Police flocked to downtown Ottawa in what truckers feared was a prelude to a crackdown on protests against Covid-19 restrictions that paralyzed Canada’s capital for nearly three weeks.
The city’s police chief said he intended to break up the protest and retake the city center “in the next few days” and early Thursday work crews began erecting fences in front of parliament.
Inside, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told MPs it was “high time these illegal and dangerous activities stopped”.
“They are a threat to our economy and our relationship with our trading partners,” he said. “They are a threat to public safety.”
Additional Quebec police have been deployed to reinforce the Ottawa City Police, Ontario Provincial Police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the city.
As heavy rain fell, police handed out a second round of written warnings – most of which were either refused by protesters or immediately thrown away.
“I’m Romanian, I lived through communism, it’s a communist country!” said Christian Muntean, a trucker from Windsor, Ont., who said he had no plans to leave.
Other members of the so-called Freedom Convoy mocked the officers, with some calling them “traitors” and others saying they had no authority to move vehicles blockading downtown.
Ottawa represented the last bastion of the so-called Freedom Convoy after weeks of protests and blockades that closed border crossings to the United States, inflicted economic damage on both countries and created a political crisis for Trudeau. The protests have also inspired similar convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
Trudeau was due to address parliament on Thursday morning, not far from where the protesters were parked.
Protest leaders warned that a police crackdown was imminent and called on supporters to flood downtown.
“It’s going down,” executive Pat King said in a Facebook video. “Truckers, get up. Turn on your radios. Get on your horns. A long shot. Let’s go guys.”
The police warnings came days after Trudeau invoked Canada’s Emergency Measures Act, authorizing law enforcement authorities to declare blockades illegal, tow trucks and punish drivers by arresting them, freezing their bank accounts and suspending their licences.
Since the end of January, demonstrators in trucks, tractors and motorhomes have clogged the streets of the capital and obstructed border crossings. The protests initially focused on Canada’s demand for vaccines for truckers entering the country, but quickly turned into a broad attack on Covid-19 precautions and the Trudeau government.
Protests across the country have drawn support from right-wing extremists and veterans, and authorities have been reluctant for weeks to act against them, in part for fear of violence.
On Tuesday, Ottawa officials said 360 vehicles remained involved in the blockade in the downtown core, down from a peak of around 4,000. The occupation has infuriated many Ottawa residents, who have complained to be harassed and intimidated.
At a cafe near the protests, a woman said: “I don’t care what the police do, as long as they put an end to this case. I have two jobs and when I come home all I hear is car horns. I’m sick of it. I just want this to end.