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Police hand out information sheets and speak to demonstrators as truckers and supporters continue to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates, in Ottawa on Feb. 16.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Protesters were ordered by police to leave Ottawa’s downtown core immediately or face consequences including arrest, vehicle seizure or having their licences revoked. But on the 20th day of demonstrations against pandemic restrictions, many say they have no intention of going anywhere.

In a flyer handed out to demonstrators on Wednesday, police said they needed to clear the area and that anyone blocking streets or assisting others in doing so would be committing a criminal offence.

“The people of Ottawa are being denied the lawful use, enjoyment and operation of their property and you are causing businesses to close,” the flyer said. “That is mischief under the Criminal Code.”

The notice also said charges and/or convictions could mean denial of entry to the United States.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the never-before-used Emergencies Act in response to blockades. The following day, Ottawa’s police chief resigned amid intense criticism from city councillors and residents over the service’s handling of the crisis.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino defended the sweeping emergency declaration on Wednesday, saying several protesters who blockaded the border in Alberta have ties to a far-right extremist organization with leaders in the country’s capital.

At a city-council meeting, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson urged protesters to leave as the presence of local police, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and RCMP grows stronger. Mr. Watson said it is his understanding that those who want to leave now will be allowed to do so, unless they have committed criminal acts.

“The window of opportunity for you to leave our city is closing,” he said. “If you leave now voluntarily, the odds of you being able to leave with your property are quite high.”

Ottawa pushes ahead with Emergencies Act as border protests end

Interim chief Steve Bell told council that officers are going truck to truck to advise demonstrators to leave the protest sites and facilitating the departure of anyone who wants to go. He said all police actions will be lawful and in line with the Charter.

“You will be hearing and seeing these actions in the coming days,” he said. “It will take time to do this right. Every step will be considered and methodical.”

He also said some of the techniques that officers are “lawfully able and prepared to use are not what we are used to seeing in Ottawa.” He said officers are prepared to use them and whatever means possible to bring about a safe outcome and restore order.

Many demonstrators were defiant in the face of the new notice from police on Wednesday. Some continued undeterred with their lunch-time pig roast over a spit beside parked trucks and food tents. Others left toilets out beside their trucks for protesters to dump the police flyers. Many have written the street address where they are parked on the outside of their truck, or installed a mailbox.

In front of the Parliament buildings on Wellington Street, truckers blocking the intersection blared their horns despite a court injunction and protesters continued dancing in the intersection. Further down the street, a shirtless man danced on top of a concrete barrier in front of a row of trucks, waving a sign that said, “hold the line” on one side and “stand up Canada” on the other.

The court injunction against protesters honking their horns was largely respected last week but has been ignored since the weekend. On Wednesday, horns were again blasted throughout the downtown. Ontario Superior Court Justice Hugh McLean on Wednesday extended a prohibition on truck and air horns for an additional 60 days that will last until mid-April.

Lloyd Crowe, a soybean farmer from Prince Edward County, said he doesn’t think the police have any legal reason to force his rig to leave downtown Ottawa. But the truck he has been sitting in for three weeks does not belong to him, and he said he would move under the threat of bank accounts being frozen.

“It’s my uncle’s truck and I promised if it came to freezing his bank account, I would comply,” he said. “But I will go back home and get one of my farm trucks and come back.”

On Wednesday, the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa also urged parents at the Ottawa demonstrations to make “alternate care arrangements” should they be unable to look after their children because of “potential police action.”

“If parents and children are separated following police efforts in ending the demonstration in the downtown core, [the society] will work to reunite families as soon as possible,” the statement said.

Despite police saying anyone coming to the capital to join the demonstration “is breaking the law,” Daniel Bulford, a former RCMP officer who resigned over the force’s vaccination mandate, insisted people are allowed to come to Ottawa with their children if they choose to engage in peaceful, lawful protest.

He said people are only restricted in coming to the capital with the intention to engage in violence, block critical infrastructure or disrupt trade. He also called the invocation of the Emergencies Act “an extreme and authoritarian measure.”

Mr. Trudeau said Wednesday that the government has given police forces more tools by invoking the act, but he underscored the ultimate enforcement decisions will be made by police.

Conservative Party interim leader Candice Bergen said her party will not back the government’s emergency declaration, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said New Democrats will support it.

Scot Wortley, a University of Toronto criminology professor, said there has been a change in the police approach to the Ottawa demonstration in recent days, with the establishment of the Integrated Command Centre on the weekend. The command centre brings together RCMP, OPP and the Ottawa Police Service to better co-ordinate a response to the protests.

OPP deputy commissioner Chris Harkins said Wednesday that provincial police, the RCMP and the Ottawa police will ensure there is a “peaceful resolution to this situation and bring relief to the residents of Ottawa.”

Given the unprecedented nature of the demonstration, Prof. Wortley said it’s hard to say how and when it will end. He said violence is a concern, as there are worries about protesters using big rigs and weapons that they may have in their vehicles in a potential police confrontation. He cited a Monday RCMP raid in in Coutts, Alta., where police seized a cache of weapons and arrested 13 people, four of whom were charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

Prof. Wortley said police will either need to clear the area around Parliament Hill before the Family Day long weekend and lock down the streets so demonstrators can’t come downtown again, or give the protesters “one last hurrah” this weekend and clear them out late Monday night after crowds clear.

Darryl Davies, a Carleton University criminologist, said mediation is needed after weeks of demonstrations in the capital city. He said the occupation has demonstrated the “complete ineffectiveness” of the Canadian political system to address protesters in a meaningful way that leads to conflict resolution.

With reports from Robert Fife, Janice Dickson and Joy SpearChief-Morris in Ottawa.

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