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Protesters dance and embrace as a song plays over the speakers, during an ongoing protest against COVID-19 measures that has grown into a broader anti-government protest, in Ottawa, on Feb. 17.Justin Tang/The Associated Press

Police were saying action is imminent, but many of the truckers didn’t believe it. The Emergencies Act, the written warnings from police to leave or face arrest, the government’s warning that bank accounts will be frozen – those are, to a number of the drivers parked on Ottawa streets, just blank threats.

That’s one of the things that is most jarring about the standoff on Wellington St., even as the Emergencies Act was invoked. Many of the truckers didn’t believe it was true. And they didn’t entertain the notion that the protest could end badly.

Inside the House of Commons, MPs were debating whether the government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act on Monday was justified, or whether the emergency orders are too draconian. Outside, some of the truckers insisted none of it is real.

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There are certainly protesters and organizers who think conflict with the cops is coming, and some vow to dig in and stuck around no matter what. On Thursday morning, there were rounds of horn-honking in response to false alarms of a crackdown. Some of the hard-core protesters seem to alternate between warning others a crackdown is coming and insisting the government can’t really do anything.

But there are also fairly widespread assertions by truckers that the Emergencies Act doesn’t count, or that police could not arrest or charge them, or enter their trucks, or apply threatened measures like suspending licences or freezing bank accounts.

Many of the trucks parked in the middle of Wellington St. had makeshift legal notices posted in their windows, sometimes next to a copy of the 1960 Bill of Rights passed by John Diefenbaker’s government, supposedly advising police and other authorities that the truck is private property, and that they – the police – will face legal action if they enter.

Martin Lacoste, a big-rig driver from Marieville, Que., said that the general conclusion on the truckers’ online grapevine is that the Emergencies Act isn’t really in effect yet.

“We think it is not 100 per cent in force. People ask if it is really in force – we think no,” he said, as he poured diesel from a jerry can into his truck. “We think it has to be passed by the Senate to be in force.”

That is not true, it must be noted. The Emergencies Act orders are in effect. The use of the act has to be confirmed by the Commons and Senate or those orders will be revoked, but unless and until that happens, the truckers are subject to arrest or potentially seeing their bank accounts frozen.

Mr. Lacoste said he might think about leaving if he really thought he’d face a $100,000 fine, but he doesn’t believe he will. But he said he doesn’t worry he could go to jail. Others have been arrested but quickly released, he said.

That has become a hallmark of this protest now. It’s odd enough that a truck driver would think they could park in the middle of a street without breaking the law, but it’s stranger still that people such as Mr. Lacoste can’t believe the police might clear them off the streets.

Even as he was saying it, Ottawa’s interim police chief, Steve Bell, was in a press conference announcing that the police were setting up checkpoints to make downtown a no-go zone – using special Emergencies Act powers. The police were moving into the area in numbers.

Ottawa residents have, for the most part, seen truckers blocking the downtown core not as protests but as an occupation, citing not just horn-honking but harassment and forced business closures – while police did nothing.

Ottawa Centre Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi, debating the use of the Emergencies Act in the Commons, asked Conservatives how they’d like it “if this kind of occupation was happening in their neighbourhoods, in their ridings, four weeks in a row.”

There is still debate to come on whether the Emergencies Act was necessary, but right now the argument effectively being used to justify it – and a still pretty weak one – is that, without it, nothing was being done for weeks. And something must be done now. There isn’t much doubt that, as NDP MP Charlie Angus said in debate, this is a failure of government leadership and police inaction.

“We should never have been at this moment where we are looking like a failed state,” he said.

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