Ottawa protest leaders arrested as police ready to ‘take action’
Police descend on capital’s city centre after parliament debates use of emergency powers.
Police in the Canadian capital have arrested two leaders of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” that has occupied the city for nearly three weeks, as they prepare to “take action” to end the protesters.
Police on Thursday ramped up their presence in the area, where approximately 400 vehicles are still involved in what Ottawa residents and political leaders have described as an “occupation” and “siege“. They have told protesters to leave the area or face possible arrest and criminal charges.
On its Twitter account, the convoy said Tamara Lich, one of its leaders, had been arrested and taken into custody.
“We will continue to hold the line,” the convoy posted. Another of the group’s organisers, Chris Barber, was also arrested.
Earlier in the day, two buses of police moved into the city’s central area as the Ottawa Police Service handed out leaflets warning the protesters that they would “face severe penalties under provincial and federal legislation”.
That could include arrest and criminal charges, seizure or removal of their vehicles, and a suspension of their driver’s licences, the leaflet stated.
Steve Bell, the interim police chief, said that police have been “bolstering … resources, developing clear plans, and preparing to take action” to disperse the demonstrators.
“The action is imminent,” Bell told reporters during a news conference, adding that fencing and other barriers had been set up and that movement into the city centre would be restricted to only those with lawful reasons to be there, such as living or working in the area.
Police are handing out a more intense warning to protestors today.
“You will face severe penalties under provincial and federal legislation if you do not cease further unlawful activity and remove your vehicle,” it reads. pic.twitter.com/gvtVYVsGPM
— Rachel Gilmore (@atRachelGilmore) February 17, 2022
The apparent reinforcements added to an already heavy security presence, but there was no immediate sign of a move to clear the protesters.
“If you want to leave on your own terms, now is the time to do it,” said Bell, addressing the protesters directly. He added: “We’ve been very clear with everyone since the very beginning: It’s time to go. Your time in our city has come to an end and you must leave.”
But protesters, many of whom honked their horns throughout the afternoon, remained defiant.
“The threat of losing my livelihood, losing my job, losing my back account, losing … they’ve already taken it, already taken everything I have. So what more can they threaten us with?” Brigitte Bolten, a middle-aged female truck driver, told Al Jazeera.
“They put me out of work. I’m a truck driver through and through. I can’t find a job because I’m unvaccinated,” she added. “I’m not looking forward to jail, but if it happens, it happens.”
A younger trucker, somewhere in his 30s, who did not want to give his name, said he was vaccinated but others in his company were not.
“I am all for loosening the restrictions,” he said. “We’re losing our livelihood here. We’re a small trucking company, most guys are not vaccinated. I’m double-vaccinated, but if that ship goes down, I go down with it.”
‘Threat to economy’
A large group of Canadian truckers and their supporters descended on Parliament Hill in Ottawa late last month to protest against a mandatory vaccination requirement at the Canada-US border. Hundreds have remained in the city, demanding an end to all COVID-19 restrictions in the country. Others have called for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to be removed from office.
Blockades at crucial points along the US-Canada border also were erected in support of the central protest in Ottawa, disrupting traffic and commercial trade between the two countries, but those were dismantled over the past several days.
Earlier this week, Trudeau invoked an emergency measure for the first time in the country’s history to give his federal government sweeping powers to disperse the blockades and protests, and provide support for law enforcement agencies.
“It’s high time that these illegal and dangerous activities stop,” Trudeau said on Thursday morning in the House of Commons, where legislators were debating the use of the Emergencies Act. The order needs to be approved in parliament to remain in place.
“They are a threat to our economy and our relationship with trading partners,” he said. “They are a threat to public safety.”
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), has criticised Trudeau for a “lack of leadership” during the protests but said the NDP would support the Emergencies Act invocation – which means it will be approved.
“It should have never come to this,” Singh said in parliament on Thursday. “We will withdraw our support if at any point we feel these powers are being misused.”
Meanwhile, Ottawa protest organisers – among them several far-right activists – have remained defiant despite the increased police presence and the use of the Emergencies Act.
Before her arrest, Lich, also a prominent fundraiser for the convoy, said in a video posted by CTV News: “I’m ready, I’m not afraid, and we’re going hold the line.”
“I’m prepared sit on my a** and watch them hit me with pepper spray,” said another of the leaders, Pat King, who is known for espousing hateful, white supremacist views online.
Authorities have raised concerns about the potential for violence, as far-right groups are involved in the occupation.
The federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have sent officers to Ottawa, and public broadcaster Radio-Canada reported on Thursday that the province of Quebec was preparing to provide police.
This week, the RCMP arrested 13 people at a border blockade in the western province of Alberta after a large cache of weapons was seized. Four people also were charged with conspiracy to commit murder after police said the group had “a willingness to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade”.
On Thursday, a poll (PDF) of 1,518 Canadians released by Maru Public Opinion found that 67 percent believed it is time to clear out the protesters, while 82 percent said there is no way the rally should have gone on for as long as it has.
Additional reporting by Roger Lemoyne in Ottawa