Ottawa’s police chief warned that demonstrations in the country’s capital demanding an end to pandemic restrictions remain volatile and that all options are being considered, including military involvement. However, there was a negotiated breakthrough at a southern Alberta border blockade where protesters have issued similar ultimatums.
Peter Sloly said the Ottawa police force is considering options ranging from a negotiated resolution to enforcement. But he warned that any option carries risks. Chief Sloly said there are only two occasions that he is aware of in the past 100 years – the Oka and FLQ crises – when the military was mixed in with police.
“It is not a decision to be taken lightly,” he said. “I’ll say it again as I said before, every option is being looked at. None of the options create a beautiful, elegant, simple safe solution. They all come with massive risks.”
Chief Sloly also 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 on Parliament Hill and surrounding streets. He also said more protesters are planning to come to the city by the weekend.
Protesters have dug in and appear unwilling to leave Ottawa’s downtown core any time soon. Chief Sloly said officers are grateful for the fact that there have been no riots, no injuries and no deaths to date. He said officers are arresting, charging and investigating “all bad actors, all criminals” and more charges would be laid.
In Alberta, demonstrators opposed to COVID-19 public-health measures who have used transport trucks, tractors and other vehicles to gridlock Highway 4 in the southern part of the province opened up one lane of traffic in each direction Wednesday afternoon. The border crossing at Coutts, located about a three-hour drive southeast of Calgary, is an important route for commercial exports, including cattle and meat products.
Lawyers for the truckers, farmers and other supporters gathered at Coutts noted that while the protesters cleared the way for traffic and trade, their demonstration is not over. They are demanding an end to all COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates and vaccine passports.
Martin Rejman, a lawyer working with the Coutts group, says the protesters made the concession after “backchannel” talks with MLAs and police, though he did not offer any specifics.
“We have been talking with the government,” he said in an interview inside Smugglers Saloon, a bar and grill on the edge of the highway that has served as the group’s home base. “There wasn’t a negotiation. They took the first step.”
Some protesters appeared to believe Alberta was on the verge of lifting its vaccine-passport system, and moved their vehicles in response. Nathan Neudorf, the United Conservative Party’s caucus chair, issued a statement saying there was no deal to lift public-health measures, but Alberta will lift restrictions “likely within days,” starting with the passport system.
Premier Jason Kenney last week said restrictions could be lifted by the end of March. On Tuesday, he shortened the timeline to the end of February. Rural UCP MLAs, long uneasy with the vaccine-passport system, met with Government House Leader Jason Nixon late Wednesday to discuss the issue.
Chad Williamson, another lawyer for the Coutts protesters, said the impasse eased because the parties recognize the harm in closing Alberta’s most important land border with the U.S.
“These people are not ignorant to the fact that not only have obviously the COVID restrictions affected them negatively, but this incident is impacting people on both sides of the border,” he said.
The RCMP watched the truckers and farmers clear lanes on the highway from a helicopter above and in police vehicles parked on the top of a hill in an adjacent field. Dozens of trucks, campers, tractors and other vehicles remain parked on the highway’s edge; the blockade could be resurrected in minutes.
A day earlier, Alberta’s Premier condemned the blockade and warned that it was damaging the province’s economy. Mr. Kenney also alleged that one of the protesters had assaulted an RCMP officer; a spokesman for the force said he was not aware of that happening.
In Ottawa, police said Tuesday that two people had been charged with criminal offences, while several active investigations were under way and that there was some progress in their examination of the desecration of the War Memorial. On Wednesday, police said a man from Quebec had been charged in “relation to threats and comments made on social media.”
Officers also said there had been a reduction in the number of demonstrators on Parliament Hill. However, dozens of big-rig trucks are parked on downtown streets.
“Our message to the citizens of Ottawa is one of empathy,” said Chris Barber, one of the convoy organizers. “We understand your frustration and genuinely wish there was another way for us to get our message across, but the responsibility for your inconvenience lies squarely on the shoulders of politicians who prefer to vilify and call us names rather than engage in respectful, serious dialogue.”
Ottawa’s Mayor Jim Watson, who has called for protesters to leave as soon as possible, said the organizers’ assertions that they have empathy for residents “ring hallow.”
Councillor Diane Deans, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, said the protests are not peaceful and many residents do not feel safe.
“I want to say that I am sorry for the living hell that you are enduring,” Ms. Deans said. “We live in the nation’s capital, home of our democracy. We expect protests and demonstrations but we don’t expect this.”
Demonstrators appear to be preparing for the long haul, such as with camper chairs positioned around a stove on a major downtown Ottawa street. They have also been handing out coffee and food. Road closings remain and the blaring sound of horns is constant from morning until night. Residents have said they feel as though they are being taken hostage in their own city.
Chief Sloly described a complex and dangerous situation, saying some of the people involved have expressed the intention to spark violence, and that officers are aware of the presence of a wide variety of weapons – including the trucks themselves.
Frank Straub, director of the centre for mass violence response studies at the National Police Foundation in the United States, said police in Canada face serious challenges dealing with the blockades, and that negotiation and de-escalation are critically important.
“Force just ramps it up. It creates the opportunity for injury on both sides, it exacerbates tension. It has, I think, longer-lasting consequences,” Dr. Straub said.
He noted that, “You can always escalate, but you can’t really de-escalate well once you’ve escalated.”
Police response in both the city of Ottawa and at the border in Coutts has come under criticism by some, who say police have been dealing more leniently with the current protesters than they have with other demonstrations in the past.
A statement released by the Chief and Council of Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta on Wednesday said, “If the blockade in Coutts consisted of Indigenous people, there would have been arrests and charges laid; instead, the Coutts blockade is being allowed to continue, even though it has at times become violent.”
But Dr. Straub, a veteran officer and former police chief, said police agencies around the world are learning from other situations – including police response to large protests in the United States – and seeing “what went right, and what went wrong,” and continuing to adapt their responses.
“People ask this question in the States as well. Why might the responses look differently? And I think they look differently because we continue to learn,” he said.
With reports from Jeff Gray in Toronto and Kelly Cryderman in Calgary
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