The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ottawa declares ‘state of emergency’ amid continuing blockades and raucous protests over covid measures

Police announced Sunday that they would continue road closures in the downtown core into the week.

Trucks are parked near Parliament Hill in Ottawa as truckers and supporters continue to protest coronavirus vaccine mandates on Feb. 4 (Lars Hagberg/Reuters)
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correction

An earlier version of this article quoted Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly as saying, “This is a threat to our democracy. There’s a nationwide insurrection,” and “This is madness.” Sloly was at that moment reflecting on the comments of Diane Deans, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, though he later said he concurred with the sentiment. This version has been corrected.

OTTAWA — Ottawa announced a “state of emergency” Sunday after hundreds and sometimes thousands of protesters, many in big-rig trucks, disrupted the capital city for the second weekend in a row.

“Declaring a state of emergency reflects the serious danger and threat to the safety and security of residents posed by the ongoing demonstrations and highlights the need for support from other jurisdictions and levels of government,” Mayor Jim Watson said in a late-afternoon announcement.

The statement said that declaring the state of emergency would provide the city with greater “flexibility.”

Earlier in the day, Watson pleaded for help, saying authorities were “outnumbered” and are “losing this battle” against the raucous demonstrators. The city’s police department also warned Sunday that anyone attempting to bring “material” support to the trucks, including gasoline, would be subject to arrest. Throughout the protests, people had been seen lugging cans of gas to keep the blockade trucks’ engines running.

Protests over coronavirus public health measures Saturday and Sunday included the large-scale road blockades, shooting off fireworks, driving on sidewalks, high-decibel nonstop horn-honking by truckers and what the Ottawa Police Department called other forms of “extremely disruptive and unlawful behaviour.” “We continue to advise demonstrators not to enter Ottawa, and to go home,” the department said in a statement.

Demonstrations in solidarity with the self-described “Freedom Convoy” also broke out during the weekend in other cities across Canada, including Toronto, Quebec City and Vancouver.

Authorities in Vancouver reported late Saturday that rocks and eggs were being thrown, cars kicked, “and nails being strewn on roadways” as several hundred vehicles rode through the city en route to the downtown core. Five arrests were made.

While the crowds are expected to thin during the coming week, Toronto was taking no chances. Police in Canada’s most populous city announced Sunday that they would continue road closures in the downtown core into the week “to keep access routes clear, protect our healthcare workers, patients, and their families, and maintain public safety.”

In Alberta, the blockade of an important U.S.-Canada border crossing also continued. Some protests drew counterprotests.

What stood out in public officials’ comments was their sense of helplessness.

“The situation at this point is completely out of control because the individuals with the protest are calling the shots,” Watson, the mayor, said in a radio interview Sunday on CFRA.

A city council member, Jeff Leiper, called it “an embarrassing occupation,” a “real threat to many that is paralyzing travel and taking a real mental health toll on the whole city.”

“Send help,” he tweeted, addressing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

There was no immediate response from Trudeau, who is the target of much of the protest despite the provinces having jurisdiction over most public health measures. Ford tweeted that “we cannot direct the police” but “we have provided the city of Ottawa everything they have asked for and will continue to provide whatever support they request.”

Marco Mendicino, Canada’s public safety minister, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on Sunday that most Canadians and truckers are vaccinated and that the government has been having conversations with the city about possible supports for businesses that have closed because of the protests.

“The convoy can disagree, but they’re not above the law,” he said, “and there should be a peaceful resolution as quickly as possible.”

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said Sunday that the city needed “an additional surge of resources” to respond to the protests.

In Ottawa, big-rigs and other vehicles — emblazoned with signs criticizing Trudeau with obscene language and reading “Mandate Freedom” — blocked main arteries and intersections. Several demonstrators, including families with children, waved Canadian flags affixed to hockey sticks.

Some 5,000 people and at least a thousand tractor-trailers and other vehicles clogged the streets of Ottawa over the weekend.

“This is a siege,” Sloly said Saturday. “It is something that is different in our democracy than I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

Canadian cities faced disruptions as protests against vaccine mandates spread from Ottawa to Toronto, raising fears of clashes with counterprotesters. (Video: Reuters)

One man on Saturday rode a horse down Wellington Street, the main road in front of Parliament, waving a “Trump 2024” flag, while diesel fumes and the soundtrack of the protests — a cacophony of deafening horns, revving engines and chants of “Freedom!” — filled the air on a sunny and chilly afternoon.

