Police in Ottawa say they have launched several criminal investigations – including into the desecration of national monuments – after thousands of demonstrators descended on the city this weekend to protest pandemic restrictions.
The protests, which shut down most of the downtown on Saturday and Sunday, are expected to continue Monday as Parliament resumes sitting. That prompted a warning from police, who urged residents to avoid downtown Monday, and for those who live downtown, to work from home if possible.
“Police have avoided ticketing and towing vehicles so as not to instigate confrontations with demonstrators. Still, confrontations and the need for de-escalation has regularly been required,” the police said in a statement issued late Sunday.
The country’s capital was in turmoil on the weekend, as truckers from across the country taking part in the protests snarled numerous roads with their rigs. Bus routes had to be redirected and the downtown Rideau Centre shopping mall was shut down. Many local businesses complained of harassment from rowdy protesters who refused to wear masks or follow COVID-19 guidelines.
Protesters were criticized for parking their vehicles on the National War Memorial and dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Canadians were also shocked by images on social media of the Terry Fox statue near Parliament Hill being draped with anti-vaccine-mandate signs and affixed with an upside-down Canadian flag.
The protest was originally intended to involve a convoy of truckers opposing the federal government’s decision to impose a vaccine mandate on cross-border drivers. But it has since expanded to demand an end to all pandemic measures. The Canadian Trucking Alliance has condemned the protest.
Canada Unity, the main group behind the truck convoy, said speeches would take place Monday at Confederation Park, just south of Parliament Hill.
Ottawa police said the force is working with organizers to facilitate a “safe departure” of people and vehicles. It estimates the cost of policing at more than $800,000 a day. The force said it has seen multiple cases of disruptive, inappropriate and threatening behaviour from demonstrators.
Some signs brandished on the weekend were laced with obscenities. A handful of protesters carried Confederate flags and Gadsden flags – depicting a rattlesnake with the words “Don’t tread on me” – both of which were brandished by rioters at the U.S. Capitol last year.
Shepherds of Good Hope, a downtown Ottawa shelter, said its staff and volunteers were verbally harassed when several protesters showed up at the soup kitchen on Saturday and demanded they be served. Some protesters were given food to defuse the situation, but going forward meals will only be given to those who need them, said Deirdre Freiheit, the shelter’s president.
“We felt compelled to correct disinformation on protest communication channels that we were ‘happy to feed the patriots.’ This was not the case,” she said in a statement.
The Liberals and the NDP raised concerns about the protest, while some Conservative MPs participated.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who attended the protest on Saturday, said in a statement later the same day that he didn’t know that a person “with whom I’m not associated” was flying a Canadian flag with a swastika drawn on it “some distance behind my back” as he did a television interview.
He said he condemns Nazism and said whoever flew the flag with the symbol “should be eternally ashamed,” adding that the person didn’t represent those who acted responsibly whom Mr. Cooper supported.
Shimon Koffler Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, condemned the incident. “Twenty-four hours after International Holocaust Remembrance Day and on the National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action against Islamophobia, there are Nazi flags being flown in public, in Canada, on Parliament Hill. This should be horrifying to all Canadians,” he said in a statement on Sunday.
On Saturday, Pierre Poilievre, a prominent Ottawa-area MP, posted a video of himself standing with protesters along a highway overpass. He said on Twitter that the truckers he met were “peaceful, kind and patriotic. I’ve not seen anyone dressed up in blackface or other racist costumes.”
The disruption to businesses was felt across Ottawa. Steve Ball, president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, said some hotels were overwhelmed, going from having fewer than 10 guests a night to, in some cases, hundreds of people who were ignoring public-health guidelines.
Mr. Ball said hotels decided to simply request that visitors wear masks and accept if guests refused to comply. Mask regulations were “impossible for the hotel staff to enforce,” he said, adding that police were too busy to respond to anything other than the most aggressive guests.
The Sparks Street Business Improvement Area, a business association, said unruly behaviour from maskless customers was the main reason why business owners decided to shut down on the weekend. Kevin McHale, executive director of the BIA, said the few that remained open were packed beyond capacity. “It was easier for the businesses to just not enforce guidelines on masking and capacity,” he said.
Across the country some demonstrations took place in support of the convoy. In B.C., there were several demonstrations Saturday, including gatherings in Vancouver and at the legislature in Victoria.
As of Sunday afternoon, a group of truckers with their rigs were blocking traffic in both directions near the Coutts, Alta., border crossing into the U.S. The gathering began Saturday, when the Alberta RCMP warned of traffic delays.
RCMP spokesperson Corporal Curtis Peters said the north and southbound lanes of Highway 4 were blocked and that police on both sides of the border were directing travellers to other routes. Police are concerned about public safety, saying a volunteer fire department in Coutts serves rural properties and communities on both sides of the border and depends on the highway to get to those locations.
No arrests have been made to date, but police are “exploring all avenues” to resolve the situation, Cpl. Peters said. “Just because charges aren’t laid right now does not mean that they could not be laid in the future.”
Marsh Duncanson, a commercial truck driver based in Alberta, spoke to The Globe and Mail from near Los Angeles, where he was scheduled to deliver a load of frozen French fries before heading back to Canada with a truck full of fresh produce. He regularly travels through the Coutts border crossing.
“I’ll be coming through that border crossing in a few days and I would like to get home with the produce I am bringing back and to see my family,” he said. Mr. Duncanson said he was vaccinated and does not support those who object to vaccine mandates.
Coutts Mayor Jim Willett said the blockade is affecting commercial traffic between Canada and the United States. “So what they’re doing is they’re going to be creating some more of those shortages that everyone was talking about,” Mr. Willett said.
With reports from Wendy Stueck in Vancouver and The Canadian Press
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