It took three weeks of chaos in the capital and an unprecedented use of the federal Emergencies Act, but on the Family Day long weekend, authorities cleared downtown Ottawa of antigovernment protesters and arrested the organizers. It was only after this massive police operation that the House of Commons gave Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approval for the emergency powers, which he rescinded less than 48 hours later, saying the situation in the capital was “no longer an emergency.” Eventually, his government and others will have to justify the steps they took, or didn’t take, to reach that point. For now, here’s an overview of what happened.
What were the Ottawa protests about? An overview
Why did protesters come to Ottawa?
In late January, a truck convoy’s arrival in downtown Ottawa was the beginning of what would become a more widespread and well-organized campaign against not just vaccine mandates, but the authority of Canada’s elected governments. Their initial manifesto demanded the Governor-General and Senate overrule COVID-19 restrictions across Canada, which would amount to a coup. Some organizers retracted that document as the protests became more well-entrenched in the capital. Groups with an array of disparate causes claim to be involved in the Ottawa convoys, and some demonstrations attracted people from the racist far right, who mixed anti-mandate slogans with swastikas and antisemitic signs.
Who were the Ottawa protests’ leaders?
There is a loose coalition of groups claiming to be involved in the protests, chief among them Canada Unity, which started out as a pro-pipeline movement in 2019 before shifting focus to vaccine mandates. Some of the protesters’ key public faces include:
- Tamara Lich: Ex-member of Alberta’s pro-separatist Maverick Party who was allegedly involved in 2019′s United We Roll protests, which supported Canada’s oil-and-gas sector but also attracted anti-immigration groups. Police in Ottawa arrested her on Feb. 17 and charged her with counselling to commit mischief.
- Benjamin Dichter: Cryptocurrency evangelist and podcaster who, in 2018, spoke to the People’s Party of Canada denouncing “political Islam” and claiming, without evidence, that Muslim fronts were infiltrating Canadian institutions.
- Chris Barber: Trucker from Saskatchewan who’s attracted a following denouncing the “liberal left” on TikTok. After his arrest on Feb. 17, police said he was charged with counselling to commit mischief, counselling to disobey a court order and counselling to obstruct police.
- Pat King: A conservative TikTok personality from Alberta who took part in United We Roll, and mobilized his followers at the Ottawa blockades up until Feb. 18, when he livestreamed his own arrest. He is charged with mischief, counselling to commit the offence of disobeying a court order and counselling to obstruct police.
- Tom Marazzo, Daniel Bulford and Tom Quiggin: A former soldier, Mountie and federal intelligence analyst, respectively, who said they were acting for the convoy as security advisers or liaisons with police. Mr. Bulford turned himself in for arrest, according to a spokesperson for the convoy.
What is the Emergencies Act?
When copycat versions of the Ottawa protests began to target Canada’s border crossings (more on that below), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began to look at tougher methods to end the disruptions. On Feb. 14 he invoked the Emergencies Act, a never-before-used law allowing broader, but temporary, powers to keep order. These included:
More police authority
- Police got new powers to stop protests at critical infrastructure and designated areas such as Parliament Hill and national monuments, and to stop people from going to those places.
- Different levels of police got more freedom to enforce bylaws and issue fines.
- Police were authorized to compel tow-truck owners, who had previously been reluctant to tackle the Ottawa blockade, to do their jobs for just compensation.
More power to financial institutions
- Banks and anti-money-laundering authorities could freeze personal and business accounts suspected of financing the protests, and they didn’t need court orders to do so.
- Financial institutions and law enforcement could share more information about suspects.
- Crowdfunding sites and online payment providers had to register with FINTRAC, the federal financial intelligence service.
The measures took effect immediately, but the House of Commons still had to vote to approve them, which they did on Feb. 21 with the Liberals and NDP in favour, and the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois against. The government could have kept the measures in place until mid-March before having to renew them again, but Mr. Trudeau dropped them on Feb. 23, saying the emergency had passed.
How the Ottawa blockade was cleared
Feb. 17-18: Setting up a ‘secured area’
Ahead of the long weekend, police set up a perimeter of almost 100 checkpoints spanning from Bronson Avenue to the Rideau Canal and Wellington Street to Highway 417. Access was restricted to those who lived or worked in the area – which includes a large residential neighbourhood, Centretown – or others who could show legitimate reasons for being there. Once the area was closed to new protesters coming in, police could begin to clear the ones still entrenched on Wellington Street and its environs.
THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREET-
MAP CONTRIBUTORS; ottawa police service
THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREET-
MAP CONTRIBUTORS; ottawa police service
THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; ottawa police service
Feb. 18-21: The big push west
The first arrests came on the morning of Feb. 18 at secondary blockade sites near the Rideau Centre mall and University of Ottawa campuses. Lines of police, some heavily armed and equipped with gas canisters and pepper spray, then moved east from Sussex Drive into Wellington, where defiant protesters shouted “hold the line!” and “freedom!” and blasted their horns. By midday on Feb. 19, a large area of Wellington from Parliament Hill to the Supreme Court of Canada was empty after truckers left to avoid being arrested and losing their rigs.
