Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says sending the military into the streets of Ottawa to help resolve demonstrations against pandemic restrictions is “not in the cards” as police grapple with how to end the intractable protests.
Mr. Trudeau said so far there have not been any official requests for military aid but that the federal government would look at appeals that come from the city or province. The protests have caused significant disruption in Ottawa for the past week, and now cities around the country are bracing for the arrival of demonstrators on their streets.
“One has to be very, very cautious before deploying military in situations engaging Canadians. It is not something that anyone should enter in lightly, but as of now, there have been no requests and that is not in the cards right now,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters during a virtual press conference Thursday.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said late Thursday that the RCMP has approved additional officers requested by the city of Ottawa who will assist the local police. He did not specify how many officers were requested.
Thousands of demonstrators descended on Parliament Hill and surrounding streets last weekend, with trucks and cars honking their horns and protesters shouting “freedom.”
Big-rig trucks have blocked major intersections and the protests have forced many downtown businesses to close. Police estimate that between 8,000 and 15,000 protesters were downtown on Saturday. That number has been drastically reduced to hundreds but police are expecting more people to arrive this weekend.
Mr. Trudeau on Thursday also made it clear that there will be no changes to federally regulated vaccine requirements, and that he will not be negotiating with protesters. He said in the past election that Canadians voted for parties “that were supporting those mandates.”
“So having a group of people who disagree with the outcome of an election, who want to go a different way and bring in an alternative government is a non-starter in a responsible democracy.” He said protesters have been harassing people who wear masks and displaying hateful symbols of genocide and racism, calling it “absolutely unacceptable.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford is not considering a request for military assistance to deal with the Ottawa protests, spokesperson Ivana Yelich said. She pointed to Defence Minister Anita Anand’s statement Thursday on Twitter saying the army is “not a police force” and that the Premier has no plans to get involved.
In Toronto, a convoy of transport trucks is expected to arrive at Queen’s Park this weekend. Mayor John Tory said in a statement that he cannot direct police enforcement, but that he has “made it clear to Chief James Ramer that we must do everything we can to avoid the type of situation currently faced by Ottawa residents and businesses.”
Mount Sinai Hospital in the city’s downtown e-mailed patients on Thursday saying that in an effort to keep patients safe, it is moving all appointments online from Friday until end of day Monday. Hospital workers in the city were reportedly warned against wearing clothing that identifies them as working in health care.
In Quebec City, officials were reinforcing security measures around the legislature in anticipation of the arrival of vehicles and demonstrators.
In Alberta, the state of the protest in Coutts is in flux. Dozens of vehicles on Thursday remained on Highway 4, just north of Alberta’s most important border crossing with the United States. A secondary protest popped up Wednesday evening at the police barricade, 14 kilometres north of the original demonstration site. By Thursday afternoon, about 200 vehicles had assembled there. Protesters are letting commercial vehicles through both protest sites, giving people access to the border, according to the RCMP.
Meanwhile, other convoys in Alberta were on the move. A southbound parade of semis and passenger vehicles stretched for kilometres on Highway 2 Thursday afternoon. A small cluster of vehicles and tractors travelled on Highway 3, between Lethbridge and Fort Macleod. It was led by tractors with banners declaring mainstream media the “enemy.” By mid-afternoon, a small convoy – again led by tractors – was rolling down the south end of the Deerfoot Trail, one of Calgary’s main arteries.
In Ottawa, the protests entered their seventh day with demonstrators demanding an end to pandemic restrictions and refusing to leave until those demands are met. Trucks line streets, blaring horns and blocking intersections. Residents say they feel as though they have been taken hostage in their own city.
Protesters started building a wooden structure in Confederation Park, and had been storing fuel there Thursday afternoon. The park is across from City Hall, and along the Rideau Canal.
A spokesperson for the National Capital Commission, which manages federal land, said NCC is aware of the situation and is working with Ottawa Police and Ottawa Fire Service “to seek assistance on securing the site.” Valérie Dufour said later that after “we worked to assure the removal of propane and diesel canisters earlier today, more canisters were brought to the site later this afternoon.”
She said they have notified Ottawa Police and are seeking their assistance in removing the canisters again.
Tamara Lich, who created the GoFundMe fundraising campaign that has raised more than $10-million, said Thursday at a news conference that COVID-19 mandates have been divisive. The GoFundMe account is currently on pause and under review by the company.
Ms. Lich, from Alberta, is an original member of the Maverick Party’s governing council. The party is focused on the independence of Western Canada. She said she intends to stay in Ottawa, as do many other protesters, until all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
“Our movement has grown in Canada and across the world because common people are tired of the mandates and restrictions in their own lives,” said Ms. Lich.
She said protesters are calling on all levels of government to lift mandates and restrictions and that demonstrations will continue until they see a detailed plan for their elimination. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has shown leadership in his province on this, she said.
Ms. Lich said no one from federal, provincial or municipal governments has spoken directly with them and instead have portrayed demonstrators as “racists, misogynists, and even terrorists.”
On the weekend, some protesters held signs with swastikas, Confederate flags and other hate symbols. Demonstrators danced on the National War Memorial, harassed staff and volunteers at a homeless shelter, and wandered unmasked through the few businesses that stayed open.
On Wednesday, Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said his service is aware of a significant element from the United States that has been involved in the funding, organization and demonstrating taking place downtown.
Phil Green, the owner of a gym in downtown Ottawa, said he opened his doors this week like other businesses after the lifting of provincially mandated closings because of COVID-19. He said he does not have the option to stay closed because he has bills to pay.
Some businesses decided not to open, he said. He noted that in a retail store, anyone can walk in, creating the potential for crowds and harassment over mask wearing.
“Luckily, we don’t really have to deal with that,” Mr. Green said. “We can pretty much keep our doors locked at all times.”
He said his main concern has been the safety of his staff and gym members. Some have been comfortable coming in and others have not, he said.
With reports from Jeff Gray and The Canadian Press
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