Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is demanding an end to a protest by hundreds of truckers that has paralysed the capital, as local authorities called for federal support.
The so-called “Freedom Convoy” and their supporters began arriving in Ottawa late in January to denounce an order requiring truckers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to cross Canada’s land border with the United States.
The protests were organised by known far-right figures who have espoused Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and other hateful views, according to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network non-profit group. They have since morphed into wider protests against COVID-19 health restrictions and Trudeau’s government, bringing Ottawa to a standstill for more than a week.
“It has to stop,” Trudeau said on Monday during an emergency debate in the House of Commons on his return to parliament after isolating for a week due to a positive coronavirus test.
“This pandemic has sucked for all Canadians,” he added, visibly frustrated. “But Canadians know the way to get through it is continuing to listen to science, continuing to lean on each other.”
Trudeau pledged federal government support “with whatever resources the province and city need”, without elaborating what measures might be planned.
Trudeau’s comments came after Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson urged the federal government to send an additional 1,800 police officers and appoint a mediator to work with protesters to “end this siege” that has infuriated local residents.
Convoy participants have honked their horns incessantly for several days, blocked residential streets, set off fireworks late at night, harassed local residents, and generally disrupted daily life in the centre of Ottawa, a city of about one million people.
“The fact that people don’t feel safe in the streets, the fact that we can’t walk freely in our own parks in broad daylight, when we’re not even saying or doing anything to anyone, has absolutely contributed to the feeling that we are occupied,” resident Tim Abray told Al Jazeera this week.
On Sunday, Watson declared a state of emergency in the capital, declaring the protests “out of control”.
“They don’t know what to do with us,” said 59-year-old farmer and trucker John Lambert, who was taking part in the protest. “All they’ve got to do is come to their senses. It’s up to them to resolve it.”
A memorandum of understanding drafted by some convoy organisers calls on the Senate and governor-general to agree to lift all COVID-19 curbs, including vaccine mandates, vaccine passports and coronavirus-related fines, or “RESIGN their lawful positions of authority Immediately”.
Protest organiser Tamara Lich said activists were willing to engage with the government to find a way out of the crisis but insisted that restrictions be eased.
“What we’re trying to do right now is reaching out to all of the federal parties so that we can arrange a sit-down,” Lich said during a meeting streamed on YouTube.
With the capital’s centre blocked and businesses forced to close, police have come under fire for the protracted crisis.
To up pressure on protesters, Ottawa police on Sunday announced new measures to tame the demonstrations by banning people from bringing fuel and other supplies to the rallies.
“Anyone attempting to bring material supports (gas, etc) to the demonstrators could be subject to arrest,” the police said on Twitter.
— Ottawa Police (@OttawaPolice) February 6, 2022
Officers have since arrested several people, seized multiple vehicles and issued hundreds of traffic tickets.
Protesters had been raising funds to keep up the protests, but were cut off by fundraising site GoFundMe, which said they had violated its policy against content that “promotes behaviour in support of violence”.
Trudeau last week ruled out deploying the army to disperse the protesters “for now”, saying that one must be “very, very cautious before deploying the military in situations against Canadians”.
While only about 10 percent of Canadian adults remain unvaccinated, as many as 32 percent of the population support the anti-mandate protests, according to a recent survey.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino voiced support for vaccines and hit out at the protests, saying, “We cannot allow an angry crowd to reverse a course that continues to save lives in this last stretch” of the pandemic.
“This should never be a precedent for how to make policy in Canada.”