In one of the largest law-enforcement operations in Canadian history, police from across the country launched a massive sweep through downtown Ottawa Friday, arresting protesters and removing some of the trucks that have disrupted the capital for three weeks.
The crackdown began in the morning and was supported by armoured tactical vehicles, riot police, mounted police and dog teams, as hundreds of officers advanced on protesters opposed to pandemic restrictions who have blockaded the streets around Parliament Hill since late January.
Some of the organizers of the protests were rounded up and arrested late Thursday and Friday and face criminal charges including mischief. More than 100 protesters have been arrested so far.
Special obstacle-removal teams dealt with truckers who refused to leave their rigs. Tow trucks, with police escorts, moved in to remove vehicles after drivers had been arrested. A security perimeter has been set up around most of downtown Ottawa, and almost 100 checkpoints are in place, with officers stopping vehicles and only granting access to people who live and work in the area.
“We are in control of the situation on the ground and continue to push forward to clear our streets,” said Ottawa Police interim chief Steve Bell at an afternoon news conference. “We will run this operation 24 hours a day until the residents and community have their entire city back.”
On Friday evening, police reported an escalation in how some protesters were responding to their advance along the blockade. “Protesters are assaulting officers,” police said on social media, adding that they have tried to remove officers’ weapons. “All means of de-escalation have been used to move forward in our goal of returning Ottawa to its normalcy.”
As the police, some heavily armed and equipped with gas canisters and pepper spray, moved from the outer edge of the blockades to Parliament Hill, defiant protesters shouted, “Hold the line!” and “Freedom!” and blasted their horns.
“Stab me, shoot me, I am staying,” said 38-year-old Zac Elliott, who said he has been at the protest for six days. “This is like the royal rumble, the last man standing, nobody is leaving.”
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However, many truckers who had parked their rigs on Parliament Hill left before they were arrested.
Peter Ravensbergen, who has parked two trucks along Wellington St. since the first weekend of the protests in January, said he decided on Friday to move his trucks out. “A very, very sad decision, but they had to come out because we have another company that we have to keep running.”
Mr. Ravensbergen, whose family runs a flower farm in southwestern Ontario said he and his family, including kids, would stay at the protests throughout the weekend.
Police were given sweeping powers to clear the streets after the federal government invoked the never-before-used Emergencies Act, which includes measures such as freezing of bank accounts, removal of vehicle insurance and banning protests near Parliament Hill and border crossings. The measures require tow-truck drivers, who had been afraid of reprisals, to assist the police.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed sadness at the underlying anger of the demonstrations that have seen blockades at Canada-U.S. border crossings and the virtual shutdown of downtown Ottawa.
“This is a day of real sorrow but also determination. Sorrow because it is painful that this is happening in Canada … that our body politic is violated by an illegal occupation of our capital and by blockades of essential trade corridors,” she told reporters.
“Our government is very, very determined to keep our country together and bring our country together.”
Some Conservative MPs who have been supportive of the protests in Ottawa condemned the police action on Friday. Ontario MP Dean Allison called it “authoritarian, military style measures carried out against peaceful protesters on the orders of Justin Trudeau.”
“What’s worse, it’s all being cheered on by the Ottawa and Toronto journalist class. Absolutely sickening.”
Alberta MP Michael Cooper also decried the police action and the sweeping federal emergency measures.
“Crushing peaceful protesters with the full force of the state,” Mr. Cooper said in a statement. “Welcome to Justin Trudeau’s Canada.”
The Globe and Mail
On Friday, House Speaker Anthony Rota cancelled the House sitting, where MPs were to debate the federal emergency declaration, citing the expected police operation. Government House Leader Mark Holland said the decision was made with agreement from all parties and based on advice from security officials. The Senate has also cancelled its sitting and told senators not to come downtown.
Mr. Holland told a news conference held by several federal ministers that the Commons will resume sitting Saturday to debate the emergency measures. The vote scheduled for Monday will be held later in the week to allow all MPs the opportunity to speak.
“We have given the tools to police they need. They are using them,” Justice Minister David Lametti said, but stressed the government has no intention of extending the state of emergency.
The protests have captured international media attention and gained support from several U.S. Republican senators, former U.S. president Donald Trump and even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran.
The world has seen images of protesters partying on Parliament Hill where they set up food tents, a hot tub, a bouncy castle and stage where musicians have performed. Truckers have blasted their horns at all hours, disturbing the lives of residents and forcing businesses downtown to close. Residents say they have been bullied by some demonstrators and police are investigating a suspected arson incident at an apartment building where people had complained to protesters about excessive noise.
The insufficient police action throughout the demonstrations led to the resignation of Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly. After his exit, city councillor Diane Deans was removed as chair of the city’s police services board. Frustrated Ottawa residents took to the street last weekend to block trucks from coming into the downtown core.
Protest organizers and leaders had been encouraging protesters to stay and calling for more to join them. But by Friday, four key figures who helped to start the convoys across the country, and who have been rallying the protesters in Ottawa for 22 days now, were under arrest and charged. On Friday, Pat King and Daniel Bulford were arrested, after the arrests of Tamara Lich and Chris Barber on Thursday night.
The Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa issued a statement Friday morning saying it is working closely with police to ensure the safety and well-being of children in the blockade.
“I can tell you to this point that we have had no need to interact with Children’s Aid as it relates to children within the crowd,” interim chief Bell said. “But it still shocks and surprises me that we are seeing children being put in harm’s way in the middle of a demonstration where a police operation is unfolding.”
Even as the operation advanced, some parents were skeptical their children would be removed.
Daniel Beauregard from Quebec has been living in a trailer in front of Parliament Hill with his wife and two young children, aged 3 and 11 months.
“They are always trying to scare us with a different tactic every day,” he said, adding that he had no intention of leaving.
“No, my kids have everything they need. They have showers every day. It’s just camping,” he said, while his daughter played in a snow bank.
Many protesters said police have been friendly and supportive for the past three weeks and did not believe that would change. On Wellington Street early Friday, protesters stood outside their trucks, shovelling snow. Zach and Stephanie Rouse from Fort Erie, Ont., remained defiant despite warnings from police – even after officers began arresting demonstrators.
Each protester was searched before being put in vehicles, with four officers for every person arrested. At least one canine unit was also on scene, and a drone buzzed overhead as the arrests were carried out. Coach buses were used to transport the large numbers of police officers, and many others were in vans and trucks.
Police have been warning protesters since Wednesday to leave or face arrest, charges and possible seizure of vehicles. Many demonstrators say they believe they are not breaking any laws and are legally protesting.
With reports from Kristy Kirkup, Colin Freeze, and Ian Bailey.
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