued a second set of explicit warnings. They warned about the possible penalties and charges that could be faced by those who stayed. The city’s interim police chief indicated officers might move in soon to clear the hundreds of trucks.
“We are going to take back the entirety of the downtown core and every occupied space. This illegal protest will be removed. We will return our city to a state of normalcy,” interim Chief Steve Bell told city leaders in a statement. “You will be hearing and seeing these actions in the coming days.”
On Wednesday, protest leaders are ready to take action.
“If it means that I need to go to prison, if I need to be fined in order to allow freedom to be restored in this country — millions of people have given far more for their freedom,” said David Paisley, who traveled to Ottawa with a friend who is a truck driver.
These warnings were issued two days after Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada invoked the emergency law as a way to stop the protests.
“It’s not for politicians to tell police when and how to do things. What we have done with the emergency act is to make sure the police have the necessary tools,” Trudeau said Wednesday. “It’s something that I, like all residents of Ottawa, hope to happen soon.”
The crisis has become one of the most serious tests yet for Trudeau, the boyish-looking 50-year-old who has long channeled the star power — if not quite the political heft — of his father, Pierre Trudeau, who was prime minister a generation ago.
Some lawmakers are criticizing Trudeau, the younger one, for not being more aggressive against the protests. While others accuse Trudeau of overstepping his bounds by assuming emergency power.
Protesters in trucks, and other vehicles, have blocked border crossings and jammed streets throughout the capital since late January. The demonstrations by the self-styled Freedom Convoy initially focused on Canada’s vaccine requirement for truckers entering the country but soon morphed into a broad attack on COVID-19 precautions and Trudeau himself.
Protesters, who blocked traffic and trade along the U.S.-Minneapolis border at Emerson (Manitoba), opposite North Dakota for seven days, were released on Wednesday in trucks and tractors without being arrested.
Border officials stated that the crossing opened within hours and there were no delays for commercial trucks.
Right-wing extremists supported the protests. They were cheered and got donations from U.S. conservatives. Some quarters complained that America and its pandemic policies have had a negative influence on Canada.
Daniel Bulford, a protest leader who described himself as a former officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a recent member of Trudeau’s security detail, accused the Trudeau government of resorting to “extreme and authoritarian” measures to quell the demonstrations.
To make it more difficult for police officers to remove protesters, organizers encouraged them to gather in the capital. But the nation’s top safety official warned them to stay away or face legal consequences.
Meanwhile, the premiers of two Canadian provinces and 16 U.S. governors sent a letter to Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden calling on them to end their nations’ vaccine mandates for truckers crossing the border.
In some instances, fear of violence and a shortage of manpower were the reasons authorities have resisted the call to action against protestors in the country over the last weeks.
Many Ottawa residents are frustrated by the constant occupation. They complain of being bullied and intimidated in the city’s clogged streets. Peter Sloly, Ottawa Police Chief, was fired this week due to growing frustration.
As of Tuesday, Ottawa officials said 360 vehicles remained involved in the blockade in the city’s core, down from a high of roughly 4,000.
“They don’t want to give this up because this is their last stand, their last main hub,” said Michael Kempa, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa.
Ottawa’s Child Welfare Agency advised parents to make arrangements for their children to be taken care of in the case of a crackdown by the police. Some demonstrators had their children with them.
According to police officers in the capital, they were following the plan that the authorities used to end the blockade at Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit, Ontario and Windsor. There were leaflets distributed by police informing protesters they could be arrested.
Many of the demonstrators had left and police arrived to arrest those who were still there. This blockade disrupted goods flow between both countries, and caused the auto industry to close down production on both sides.
Stephanie Carvin, who once worked for Canada’s domestic intelligence service and teaches national security at Carleton University in Ottawa, said police in the capital face a tricky situation. According to her, some protesters may be extremists. If police try and disperse, or arrest them, they run the risk for violence.
“The last thing we want is any kind of propaganda that can really feed the flames of this movement for years to come,” Carvin said.
—Gillies reported out of Toronto. This report was contributed by Andrew Selsky, Oregon and Robert Bumsted, Ottawa, Associated Press.