OTTAWA, Ontario — Police poured into downtown Ottawa on Thursday in what truckers feared was a prelude to a crackdown on their nearly three-week, street-clogging protest against Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Work crews in the capital began erecting fences outside Parliament, and for the second day in a row, officers handed out warnings to the protesters to leave. Busloads of police converged on the area.
“It’s high time that these illegal and dangerous activities stop,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared in Parliament, not far from where the hundreds of big rigs were parked.
“They are a threat to our economy and our relationship with trading partners,” he said. “They are a threat to public safety.”
Many of the protesters in the self-styled Freedom Convoy reacted to the warnings with scorn.
“I’m prepared sit on my ass and watch them hit me with pepper spray,” said one of their leaders, Pat King. As for the rigs parked bumper-to-bumper, he said: “There’s no tow trucks in Canada that will touch them.”
Ottawa represented the movement’s last stronghold after weeks of demonstrations and blockades that shut down border crossings into the U.S., inflicted economic damage on both countries and created a political crisis for Trudeau.
The protests have also shaken Canada’s reputation for civility and rule-following and inspired similar convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
Early this week, the prime minister invoked Canada’s Emergencies Act, empowering law enforcement authorities to declare the blockades illegal, tow away trucks and punish the drivers by arresting them, freezing their bank accounts and suspending their licenses.
On Wednesday, Ottawa police handed out leaflets warning the truckers to leave immediately or face the consequences, and the city’s police chief declared his intention to break the siege and take back downtown “in the coming days.”
Officers on Thursday delivered a third round of warnings and also placed notices on vehicles, helpfully advising owners how and where to pick up their trucks if they are towed.
The protests around the country by demonstrators in trucks, tractors and motor homes initially focused on Canada’s vaccine requirement for truckers entering the country but soon morphed into a broader attack on COVID-19 precautions and Trudeau’s government.
The movement has drawn support from right-wing extremists and military veterans, some of them armed, and authorities have hesitated to move against them, in part out of fear of violence.
Fox News personalities and U.S. conservatives such as Donald Trump have egged on the protests, and Trudeau complained on Thursday that “roughly half of the funding to the barricaders here is coming from the United States.”
As of Tuesday, Ottawa officials said 360 vehicles remained involved in the blockade in the city’s core, down from a high of roughly 4,000. The occupation has infuriated many Ottawa residents.
“We’ve seen people intimidated, harassed and threatened. We’ve seen apartment buildings that have been chained up. We have seen fires set in the corridors. Residents are terrorized,” said Canadian Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino. “And it is absolutely gut-wrenching to see the sense of abandonment and helplessness that they have felt now for weeks.”
The trucks were parked shoulder-to-shoulder downtown, some with tires removed to hamper towing. Some were said to chained together.
Police were especially worried about the children who earlier this week were seen playing in the streets and being pushed by parents in strollers through the occupied area
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