Police began towing trucks from central Ottawa on Friday and stepped up arrests of protesters in a bid to end a trucker-led movement that has blockaded Canada’s capital for three weeks and embarrassed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.
The protesters have lined heavy trucks outside parliament and Trudeau’s office, and Ottawa police, fearing escalation or violence, had sought to disperse them with fines and threats.
But with dozens of trucks still occupying downtown, police on Thursday arrested two of the movement’s leaders and charged them with mischief. By Friday, after a night of heavy snow, officers had set up 100 road blocks near the protest site to deny people access and starve it of new supplies, like food and fuel.
“You must leave. You must cease further unlawful activity and immediately remove your vehicle and/or property from all unlawful protest sites. Anyone within the unlawful protest site may be arrested,” Ottawa Police wrote on Twitter.
At least one 18-wheeler truck was towed on Friday, and police were seen hooking up another for removal, a Reuters photographer said. Live television footage showed police had arrested at least 12 demonstrators.
The protesters initially wanted an end to cross-border COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truck drivers but the blockade gradually turned into an anti-government and anti-Trudeau demonstration. They have vowed to remain peaceful but say they will stand their ground until police physically remove them.
“If they want to arrest me, I’ll put my hands out, and they can twist, tie me up like everybody else here. We’re going peaceful,” said Mark, a protester from Nova Scotia who wouldn’t give his last name. Nearby, protesters inside a tent were frying eggs on a portable stove, with no apparent plans to leave.
Police, who have deployed hundreds of officers to central Ottawa, say the operation to clear the protest will take days. At least one BearCat, a military-style armored vehicle, was seen in downtown Ottawa.
Trudeau on Monday invoked emergency powers to give his government wider authorities to stop the protests. Legislators had been due to debate those temporary powers on Friday but the House of Commons suspended its session, citing police activity.
“If you are not in the House of Commons precinct, stay away from the downtown core until further notice,” a House of Commons notice said.
Trudeau sought the special powers after protesters shut down U.S. border crossings including Ontario’s Ambassador Bridge to Detroit, a choke point for the region’s automakers. The shutdown of the bridge, which was cleared on Sunday, had damaged both countries’ economies and posed a major crisis for Trudeau.
As police accelerated work to clear the protesters’ last stronghold, at least a dozen tow trucks were seen preparing to remove trucks and other protest vehicles still parked downtown.
Many of the tow trucks had all identification marks removed. Before Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act, police had said that some tow truck drivers were afraid to cooperate with authorities, fearing they might be the target of retaliation.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp., citing security sources, said authorities had set up a number of temporary detention centers around the city, presumably to hold detained protesters.