Twenty-two days after a convoy of truckers rumbled through the nation’s capital to protest pandemic restrictions, hundreds of police in downtown Ottawa moved to arrest protesters Friday morning in hopes of ending weeks of traffic jams that have rocked the city, infuriated locals and rocked the country.
After a night of unusually heavy snowfall, during which police made several arrests, rows of police in fluorescent jackets were seen marching steadily, supported by at least two armored vehicles, and tactical officers armed with rifles and wearing helmets.
Police in tactical gear opened the doors of a yellow truck belonging to 68-year-old truck driver Mike Jamieson, who was seen leaving his vehicle.
Several heavy tow trucks with license plates removed and company names covered in Ottawa Police stickers began towing the protesters’ trucks.
The Ottawa Police Service tweeted at noon that 15 people had been arrested. BJ Dichter, a spokesman for the trucking convoy, wrote on Twitter that it was time for the protesters to leave, saying a driver saw the windows of his truck smashed by police.
Among those arrested Thursday night was Tamara Lich, a prominent activist, fundraiser and singer who in the past has advocated the secession of Canada’s western provinces. She has become one of the main voices of the protest movement.
The police mobilization comes after growing criticism that law enforcement moved too slowly to end protests, allowing protesters to taunt local residents for wearing masks, honk their horns in quiet residential neighborhoods and to undermine local businesses.
About two dozen police vehicles were ready, as well as vans for transporting detainees and a convoy of tow trucks, escorted by the police. The buzz of a police drone could be heard above our heads.
The House of Commons also canceled a debate scheduled for Friday, citing the police operation.
Law enforcement has created a perimeter of about 100 checkpoints in downtown Ottawa, to prevent anyone but residents from entering, and declared the downtown area a safe zone.
There was a sense of anticipation across the truck camp as reports came in from their organizers via a shared text messaging chain that police cruisers were seen massing in numbers outside the protest.
A few blocks from Parliament there was a festive atmosphere, including a man who called himself “the Ottawa shaman” painting people’s faces red while a bagpiper played the Canadian national anthem.
The gridlock in the nation’s capital, the week-long blockade of an Ontario bridge vital to automakers’ supply chains, and the media projection of it all on the world stage have given the protests outsized megaphone and impact. .
As police prepare to crack down on protests, the so-called ‘freedom convoy’ will likely live on long after the last trucks have left – if only as a living model of how civil disobedience can be effective, especially in a liberal democracy where the threshold for law enforcement intervention to stop protests can be high.
Much like Occupy Wall Street in 2011, Canada’s convoys show that what appear to be fringe political movements can grow stronger in times of anxiety – and when the world’s cameras are trained on them. At the time, the driving force was anger at endemic social inequalities. These days it is a deadly global pandemic.
In addition to Ms Lich, Chris Barber, another lead organizer, was also arrested on Thursday. Ms. Lich faces a charge of “counselling to commit the offense of mischief” and Mr. Barber was charged with “counselling to commit the offense of mischief, counseling to commit the offense of disobeying a court order and advised to commit the offense of obstruction”. police,” Ottawa police said in statements Friday. The two organizers were due to appear in court on Friday.
Dagny Pawlak, a spokeswoman for the protest, called Ms Lich’s arrest “absolutely baseless and a disgrace to any liberal democracy”.
Ms. Lich, of Medicine Hat, Alta., has become the public face and most visible leader of the trucking convoy against pandemic restrictions. She is a former fitness instructor, who worked in the energy industry and sang and played guitar in a band called “Blind Monday” in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
Throughout the protests, Ms Lich was able to deploy social media — and her Twitter feed — to amplify protesters’ grievances. Shortly before her arrest, she told a local reporter that her message to protesters was to “hold the line”.
In a sign of heightened frustration over the protests, on Thursday the scope of a class action lawsuit against protesters was widened to include more workers and businesses whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the protests. In total, the lawsuit seeks approximately C$306 million in compensation for lost revenue.
The protests began weeks ago with a loosely organized group of truckers opposing the requirement to get vaccinated if they crossed the Canada-US border. They have spread to a broader movement opposed to a range of pandemic measures and to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in general.
Mr Trudeau took the rare step this week to declare a national public order emergency – the first such declaration in half a century – to end the protests.