Ottawa fears vaccine protest could turn into occupation

OTTAWA — Police in Canada’s capital are weighing military aid or a court order to end a week-long protest against vaccination mandates that has forced businesses to close, frayed residents’ nerves and strangled pans downtown.

The protests, led by truckers and their supporters, have jammed traffic in Ottawa and disrupted the daily lives of residents. Police said this week their intelligence indicated more truckers and citizens, possibly tens of thousands, were heading to Ottawa this weekend. City politicians say the protest, which began on January 28, has turned into a sit-in.

“The sentiment is unanimous: this occupation of our city must end,” said Laura Dudas, City Councilor and Deputy Mayor of Ottawa.

The prospect of more protesters this weekend threatens to further unnerve residents who find themselves in the midst of a fight over measures to contain Covid-19 and encourage vaccination. Louise Pitre, who is working from home due to the pandemic, said she sought solace in a closet to escape the relentless howl of air horns from dozens of trucks parked in main hallways.

“I can’t concentrate,” she says.

Ottawa protesters are opposing a move by Canada and the United States to ban unvaccinated truckers from entering their country.


Photo:

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Associated Press

Dustin Carey said anti-mask protesters harassed him for wearing a mask while running errands.

“I didn’t particularly want to make it worse, so I tried to ignore it,” he said. But “people who live downtown are kind of reaching their breaking point.”

The city’s main downtown shopping center closed until Monday and vaccination clinics in the area stopped working for a few days. A downtown homeless shelter said protesters harassed staff and volunteers for a meal from its soup kitchen.

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said authorities are concerned that protest organizers – who call their protest “Freedom Convoy 2022” – have expertise and fundraising at levels nationally and internationally, including in the United States, although he declined at a press conference to give further details. To date, protest organizers have raised more than $10 million through donations to crowdsourcing website GoFundMe.

Chief Sloly added that protesters are also in possession of firearms and other weapons, which he says complicates police efforts. Ottawa police arrested and filed a weapons-related charge against a protester on Tuesday.

Neither Freedom Convoy spokesperson Tamara Lich nor a lawyer representing the protest organizers responded to questions from a reporter at a Thursday news conference about Chief Sloly’s claims. Ms Lich told reporters the protest would continue until all levels of government lifted Covid-19 restrictions and vaccination mandates.

“The longer this protest continues, the greater the risk to public safety,” Chief Sloly told city officials on Wednesday. “All options are on the table to resolve this protest. That said, there may not be a police solution to this protest.

Among the options being considered, he said, are seeking a court injunction to have the protesters removed and requesting the assistance of the Canadian Armed Forces. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday he had not received a request for military aid. Late Thursday evening, the Government of Canada agreed to provide additional Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers to assist local law enforcement.

Some protesters said they had sympathy for nearby residents, but they are in Ottawa because governments “won’t listen to citizens.”


Photo:

lars hagberg/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Earlier in the week, Trudeau said the country was “shocked and frankly disgusted” by the behavior of some protesters, citing harassment by staff at a homeless shelter, desecration of the National War Memorial and the presence of a Confederate flag and a banner with swastikas. Mr Trudeau added that he would not budge from abandoning the Covid-19 rules as he was re-elected last fall with a mandate to make vaccination compulsory for government employees and workers in other sectors, as well as for people who travel by plane and train.

One of the protesters, Tyler Chiliak, said he had sympathy for Ottawa residents. “They are suffering the consequences of having a multitude of quite angry people sitting here with very boring instruments, namely train horns and air horns,” said Mr. Chiliak, a farmer from western Canada. who traveled 1,800 miles in a van with a camper strapped on to witness the protest. He’s in Ottawa, he said, because governments have “become a bit draconian and tyrannical” with Covid-19 policies, “and refuse to listen to citizens.”

Hundreds of drivers parked in downtown Ottawa, either directly in front of the country’s main legislative building or along stretches of major north-south corridors. On a recent visit to the protest area, people moved through the streets and sidewalks carrying signs and waving flags, while drivers honked car and train horns and revved their engines. In surrounding residential areas, large transport trucks have been commonplace for several days, along with smaller vehicles decorated with Canadian flags.

Truckers and their supporters played street hockey on Wellington Street in Ottawa to pass the time.


Photo:

PATRICK DOYLE/The Canadian Press/Associated Press

Free snacks were offered to protesters outside Parliament Hill in Ottawa.


Photo:

BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS

Other trucker protests are bubbling across the country, in response to a decision last month by Canada and the United States to ban unvaccinated truckers from entering their countries. Before January, truckers were considered essential workers and allowed to cross the border with goods, while borders were closed to non-essential travel. Canada’s leading trucking association distanced itself from the protest, adding that nearly 90% of drivers are considered fully vaccinated.

In her press conference, Ms. Lich said the protesters in Ottawa “are average, peace-loving, law-abiding citizens from all walks of life who are tired of being looked down upon and bullied by our governments.” She said she wanted to assure Ottawa residents that the protesters “would not stay a day longer than necessary. Our departure will be based on the Prime Minister doing the right thing.

Donald Shultz, 72, said he slipped and hit his head on the floor of his downtown Ottawa apartment on Tuesday night. Because he takes blood thinners and has other health issues, he said he should have called an ambulance. He said he chose not to do so for fear that paramedics could get to his apartment building.

“I’m starting to get stressed,” said Mr. Shultz, a few blocks from his apartment building and getting around with the help of a walker. He said personal care workers who came to clean his house and help him bathe had difficulty getting to his house. “I want this to end.”

Céleste Côté, a government employee, says she has had trouble sleeping since the protesters arrived. “There’s a lot going around about how the constant forms of noise are a form of torture that’s been used to break people down. And I believe it, ”said Ms. Côté, outside her downtown building. “It’s just constant. And there is no escape.

Ottawa police said officers filed eight unnecessary noise charges on Wednesday.

Ms. Lich and Keith Wilson, an attorney representing Freedom Convoy organizers, said Thursday that the $10 million raised so far through GoFundMe would eventually go to truckers participating in the protest, to reimburse expenses such as fuel.

Protest supporters parked their trucks and other vehicles along a promenade leading into downtown Ottawa.


Photo:

Adrian Wyld//The Canadian Press/Associated Press

Write to Paul Vieira at [email protected]

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