OTTAWA, Ontario – Hundreds of truckers crowding Canada’s capital stood their ground and blew their horns on Thursday, even as police arrested two protest leaders and threatened to break up the nearly three-week protest against the country’s Covid-19 restrictions.
Buses full of police arrived near Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and workers erected additional fencing around government buildings. Police also began closing off much of the city center to outsiders to prevent them from coming to the aid of protesters.
“Action is imminent,” said Ottawa Police Acting Chief Steve Bell. “We are absolutely determined to put an end to this illegal demonstration.”
Police arrested two organizers around Parliament Hill, but officers were not advancing in force on the protesters.
Police continued to negotiate with protesters and try to persuade them to go home, Bell said. “We want this protest to end peacefully,” he said, but added, “If they don’t leave peacefully, we have plans.”
Many truckers on the so-called Freedom Convoy seemed oblivious to days of police and government warnings that they risked arrest and could have their rigs seized and bank accounts frozen.
One of their executives, Pat King, said there was “no tow truck in Canada that would hit” trucks parked bumper-to-bumper.
King then told the truckers to lock their doors.
Amid rising tensions, truck drivers outside Parliament honked their horns in defiance of a court injunction against honking, issued to benefit residents of the area.
Ottawa represented the movement’s last stronghold 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 shaken Canada’s reputation for civility and respect for rules and inspired similar convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
“It is high time that these illegal and dangerous activities stop,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Parliament, not far from where more than 300 trucks were parked.
“They are a threat to our economy and our relationship with our trading partners,” he said. “They are a threat to public safety.”
Ottawa police have begun locking down a large swath of downtown, allowing only those who live or work there after passing through one of more than 100 checkpoints, the acting chief said.
The police were particularly worried about children among the protesters. Bell said police are working with child protection agencies to determine how to safely remove the youths before authorities intervene.
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister invoked Canada’s Emergencies Act, authorizing law enforcement authorities to declare blockades illegal, tow trucks, arrest drivers, suspend their permits and to take other measures.
On Thursday, Trudeau and some of his top ministers took turns warning protesters to leave, in an apparent move by the government to avoid a confrontation, or at least show it had gone the extra mile to avoid one.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government had started freezing the accounts of threatened truckers. ” That happens. I have the numbers in front of me,” she said.
Ottawa police also handed out leaflets for the second day in a row demanding truckers end the siege, and also placed notices on vehicles advising owners how and where to retrieve their trucks if towed.
The occupation has infuriated many Ottawa residents.
“We saw people being intimidated, harassed and threatened. We saw apartment buildings that were chained together. We saw fires lit in the hallways. Residents are terrified,” said Canadian Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.
Protests by demonstrators in trucks, tractors and motorhomes initially focused on Canada’s requirement for vaccines for truckers entering the country, but quickly turned into a broader attack on Covid precautions -19 and the Trudeau government.
The largest and most damaging border blockade occurred at the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit. Before authorities arrested dozens of protesters last weekend and lifted the siege, it disrupted the flow of auto parts between the two countries and forced the industry to cut production.
The latest blockade, in Manitoba, ended peacefully on Wednesday.
The movement has won support from right-wing extremists and veterans, some of whom are armed – one reason authorities have been reluctant to act against them.
Fox News personalities and American conservatives such as former President Donald Trump have encouraged the protests. Trudeau complained Thursday that “about half of the funding for the barricaders here comes from the United States.”
Some security experts said dispersing the protest in Ottawa could be tricky and dangerous, with the potential for violence, and that a heavy-handed response by law enforcement could be used as propaganda by anti-government extremists.
The trucks were parked side by side downtown, some with tires removed to impede towing.
“There really isn’t a playbook,” said David Carter, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice and a former police officer. “I know there are police chiefs in the United States who are studying this and developing strategic plans and partnerships to handle a protest like this should it happen in their cities.”
The presence of children also complicated the planning. As a confrontation appeared to be approaching, Canada’s Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said: “For those who have children with them, this is no place for children. Take them home immediately.