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Children stand in a crowd, as truckers and supporters continue to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates, in Ottawa on Feb. 18.LARS HAGBERG/Reuters

Ottawa police say convoy demonstrators have put children between a massive law enforcement operation and the protest site that has occupied the downtown core for three weeks.

Families with children could be seen among the protesters Friday, as a line of hundreds of police officers, backed by armoured tactical vehicles, advanced on demonstrators blockading streets around Parliament Hill. Speaking at a press conference Friday, interim police chief Steve Bell said the force has plans to ensure children are not harmed in the operation, adding that he is shocked and surprised to see children put in the middle of it.

“We will continue to look after their safety and security, but we implore all the parents who have kids in there – get the kids out of there. They do not need to be in the middle of this. It is not a safe place for them,” he said.

Children have been a fixture at the demonstrations, jumping on bouncy castles inside the protest zone and playing in the streets. Ottawa police have publicly expressed concern about children living in trucks downtown, where they face frigid temperatures, loud air horns and diesel fumes.

Children’s Aid to assess sanitation, safety of kids living in trucks involved in Ottawa protest

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In a statement Friday, the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa (CASO) said no children or youth had been transferred to its care.

“CASO has teams on standby in the event that a child/children are either at imminent risk or become separated from their parent during police action. CASO’s goal is to reunite families where it is safe to do so, as quickly as possible,” it said.

At the corner of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive, one woman, accompanied by two children on foot, tried to push a stroller with a child in it through lines of police. She was turned away by officers. She declined to give her name to The Globe but, in French, said that she was with the convoy.

Peter Ravensbergen was in the crowd with his family on Friday, but they weren’t near the police line. Mr. Ravensbergen, whose family runs a flower farm in southwestern Ontario, brought two of his sons with him to Ottawa for the first weekend of the protests. Now back for the long weekend, he brought more of his children, ranging in age from 10 to 16. The family is staying in a nearby hotel and plans to be there all weekend.

“I brought my kids here so they can see what’s actually going on. That this is supposed to be a free country and we’re not being treated like it is,” he said, when asked how he responds to police asking parents to take their children out of the area.

Tara Collins, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Child and Youth Care, said she is worried about whether the children in the demonstrations are receiving basic care.

“What about the quality of sleep? What about their right to education? What about their right to protection? What kind of ear damage have they had? Have they had enough food? Have they had adequate sanitation?” she said.

  • Police officers form a line as they push back protestors.COLE BURSTON/The Canadian Press

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Grant Wilson, president of the Canadian Children’s Rights Council, wrote to the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa on Friday, urging it to ask for emergency funding from the federal and provincial governments to take children caught up in the demonstrations into its care. He said that in the case of a parent being detained, efforts should be made to ensure the child can stay with their parent, separate from others, in order to minimize potential trauma.

Canada is a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children.

Bringing a child to to an illegal protest is not in their best interest, said Christina Clark-Kazak, an associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa who has been studying child rights for more than 20 years. She called the protests in Ottawa one of the most blatant abuses of adult power she has ever seen, as parents are using their own children as “human shields.”

“Children seem to be instrumentalized in this context. Children are not the property of their parents or other adults. They are human beings with human rights,” Prof. Clark-Kazak said.

“I think there was a deliberate attempt by some in the convoy to use children as a way to reduce the ability of the police to act effectively.”

With files from Marieke Walsh and the Canadian Press

The massive police operation in Ottawa to clear the trucker protest continued on Friday afternoon, with 70 arrests and vehicles being towed that had been part of the blockade near Parliament. Interim police chief Steve Bell told a news conference that the police will operate 24/7 to clear the protest.

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