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Ottawa arrests two ‘Freedom Convoy’ protest organizers as police chief vows to ‘take back’ city

Police in the Canadian capital Ottawa on Feb. 16 started warning truck drivers blockading downtown that they must depart or face arrest. (Video: Reuters)
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OTTAWA — Police began arresting organizers of the self-styled “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations Thursday night, according to a spokesperson for one group involved in arranging the protests, hours after law enforcement pledged to bring an “imminent” end to the demonstrations that have paralyzed Canada’s capital for weeks.

The arrests of Tamara Lich and Chris Barber were confirmed by Dagny Pawlak, a spokeswoman for Freedom Convoy 2022, one of the main groups organizing the demonstrations. She said that Lich, who leads the group, was detained on a charge of “aiding and abetting mischief.” Ottawa police declined to comment.

The arrests began shortly after police descended on downtown Ottawa’s core and cordoned off a wide swath of the city with nearly 100 checkpoints.

“It’s time to go,” interim Police Chief Steve Bell, speaking at a news conference, told the protesters who have remained defiant in the face of repeated warnings. “Your time in our city has come to an end and you must leave.”

Bell said police were hardening the perimeter around the city and had designated a large area as a secure zone where access would be limited to residents, workers and police officers. Officials have been keen to avoid a repeat of previous weekends when the crowds swell, particularly because this is a long holiday weekend.

“I implore anyone that’s there: Get in your truck and we will navigate safe passage for you to leave our city streets,” Bell said. “We want this demonstration to end peacefully. … There is a deliberate plan, there is commitment and there’s the resourcing that we now have in place to end this.”

Ottawa police warn ‘Freedom Convoy’ protesters to ‘leave the area now’

The truck horns and music that have blared nearly incessantly since late January were intermittently quiet as officers began to mass in the cold drizzle on Thursday morning, but the demonstrators who came here to protest coronavirus pandemic restrictions and the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued to mill among the vehicles jamming the streets around Parliament.

For the second day, police handed out fliers warning of criminal charges and the possible seizure of vehicles. But on Kent Street, amid the rows of humming trucks being refueled by volunteers with jerrycans, there sat a toilet with a sign directing police to put their tickets inside it.

New fencing was erected on the Parliament Hill side of Wellington Street, next to the demonstrators’ encampments. Police from Quebec had arrived to help, Bell said.

Trudeau this week became the first Canadian leader to invoke the Emergencies Act. Parliament Hill, the surrounding parliamentary precinct and several government buildings were declared off-limits for public assemblies.

“Only those with lawful reason to enter the core, such as residents, businesses and others with lawful reasons, will be allowed in the area. The unlawful protesters must leave the area and will not be provided access,” the Ottawa Police tweeted.

Police continued to arrest individuals, but made no move to sweep the protest up.

The University of Ottawa moved activities online until Monday and said it planned to increase campus security.

Beleaguered Ottawans losing faith in leaders, want ‘siege’ to end

“Today’s the day we are all under the impression we are going to get arrested,” said Justin Aiello, 23, of Montreal. “We are okay with that, as it’s for a good cause. … We are going to have a good time in prison.”

Aiello, who drove here 20 days ago, was sitting in the truck of his area’s “block captain,” who was at an organizing meeting. Nearby, a young man walked around with a walkie-talkie, part of a watch team to monitor who came into their area and prevent instigators from planting anything to make them look bad, Aiello said.

Dave Langille, 40, a farmer from Toronto, said police left him a ticket for $79, tucked beside a jerrycan on his vehicle, which has been parked illegally here since Friday.

He said someone offered him several times the ticket’s price to buy it as memorabilia, but he declined, saying he wanted to keep it “as ammo” and planned to litigate it alongside other ticketed drivers to keep the government “in court for years.”

“Everybody’s already broke,” he said. He rejected the idea his actions were illegal.

Meanwhile, cracks were emerging among the convoy’s leaders. Pat King, a far-right agitator who was listed as a regional organizer for the convoy, took aim at Canada Unity, one of the main groups behind the protests.

“I haven’t seen you on the ground chasing police cars,” King said in a video posted to Facebook. “Enough riding my coattails, Canada Unity. … Enough trying to use me to make yourself a big name.”

He also described New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, a practicing Sikh born in Ontario, as a “terrorist” who should go back to “his own country.”

The Emergencies Act gives authorities more power to regulate the protests and track their financing. The moves set the stage for tougher action to quell the standoff gripping the city. Parliament began a debate on the measure on Thursday.

Trudeau said he didn’t invoke the act to deploy the military, suspend fundamental rights or limit freedom of expression.

“Some protesters came to Ottawa to express their frustration and fatigue with public health measures. That’s their right,” the Liberal leader said. “But the illegal blockades and occupations are not. They have to stop.”

The children of the ‘Freedom Convoy’: Kids with protesting parents complicate police response

The act took effect when Trudeau invoked it on Monday, but it could be revoked by a vote of either the House of Commons or the Senate. The opposition Conservatives, whose interim leader initially cheered on the convoy, have said they won’t support the motion. They accuse Trudeau of overreach.

The New Democratic Party has said that it will support the government, ensuring it has enough votes in the House of Commons.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said Thursday that it was taking the government to court. The group says it had not met the legal threshold to invoke the act.

Banks have started to freeze accounts linked to protesters after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police provided them with a list of names. Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s finance minister, said Thursday that “action is being taken” and accounts had been frozen, but declined to give specific numbers.

The Canadian Bankers Association said “all financial service providers, including banks, covered by the federal Emergencies Act will need to diligently implement the required measures, as stipulated by the government.” It said the moves “are not expected to impact the vast majority of customers.”

Tow truck operators have been worried about the risks to their safety and future employment if the government asks them to remove the big rigs jamming downtown Ottawa, an industry leader told Canada’s public radio broadcaster Wednesday.

The country’s public safety minister warned of protester links to far-right groups. Police arrested 11 people and seized guns and ammunition Monday at a border blockade in Coutts, Alberta. Four people were charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Some protesters left that site after the arrests to avoid violence.

Police in Windsor, Ontario, said Wednesday that they had intercepted a convoy that was seeking to blockade the Ambassador Bridge again. The span between Windsor and Detroit is the busiest crossing on the U.S.-Canada land border. Authorities cleared a blockade there on Sunday.

What is the Emergencies Act, which Trudeau invoked against Canada’s trucker protests?

In a tearful video posted on social media Wednesday night before she was detained, Lich indicated that it was “inevitable at this point” that she would face arrest and possible prison time. But she urged people to join them in Ottawa.

“You have to know that they’re trying to provoke us. … Tomorrow is a new day, and I’m ready. I am not afraid, and we’re going to hold the line,” she said. “This has been a really crazy ride. … I just want you to stay strong.”

“I pray that you all find forgiveness in your hearts … even when we don’t understand it.”

Read more:

‘Freedom Convoy’ in Canada inspires vaccine-mandate protests from France to New Zealand

Canadian truck drivers distance themselves from ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests

Which U.S. communities sent money to support the Canadian trucker protests?

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