Ottawa police have arrested dozens of people and begun towing vehicles that have blockaded the centre of the Canadian capital for three weeks, as a large contingent of officers moved in to clear the area.
Dozens of police vehicles, including a large black armoured car, and about 100 police officers arrived near the Ottawa Art Gallery at about 8am (13:00 GMT) on Friday, where about 20 vehicles have been parked since late January, blocking the roadway.
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“If you do not leave now, you will be arrested,” police said, banging on windows of vehicles, Al Jazeera’s Roger Lemoyne reported.
Interim Ottawa police chief Steve Bell told reporters on Friday afternoon that 70 people had been arrested as of 3pm (20:00 GMT). “We will work day and night until this [operation] is completed,” he said during a news conference.
Ottawa police said earlier on Friday that 21 vehicles also had been towed so far. “You must leave. You must cease further unlawful activity and immediately remove your vehicle and/or property from all unlawful protest sites. Anyone within the unlawful protest site may be arrested,” they tweeted.
Police have increased their presence in the downtown core during the past several days, as they coordinated with law enforcement agencies at the provincial and federal levels to clear out participants in the so-called “Freedom Convoy”.
— City of Ottawa (@ottawacity) February 18, 2022
A large group of Canadian truckers and their supporters converged on Ottawa on January 28, protesting coronavirus restrictions and demanding they be ended. Trucks blocked the streets around Parliament Hill and have remained since, occupying several central residential blocks.
Many of the protesters have remained defiant in response to the police operation in Ottawa, with some yelling “freedom” and “hold the line”, honking and waving Canadian flags in front of a line of officers, according to a CBC live feed.
Ottawa police also accused demonstrators of putting children between them and the protest site.
A black pick-up truck with a Canadian flag on the back was allowed to leave the area on Friday morning, while some cars appeared to be empty. Tow trucks also began arriving to move big rigs downtown.
The movement, organised by far-right activists, set off other demonstrations in Canada, including several on the US-Canada border, halting trade for days and forcing the shutdown of car plants in both countries because of parts shortages.
— Étienne Fortin-Gauthier (@EtienneFG) February 18, 2022
Translation: Parents are arriving at the confrontation with their children.
Protesters at the Ambassador Bridge, the busiest crossing, were cleared out on Sunday, with more than two dozen people arrested, police said.
He said the “measures will be time-limited, geographically-targeted, as well as reasonable and proportionate to the threats they are meant to address”.
Amid news that the police were going to end the blockades, Canada’s House of Commons cancelled its work on Friday. Lawmakers had been expected to debate the Liberal government’s use of the Emergencies Act.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has announced it plans to sue the federal government for its decision to invoke the emergency measure, saying it had not met the necessary legal standard.
“We do not want to minimize the impacts of the protests that are occurring across the country. But, while some of the blockades have been immensely disruptive, it is unclear that the ongoing protests ‘endanger the lives, health or safety of Canadians’ so as to rise to the threshold of a national emergency under the law,” Abby Deshman, director of criminal justice for the CCLA, said in a statement on Thursday.
The CCLA also raised concerns about an Ottawa police tweet on Friday warning journalists that they could face arrest if “found within areas undergoing enforcement”.
“Warning journalists about safety risks in the protest zone is reasonable. Threatening them with arrest for doing their jobs is not,” the group said.
Warning journalists about safety risks in the protest zone is reasonable. Threatening them with arrest for doing their jobs is not.
— Canadian Civil Liberties Association (@cancivlib) February 18, 2022
Meanwhile, residents and local leaders in Ottawa have expressed hope that the downtown occupation would end peacefully. “There has always been a volatility to this occupation and as police move in today, the primary goal obviously is for it to end peacefully,” City Councillor Catherine McKenney told CBC News on Friday morning.
“Residents who have been trapped inside of this, abandoned really by all levels of government, by everyone who represents them, … deserve [to get] peace back and safety back on their streets and in their homes.”
Local resident Nathan Fedorchuk said he knows people who have not worked for weeks because of the protest.
“I feel embarrassed that I am Canadian and I have lived through this pandemic along with those [protesters],” Fedorchuk told Al Jazeera as he smoked a cigarette outside the EQ3 furniture store in ByWard Market where he works as a design consultant, about 400 metres from the blockade.
“I don’t believe this is the last we’ve heard of any of this. This is really setting dangerous precedents for protest in the future, whether through the eyes of the law or the public,” he added. “I think this has really sown some seeds for serious dissent. This is just the first step.”
Roger Lemoyne in Ottawa contributed reporting.