The disorder is proving deeply discouraging to many Canadians. “It feels like something broke in Canada this week,” contributing columnist Robin V. Sears wrote in Sunday’s Toronto Star. “The nation that has always been a little too smug about its values of civility and respect seemed to have disappeared, replaced by what looked far more American than Canadian.”

A self-described ‘Freedom Convoy’ of Canadian truckers opposed to vaccine mandate arrives in Ottawa

The convoy was initially started in response to U.S. and Canadian rules requiring cross-border truckers to be fully vaccinated to enter either country. But they have ballooned into a movement against all public health measures, which are mostly imposed by the provinces, and Trudeau, who was reelected in September.

In a “memorandum of understanding,” Canada Unity, one of the main groups behind the convoy, called for the governor general, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Canada, and the Senate to override the public health measures or to topple the government — measures far outside their constitutional powers.

“Let me assure the people of Ottawa that we have no intent to stay one day longer than necessary,” Tamara Lich, one of the convoy’s organizers, told reporters last week. “Our departure will be based on the prime minister doing what is right: ending all mandates and restrictions on our freedoms.”

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a watchdog, has said that several of the organizers are not truckers and hold far-right views.

Robert Torteous arrived in Ottawa on Friday from Flesherton, Ontario, a community about 320 miles away. He said he planned to stay for the weekend. He declined to say whether he was vaccinated, characterizing the question as “discrimination,” and said he was opposed to mandates.

“When you don’t give people choices about what they do with their own bodies, it’s a big problem,” he said.

Jeff, a truck driver in Toronto who does not drive cross-border routes, said he has been out of work since October because he is not vaccinated.

“There’s no reason for them to force this inoculation on me,” he said, declining to give his last name.

The demonstrations — which have drawn praise from Fox News personalities, former president Donald Trump and Tesla founder Elon Musk — have left residents on edge.

Police investigate ‘illegal’ acts at Ottawa anti-vaccine mandate trucker protests

The sound of horns is almost constant. Police say residents have been the targets of intimidation and racist vitriol.

As Ontario began a planned loosening of coronavirus restrictions last week, many businesses shut down or delayed reopening, citing safety concerns. The Rideau Center, a downtown mall, has been closed for the past week after it was swarmed by protesters who refused to comply with a provincial mask mandate.

The effects have been acutely felt in areas such as Centretown, a diverse and normally bustling residential neighborhood just south of Parliament Hill, where many streets are blockaded with vehicles.

“It’s been hell,” said Karen Nielsen, the co-owner of HighJinx, a social enterprise that runs a food bank and furniture bank. “It has been so loud. Our living rooms are full of exhaust fumes and our dogs are scared. But we also can’t go outside without someone saying something to us. We can’t be masked without being harassed.”

“It’s not a protest anymore,” Ford, the Ontario premier, said this week. “It’s become an occupation.”

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)

The organizers are digging in, vowing to remain until their demands have been met. They’ve erected tents, makeshift kitchens and bouncy castles. They’ve brought in saunas.

Sloly, under fire for what critics have called a lenient response to the blockades, said police would be “hardening” the perimeter around the protests and deploying 150 more officers to “deliver a clear message” that “the lawlessness must end.”

“The demonstrators … remain highly organized, well-funded, extremely committed to resisting all attempts to end the demonstrations safely,” Sloly told reporters Friday. “This remains, as it was from the beginning, an increasingly volatile and increasingly dangerous demonstration.”

He said that police are worried protesters will use vehicles against them and that there might not be a “policing solution” to the blockades. Trudeau has said that deploying the military is “not in the cards right now.”

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

Ottawa police said Sunday that they had issued 450 tickets since Saturday and opened 97 criminal offense investigations. They said they were working with U.S. and international authorities to investigate email-based threats to public officials.

Vaccine mandates have been popular in Canada, according to public opinion polls, and Canada has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates. The Canadian Trucking Association, an industry group, has distanced itself from the demonstrations, noting that the vast majority of its truckers have been vaccinated.

Ottawa police have said the convoy is benefiting from national and international logistical and financial support, including from a “significant element” in the United States.

GoFundMe, the crowdfunding site, said Friday that it had removed a fundraiser for the convoy that had raised more than $8 million because it violated the site’s terms of service, citing evidence from law enforcement “that the previously peaceful demonstration has become an occupation.”

As of Saturday afternoon, a new fundraiser for the convoy on another site had raised more than $1.3 million.

Read more:

‘Significant element’ from U.S. involved in self-described ‘Freedom Convoy’ in Canada, official says

Asylum seekers risk their lives to help Canada fight covid-19. Trudeau could upgrade their status.

Some governments have launched plans to fine the unvaccinated. Experts caution against the approach.

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