OTTAWA — After weeks of protests that have paralyzed parts of Canada and captured global attention, police forces mobilized Thursday in and around Ottawa, the site of the last major blockade, warning that a crackdown was “imminent.” and threatening protesters with a range of legal sanctions. penalties.
Tension has been building throughout the day as authorities issued a series of warnings, saying that once they set out to clear the streets of the capital, protesters are at risk of arrest , seized of their vehicles, lost any pets in their trucks and cars, revocation of their driver’s license, fines — and up to five years in prison if they bring children to an illegal demonstration.
“We have strengthened our resources, developed clear plans and are preparing to take action. Action is imminent,” Acting Ottawa Police Chief Steve Bell said at an afternoon news conference. He said police had created a perimeter of around 100 checkpoints to prevent any newcomers from joining protests in the city center around Parliament Hill.
After declaring downtown a secure area closed to outsiders, police also closed all exits leading downtown on the Trans-Canada Highway, which is Ottawa’s highway. On Thursday evening, there was a widespread traffic jam in several downtown areas.
On Parliament Hill, the driving rain that had inundated Ottawa for much of the day turned to snow, and defiant protesters remained in the streets, some of them dancing. A group of protesters followed a camera crew shouting, “Are you proud of what you do?
Just after 8 p.m., a yellow Volvo tractor-trailer voluntarily left Confederation Square — which surrounds the National War Memorial — after police approached the driver. As the trucker opened his door for the last time before driving off, protesters shouted messages of gratitude to him while berating the officers.
Protesters said they received text alerts with the location of officers who confronted the driver in an attempt to intervene. It was the second truck in the region to leave on Thursday.
On Wellington Street, one of the heavily trucked streets, few police were visible, despite repeated warnings from officials throughout the day.
The protests, organized by members of far-right groups, first seized on opposition to a mandate that truck drivers must be vaccinated against Covid-19 if crossing the border from the United States, and organized convoys that blocked border crossings, highways and some towns. streets. But largely peaceful civil disobedience has become a small but powerful outlet for broader frustration and anger at pandemic restrictions in general and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.
Organizers on Wednesday issued calls for more truckers and supporters to flood Ottawa, making the blockade too big for police to disperse. But the number of protesters’ vehicles on the streets has dwindled in recent days – although it has remained in the hundreds – as it became clear that official patience was running out.
Weather forecasts called for heavy snowfall overnight and temperatures well below zero on Friday – conditions that could make heavy truck traffic very difficult. The dire police warnings and deteriorating conditions fueled expectations on the street that police would intervene Thursday evening or early Friday, although it was unclear what resistance they would encounter.
While the convoy protests seemed to be coming to an end, at least temporarily, it remained to be seen what lasting effect they might have on the usually restricted arena of Canadian politics.
After Trudeau’s declaration of a nationwide state of emergency under the Emergencies Act on Monday gave police increased powers, law enforcement officials clearly hoped that days Growing warnings would disperse protesters without the use of force — especially truckers who would face financial ruin with the loss of their expensive vehicles and driver’s licenses, as well as jail time.
But many protesters remained defiant. Surrounded by five of his eight children, Daryl Sheppard, a teacher from North Bay, Ont., 220 miles northwest of Ottawa, walked through the protest Thursday holding an anti-vaccination sign. Mr. Sheppard, 41, said he and his children would stay in Ottawa no matter what the police ordered.
“I’m not really concerned with laws that infringe on my rights as a citizen, my right to testify,” he said – a view echoed in one form or another by many of his comrades.
Protesters say organizers have ordered them that if the police come to uproot them, they must lock themselves in their vehicles and refuse to cooperate. But those blocking border crossings dispersed widely when police intervened, and there were few arrests.
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Officials – and many ordinary Canadians – have insisted that it is the protesters who are infringing on the rights of others, obstructing commerce and clogging the streets. Border blockades have forced some automakers’ factories to shut down or slow production, sending workers home.
“We don’t use the Emergencies Act to call in the military,” Trudeau told parliament on Thursday. “We don’t limit people’s freedom of expression. We do not limit freedom of peaceful assembly.
But, he added, “blockades and occupations are illegal” and threaten the economy “and the availability of essential goods like food and medicine.”
On Thursday, lawyers for a group of Ottawa residents expanded on a lawsuit they filed, seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from protesters, organizers and those who supported them financially.
Along with checkpoints in Ottawa, police erected barriers around the Parliament Building. On the outskirts of town, officers gathered in large numbers at various locations, including several hotels. In addition to the Ottawa Police, the mobilization included the Ontario Provincial Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the national force, although it is unclear how many officers had mustered for a push to eliminate the protesters.
Trudeau and other officials have been criticized for not acting faster and more forcefully against protests, but the Canadian government and law enforcement have long taken a patient approach to peaceful protests. The Prime Minister frequently notes that he has no direct control over the application of the law, and his declaration of emergency was the first such decision taken by a government in more than 50 years.
Sarah Maslin Nir and Ian Austen reported from Ottawa, Richard Perez-Pena of New York and Vjosa Isai of Toronto. Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting from Ottawa, Dan Bilefsky of Montreal, and Allison Hannaford of North Bay, Ontario.