Ottawa braces for 'increasingly dangerous' covid mandate protests as 'Freedom Convoy' blockades leave city on edge

Protestors show their support for the Freedom Convoy of truck drivers who are making their way to Ottawa to protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates by the Canadian government on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Vaughan. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)
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OTTAWA - Canada's capital on Saturday was bracing for a surge of demonstrators to join a week-long protest against public health measures and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that has blockaded much of the downtown core, unnerved residents and been described by officials as an "occupation" and a "siege."

Local police said Friday that they expected as many as 400 additional trucks and up to 2,000 people to join the self-described "Freedom Convoy" over the weekend. They said that some 1,000 people could also be planning a counterprotest.

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Ottawa Police Chief Peter 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." Roads, highway ramps and bridges could also be closed.

Related video: Protests of vaccine mandates, restrictions pop up around the world

"The demonstrators . . . remain highly organized, well-funded, extremely committed to resisting all attempts to end the demonstrations safely," Sloly, who said he had received death threats, told reporters on Friday. "This remains, as it was from the beginning, an increasingly volatile and increasingly dangerous demonstration."

The protests were initially started in response to U.S. and Canadian rules requiring cross-border truckers to be fully vaccinated to enter their respective countries. 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, calls 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 - far outside their constitutional powers.

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a watchdog group, has documented links between several of the convoy's organizers and the far-right.

The number of protesters had thinned considerably from the estimated 8,000 people who congregated on Parliament Hill last weekend. Police estimated that roughly 250 people remained heading into this weekend when reinforcements were expected to arrive.

The convoy has spurred solidarity demonstrations, including a blockade near a U.S.-Canada border crossing in Alberta. Protests in cities including Quebec City and Toronto are planned this weekend.

Ottawa police have said that 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 its terms of service. It said it had evidence from law enforcement "that the previously peaceful demonstration has become an occupation" with reports of "unlawful activity."

A parliamentary committee voted this week to call on GoFundMe representatives to testify about the fundraiser.

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

Big rigs and other vehicles - emblazoned with signs blasting Trudeau in obscene language and reading "Mandate Freedom" - have blocked main arteries and intersections in the downtown core, causing traffic chaos. The deafening sound of horns has filled the air for much of the day and night. Police say residents have been the targets of racist vitriol.

A woman's shelter said some women have admitted themselves into hospital "due to the increased trauma from the noise and fear." A downtown shelter for vulnerable youth said it would close this weekend to protect the safety of its staff and customers.

As Ontario began a planned loosening of covid-19 measures this week, many businesses shut down or delayed reopening, citing safety concerns. The Rideau Centre, a major downtown shopping mall, has been closed for the last week after it was swarmed with protesters who refused to comply with a provincial mask mandate.

A downtown ice cream shop said it would close until next Wednesday after one of its employees was physically assaulted on the way to work, "blocked on the sidewalk by two men and shoved to the ground for wearing a mask."

"It's not a protest anymore," Ontario Premier Doug Ford said this week. "It's become an occupation."

The organizers have vowed to remain until their demands are met. They've built a wooden structure and stockpiled diesel fuel and propane near Parliament, raising security concerns and prompting police criticism.

Sloly has defended the police response, citing worries that the protesters will use vehicles against them and that they might be armed.

"I have deep personal empathy for those that are suffering," Sloly said. "We are doing everything we can to make sure we keep this city safe."

He said this week that there might not be a "policing solution" to the blockades and that officers were considering "military aid to civil power" to end them. Trudeau has said that deploying the military is "not in the cards right now."

Police have charged at least four people in connection with the demonstrations and issued some 30 traffic tickets. They've opened a hate crimes tip line and said that there are dozens of active investigations, including into the desecration of the National War Memorial, which is now fenced off.

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 are vaccinated.

Even if Trudeau dropped the vaccination requirement for cross-border truckers, unvaccinated Canadian truckers would still be unable to cross the border because of the U.S. rule.

Several lawmakers have cheered the convoy on, even happily posing for photos with the big-rigs that have paralyzed the city in the background. They've drawn charges of hypocrisy because many of them called for an aggressive police response when an Indigenous-led movement blockaded railroads to protest a pipeline in 2020.

On Friday, some federal Conservative Party lawmakers broke ranks, including Danny Patterson, a Senator who resigned from the Conservative caucus, deploring protesters who flew Confederate and Nazi flags last weekend.

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