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Trudeau says using military to end Ottawa protest ‘not in the cards right now’

Social video shows Canadian truckers on Jan. 27 heading through Moncton, Canada, on their way to Ottawa to protest coronavirus-related border restrictions. (Video: Emily Ternoey via Storyful)
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TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that sending in the army to end the anti-vaccine mandate and anti-government protest that has paralyzed the nation’s capital for nearly a week is “not in the cards right now.”

“One has to be very, very cautious before deploying military in situations engaging Canadians,” the Liberal Party leader said during a virtual news conference. “It is not something that anyone should enter in lightly. But as of now, there have been no requests, and that is not in the cards right now.”

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly, under criticism for his response to the protest, said Wednesday that “there may not be a policing solution to this demonstration” and that he and other commanders were “looking at every single option, including military aid to civil power” to end it.

“This demonstration has been intolerable, unprecedented,” he said. “The range of illegal, dangerous and unacceptable activities is beyond the ability to list and the time that we have here today.”

While the number of demonstrators in the city totals roughly 250 people — down considerably from the thousands who gathered over the weekend — hundreds of vehicles, including big rigs, are still blocking critical arteries in the downtown core.

Police say they expect more demonstrations this weekend. They say a “significant” element from the United States has been involved in organizing and funding them.

‘Significant element’ from United States in ‘Freedom Convoy’ in Canada

The blockades have caused traffic chaos. Drivers have blared their horns at all hours. Police say city residents have been the victims of threatening behavior and hateful vitriol. As Ontario began a planned easing of coronavirus restrictions, many businesses closed or said they would not be reopening because of the disruptions.

Several local officials have called it an “occupation.”

“The people of Ottawa deserve to have their lives back, deserve to have their neighborhoods back,” said Trudeau, whose official residence is in the city. He was in isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Ottawa police have arrested three people in connection with the protests, including one man who brought a weapon to a public meeting. Police are investigating dozens of potential crimes after demonstrators desecrated monuments and harassed workers at a soup kitchen for the homeless.

Members of the self-described “Freedom Convoy” began arriving in Ottawa last Friday. What was initially a protest against a requirement from the U.S. and Canadian governments that cross-border truckers be fully vaccinated has expanded into a demonstration against public health measures more broadly and Trudeau.

The prime minister, who blasted protesters who flew flags with swastikas on them, said Thursday that he has no plans to meet with members of the convoy. He noted that he won the September election in which most Canadians vote for parties that support vaccine mandates.

“Having a group of people who disagree with the outcome of an election, who want to go a different way and bring in an alternative government, is a nonstarter in a responsible democracy,” Trudeau said.

Several Conservative Party lawmakers, including former party leader Andrew Scheer, have cheered the demonstrators. When Indigenous groups blockaded railroads in support of an anti-pipeline protest in British Columbia in 2020, Scheer criticized Trudeau for caving to “radical activists” and for not pushing the police to end the “illegal” protests.

Protesters say they’re not leaving until their demands are met. Most public health measures are imposed by the provinces, not the federal government. Ottawa could drop the Canadian vaccine rule for cross-border truckers, but the U.S. rule would still bar unvaccinated Canadian truckers from entering, so it would make no practical difference.

As the protest has dragged on, police in the nation’s capital — no stranger to such demonstrations — have drawn criticism for what some say has been a passive response. Sloly has defended the police, saying one of the “major risks” officers are trying to mitigate is the possibility that vehicles will be used as weapons against them.

“To the residents of Ottawa … we know you want more action,” he said. “We are escalating our actions, including enforcement … we do not want riots. We can never accept serious injuries or deaths.”

Deploying the military to assist with domestic law enforcement is rare here, and Sloly admitted it carries risks. During the Oka Crisis in 1990 that lasted over two months, the military was deployed to take down a barricade erected by Mohawk demonstrators in Quebec opposed to the expansion of a gold course.

Trudeau’s father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, called in the troops during the October Crisis in 1970, when the separatist Quebec Liberation Front kidnapped a British trade commissioner and kidnapped and murdered the province’s deputy premier.