Feb. 20: Confrontation on Coventry Road
The protesters’ main base outside the downtown core was at a parking lot on Coventry Road, in the east-end neighbourhood of Overbrook, which the antigovernment groups have been using as a camp site and supply area. Police turned their attention to this site on Feb. 20; after the people there were warned to leave, officers and tow trucks came to clear them out, meeting with little resistance.
Here’s the state of play at Coventry Road just before 6 p.m. From what I saw there was virtually no resistance from the protesters who stayed until the end. They left their vehicles and either went to the sidewalk or were arrested. #cdnpoli #convoy #ottawa pic.twitter.com/Sa4VE0ZJsr— Marieke Walsh (@MariekeWalsh) February 20, 2022
Feb. 20-21: The rural regrouping
Some protesters took their vehicles and belongings to new sites on private property in Vankleek Hill, Ont., about an hour’s drive east of Ottawa, where they said they planned to continue their activities in some form or another. Other staging sites grew in Embrun, southwest of the capital, and Arnprior to the west. In the weekend’s House debate about the Emergencies Act, Mr. Trudeau said these encampments, and the risk of their occupants coming back, were a reason to keep the special powers in place for a while longer. When he rescinded the Emergencies Act powers on Feb. 23, he said the risk of a return still existed but the government was “confident that existing laws and bylaws are now sufficient to keep people safe.”
How the border blockades were cleared
Hundreds of millions of dollars in Canada-U.S. trade were at stake when protesters started to target the border, which was one of the reasons Mr. Trudeau gave for using the Emergencies Act. All border crossings are now clear, but the arrests made there have raised disturbing questions about the role of far-right groups and their willingness to use armed violence. Here’s an overview.
Traffic reopened on Feb. 13 on the Ambassador Bridge after a six-day standoff between police and protesters who had blockaded it with trucks in Windsor, Ont., demanding an end to COVID-19 mandates. Police still recommend against non-essential travel across the bridge between Windsor and Detroit, which usually carries about $450-million in goods a day, a quarter of Canada’s trade with the United States.
From Jan. 29 to Feb. 15, protesters with trucks and tractors were in a tense standoff with RCMP at a Southern Alberta village north of Montana. It stranded cross-border truckers and travellers and cut off Coutts from many essential goods and medical services. The Mounties have charged 13 people they allege were part of a small but heavily armed faction willing to attack police; officers seized guns, ammunition, body armour and a machete from the suspects. The last protesters cleared out on Feb. 15 from the village and the Smugglers Saloon, a restaurant they were using as a headquarters.
On Feb. 10, protesters with semi trucks and farm equipment began blocking a border road near Emerson, a Red River community north of the North Dakota-Minnesota state line. At its height, RCMP estimated that 75 vehicles were involved; 20 to 30 vehicles remained on Feb. 16 when the protesters cleared out, with assurances that they would not be arrested if they left peacefully.
The Pacific Highway crossing in Surrey, B.C., closed on Feb. 12 when convoy protesters broke through police barricades and obstructed the road. Mounties cleared the border crossing itself on Feb. 14, then the highway leading to it the day after. Police said several people were charged with mischief and they were monitoring the flow of traffic into Washington state.
What happens after this is over?
Even when downtown Ottawa returns to a semblance of normal – and no one is quite sure when that will be – all levels of government will face hard questions about why this went on for so long, why police didn’t arrest or ticket protesters earlier and whether Mr. Trudeau had sufficient reason to use emergency powers. Here’s how some of that could play out.
- Federal: Under the Emergencies Act, the government has to launch an inquiry into why it declared the emergency. It must be called within 60 days of the end of the emergency period, with a report to the House within a year.
- Provincial: Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who declared a provincial state of emergency in response to the Windsor blockades, is headed for a scheduled election on June 2. His response to COVID-19 generally, and the anti-restrictions protests specifically, are likely to be key campaign issues.
- Municipal: The protests have thrown Ottawa’s city council, and the police force it oversees, into unprecedented disarray just months before local elections on Oct. 24. Potential candidates to replace Mayor Jim Watson, who is not running again, so far include Diane Deans, who Mr. Watson and his supporters ousted as police board chair on Feb. 16; Catherine McKenney, a Centretown councillor who’s become a public face of the neighbourhood’s anger at the protests; and Bob Chiarelli, a former Ottawa mayor and Ontario cabinet minister.
- Municipal and federal: Wellington Street will stay closed to vehicles until the new mayor and councillors are elected. One of their jobs will be to hash out with the federal government whether to make the street traffic-free permanently. “We do not want, in the short term or long term, another caravan coming and invading this very important space that I consider the most important street in the country,” Mr. Watson told council on Feb. 23.
Convoy protests in Ottawa: More from The Globe and Mail
To quiet the truck horns in her downtown Ottawa neighbourhood, Zexi Li became the public face of a lawsuit that won an important court injunction. She shared her story with The Decibel. Subscribe for more episodes.
On the Emergencies Act
On following the money
On Canadian extremism
With reports from Janice Dickson, Kristy Kirkup, Marieke Walsh, Colin Freeze, Eric Atkins, Carrie Tait, Jana G. Pruden, Evan Annett and The Canadian Press
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.