Ottawa police brace for weekend surge of ‘Freedom Convoy’ protesters


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OTTAWA—Police and opposition Conservatives took a harder line against “Freedom Convoy” demonstrators on Friday, as Canada’s capital city braces for an expected surge of protesters that could see thousands of truckers and their supporters join the ongoing occupation of the streets around Parliament Hill.

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OTTAWA—Police and opposition Conservatives took a harder line against “Freedom Convoy” demonstrators on Friday, as Canada’s capital city braces for an expected surge of protesters that could see thousands of truckers and their supporters join the ongoing occupation of the streets around Parliament Hill.

Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly promised an additional 150 officers will be stationed through the downtown core over the next four days, and that police would put up concrete barriers to prevent semis and other vehicles from parking alongside those already clogging much of the city centre.

Describing the situation as “increasingly volatile and increasingly dangerous,” Sloly said protesters who remained in Ottawa since last week are “extremely resistant to all attempts to end the demonstration safely.” He urged new protesters coming to the city not to bring guns, after one man was arrested for allegedly trying to transport one to Ottawa last weekend.

Justin Tang - THE CANADIAN PRESS Counter-protesters outside an Ottawa police station on Feb. 3, 2022 hold signs protesting the police response to a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions that continues to gridlock streets in the downtown core.

“The hatred, the violence, the illegal acts that Ottawa residents and businesses have endured over the last week is unacceptable in any circumstance,” said Sloly, who revealed that he is among a number of city officials who has received death threats in recent days.

To the protesters, he added, “Do not bring weapons. Do not bring firearms. Do not come here to cause harm. Do not come here to break the law. You will be held to account.”

Meanwhile, after days of expressing support for the protesters, federal Conservatives joined other parties in calling for the end of the demonstrations, which began as a cross-Canada convoy that came to Ottawa to call for an end to COVID-19 vaccination mandates and health measures.

In a statement Friday, interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen suggested for the first time that the protesters need to leave. The Globe and Mail reported Thursday that, in an email earlier this week, Bergen had urged former leader Erin O’Toole not to call for an end to the protests, arguing the party should try to “turn this into the (prime minister’s) problem.”

“Canadians and Conservatives have heard you loud and clear,” Bergen’s statement said. “Regardless of political stripe, we all want an end to the demonstrations, and we all want an end to the restrictions.”

Other Tories took to social media with stronger condemnations. Pierre Paul-Hus, a Conservative MP from Quebec, tweeted that he spent the past week “undergoing the Siege of Ottawa,” and asked “that we stop this occupation controlled by radicals and anarchist groups.”

Marty Morantz, a Tory MP from Manitoba, condemned the display of Nazi swastikas by some protesters, as well as signs showing the Star of David that compare vaccination mandates to the horrors Jews faced in Germany during the Holocaust.

“Voices like these must always be condemned — never defended or explained away,” Morantz wrote on Twitter.

Sen. Dennis Patterson, meanwhile, left the Conservative caucus on Friday, and denounced the presence of Nazi symbols and Confederate flags among the protesters, as well as the alleged “desecration” of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an incident the Ottawa police say they are investigating.

“Nothing a person like that has to say is anything I’m interested in hearing and nothing I respect,” he wrote on Twitter.

“And if you are parking illegally and blockading a public road, interfering with ordinary citizens right to live their lives and peacefully go about their business on Parliament Hill and downtown, you are showing contempt for the law, which is also intolerable.”

Several Conservative MPs have signalled support for the protesters, including former leader Andrew Scheer, who argued federal vaccination mandates went too far and claimed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Trudeau is the “biggest threat to freedom in Canada.”

Another prominent Conservative, Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre, criticized the media for “disparaging” the protesters, whom he has called “bright, joyful and peaceful Canadians championing freedom over fear.”

Over the past week, Ottawa residents have voiced exasperation with the blaring horns of the convoy protesters who have parked long lines of vehicles and semis on streets through the downtown core. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said it was “disgraceful” for Conservative MPs to pose with truckers demonstrating in the city, amid reports of alleged crimes and the closure of businesses in the city’s centre.

The demonstration began last Saturday after a convoy of truckers and their supporters drove across Canada to protest on Parliament Hill against COVID-19 vaccination mandates and health restrictions. It has morphed into an occupation of the city’s downtown core and sparked parallel demonstrations in other parts of the country, including a highway blockade in southern Alberta and a planned protest at Queen’s Park on Saturday.

Stewart Bell, Ottawa’s deputy police chief, said Friday that 300 to 400 more trucks are expected to come to the city this weekend, along with between 1,000 and 2,000 supporters on foot. Bell said the police believe up to 1,000 counter-protesters are also preparing their own demonstration alongside the convoy supporters in the Parliamentary precinct.

Asked why protesters have been allowed to distribute food and fuel to trucks occupying the downtown core — and even set up a depot of propane tanks and a shed next the Rideau Canal — Sloly denied police have facilitated the protest in any way. He called the situation “unprecedented” and claimed police had successfully prevented an eruption of violence similar to the assault on the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

“I take no solace in that success. I learned from that, and I learned from the mistakes made,” he said. “Every day we wake up and try to do it better. We need to do it better, and we will do it better.”

Ottawa police have so far arrested three people, including one man who was charged with uttering threats on social media, another who was charged with carrying “a weapon to a public meeting.”

At the same time, police are urging the public to make official reports of alleged crimes, indicating in a statement this week that they are aware of “assaults, hate crimes, sexual assault, spitting and other threatening and criminal behaviour” that haven’t been called in.

Another aspect of the protests Sloly said police would focus on is funding. He said Friday that they would investigate who is financing the demonstrations, after warning earlier this week that a “significant element” from the United States is helping to finance and organize the protests in the city. Ottawa police are also working with the American Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security Department to investigate online threats relating to the protests that are coming from the United States, he said.

Hours after Sloly’s statements, GoFundMe announced it would suspend the delivery of money “directly” to the convoy organizers, after the group raised more than $10 million through the online fundraising platform. Instead, the company said it would work with the organizers to send the money to “credible and established charities” of their choice.

Earlier Friday, the Parliamentary Black Caucus issued a written call — signed by dozens of MPs, senators and Liberal cabinet ministers — for the House of Commons to call for the public release of details relating to online donations to the convoy protests. The caucus is also seeking to ban the public display of the Nazi swastika and Confederate flags, an initiative shared by the federal NDP, as well as a parliamentary study into the events surrounding the “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations.

Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga

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