The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police regain control of most of Canada’s capital, say protesters will continue to be identified and charged as holdouts persist

A truck is towed from in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 19 as Canadian police work to restore normality to the capital after trucks and demonstrators occupied the downtown core for more than three weeks to protest pandemic restrictions. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)
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OTTAWA — Bands of people roamed with Canadian flags yelling, “Freedom!”

But their shouts fell flat in the otherwise quiet streets of Canada’s capital, which were nearly completely back in the control of authorities Sunday after a weekend operation to disperse the self-styled “Freedom Convoy” that pushed the government to invoke never-before-used emergency powers.

As of Sunday, police had arrested more than 190 protesters, issued 389 charges, towed nearly 80 vehicles, and fenced or cordoned off large swaths of the capital as law enforcement entered what Ottawa interim police chief Steve Bell called the “maintenance phase” to keep out demonstrators deemed illegal.

While the big rigs, barbecues and bouncy castles were gone, major questions remained over how long the police would stay, and what consequences protesters — from participants up to far-right organizers — would face for the three-week-long blockade.

‘Freedom Convoy’ demonstrators admit protest is near the end after police clear out most of them, making arrests and towing vehicles

Tall fences blocked off access to Wellington Street, the center of the encampments. A contingent of holdouts held a street party nearby Saturday night in defiance of the police, who repeatedly warned that those who remain risk arrest and fines, charges that would be filed retroactively.

Bell said Sunday that 103 of those arrested faced charges including mischief, obstructing police and assault.

“We are relieved to finally see some action to remove these extremists from our streets,” said Ariel Troster, 42, of Centretown, an Ottawa residential area where demonstrators disrupted daily life with incessant honking and intimidation, including racist vitriol and harassment of face mask wearers.

“But it shouldn’t have gotten this far,” she said. “I think it’s going to take a really long time and it’s going to take a lot of work to restore trust.”

Even as residents celebrated the start of a return to normalcy, Canada’s Parliament debated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s invocation of the Emergencies Act. Members are set to vote Monday to accept or reject use of the special powers authorized under that law.

The act is expected to pass, though critics from both the left and the right have objected to its use. Trudeau said no other efforts to quell the “illegal and dangerous activities” affecting the country’s economy and security were working.

Canada’s minister of emergency preparedness Bill Blair told CTV’s Question Period Sunday that “the job’s not yet done” as the reasons for needing the measures “unfortunately, still exist.”

Under the Emergencies Act, banks may freeze transactions suspected of funding the “Freedom Convoys” that also clogged several U.S.-Canada borders and disrupts millions of dollars a day in trade. Drivers of vehicles involved can lose their corporate bank accounts, vehicle insurance and driving licenses.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that he wanted to see the act used to seize and sell the impounded vehicles to pay some of the costs incurred by the city.

Federal government officials said Saturday that the federal government would provide $20 million Canadian dollars ($15.7 million) to businesses affected by the protests. Police on Saturday said 206 bank and corporate accounts worth several million dollars had been frozen.

Police began to move in Friday, after 20 days of protesters having free rein in the capital’s downtown, including in residential areas. Despite high tensions, law enforcement remained largely restrained, even by Canadian standards. Armed officers, some on horses and others in tactical gear, slowly moved truck-by-truck and block-by-block to push out demonstrators.

The police said they used pepper spray, stun grenades and other anti-riot weapons. They said some demonstrators arrested had body armor, smoke grenades and fireworks on them.

Ontario’s police watchdog said Sunday that it was investigating two incidents: one involving officers discharging an anti-riot weapon and the second a woman who reported a serious injury after “an interaction” with a police officer on horseback.

While police gained praise for their restraint in standoffs this weekend, they faced heavy criticism for failing to enforce laws during the convoy’s first weeks. Critics noted that police have moved much more quickly and forcefully against other demonstrations, such as those held by Indigenous communities. The majority of “Freedom Convoy” participants were White.

Peter Sloly resigned as Ottawa police chief Tuesday under fire for his department’s handling of what he called a “siege” of the capital.

Law enforcement officials denied that race or politics influenced their response. Rather, they pointed to the tactical difficulties posed by tightly packed rows of vehicles and cans of fuel. They estimated that about 100 trucks had children living in or associated with them.

Authorities additionally did not know if protesters were armed — and feared that items such as cooking knives and vehicles could be used against them.

Fears rose Feb. 14, when authorities said they arrested 11 people and seized guns, body armor and ammunition in Coutts, Alberta, where another convoy had been trying to block the U.S.-Canada border.

Canada’s public safety minister said Wednesday that some of those arrested in Alberta had “strong ties” to a “far-right extreme organization” with a presence in Ottawa.

Elizabeth Simons, deputy director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said the group in question was Diagolon, an insurrectionist movement.

The arrests also underscored how the “Freedom Convoy,” which focused from the outset on protesting health mandates and Trudeau’s government, was fueled in part by far-right organizers and influencers with a history of anti-government, anti-science and anti-media agendas.

Police arrested three key protest organizers — Tamara Lich, 49, Chris Barber, 46, and Patrick King, 44 — on Thursday and Friday. Barber, who was charged with mischief, obstructing police and disobeying a court order, was released on bail Friday. He is barred from Ottawa and cannot be in contact with or speak in support of any of the convoy’s participants or funders.

Both Lich and King remain in jail in Ottawa.

Lich, who is charged with mischief, appeared at a bail hearing Friday wearing a shirt in support of Canadian oil and gas and a court-mandated face mask. The session was adjourned until Tuesday morning, said Diane Magas, the Ottawa-based lawyer representing Lich and Barber.

Mischief is a wide-ranging charge that can include significant jail time. Magas said it was “too early” to say what Lich or Barber could face in terms of sentencing.

Amanda Coletta in Toronto contributed to this report.