(AFP)— Canadian police were poised Thursday to move against a trucker-led protest that has choked the national capital’s streets for three weeks and finally provoked the government into calling on rarely used emergency powers.
“Action is imminent,” Ottawa police chief Steve Bell told reporters. “I implore anyone that’s there: Get in your truck… and leave our city streets.”
Criticised for failing to act decisively to end the protests, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week invoked the Emergencies Act, which gives the government sweeping powers to deal with a major crisis. It’s only the second time such powers have been invoked in peacetime.
The so-called “Freedom Convoy” started with truckers protesting against mandatory COVID vaccines to cross the US border, but its demands have since grown to include an end to all pandemic health rules and, for many, a wider anti-establishment agenda.
At its peak, the movement also included blockades of a half-dozen US-Canada border crossings — including a key trade route across the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan.
Earlier Thursday, police were deployed in force into the area around the Canadian parliament, where hundreds of big rigs remained parked.
“We’ve begun to harden the perimeter around the protests,” Bell said, adding that access to downtown Ottawa would be restricted for several days to prevent more people joining the demonstration.
“What I can tell you is this weekend will look very different than the past three weekends,” he added.
And Trudeau was in the House of Commons, defending his decision to resort to the Emergencies Act.
In response to critics, he said the Act was not being used to call in the military against the protesters, and denied restricting freedom of expression.
The objective was simply to “deal with the current threat and to get the situation fully under control.”
“Illegal blockades and occupations are not peaceful protests,” Trudeau said, adding: “They have to stop.”
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the situation in Ottawa was “precarious.”
The demonstrators had been given an ultimatum late Wednesday by Bell to leave or risk arrest and truck seizures.
In a statement, he pledged “to take back the entirety of the downtown core and every occupied space,” while warning that “some of the techniques we are lawfully able and prepared to use are not what we are used to seeing in Ottawa.”
Truckers responded by blaring horns through the night and into Thursday. Waving Canadian flags on the ends of hockey sticks, they also chanted, “Freedom!”
One of the protest leaders, Tamara Lich, posted a tearful video to say she was expecting to be arrested. She called on supporters to flood the capital, saying truckers already in place “are gonna stay and fight for your freedom.”
“If you can come to Ottawa and stand with us, that would be fantastic,” she said.
Emergency powers have been invoked in Canada only once before, in 1970 by Trudeau’s father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, to crush Quebec separatists who’d kidnapped two officials and set off bombs in Montreal.
Calling on truckers to “go home,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland warned that the penalties for staying “will bite.”
“Let me also be clear that we will have zero tolerance for the establishment of new blockades or occupations,” she added after a convoy was stopped late Wednesday from re-occupying the Ambassador Bridge.
Officials had announced Wednesday a negotiated peaceful end to the last of the blockades, which Mendicino said had cost the economy billions of dollars.
In documents filed to the Commons, the government laid out its rationale for invoking the Emergencies Act, saying the trucker convoy has created a critical and urgent situation that cannot be dealt with under any other Canadian laws.
It cited “a risk of serious violence and the potential for lone actor attackers to conduct terrorism attacks.”
In a letter to provincial premiers, Trudeau decried the protests as “a threat to our democracy.”
Police this week arrested dozens of protesters, including four people charged with conspiracy to murder police officers at a checkpoint between Coutts, Alberta and Sweet Grass, Montana.
They also seized dozens of vehicles, as well as a cache of weapons that included rifles, handguns, body armor and ammunition.
Freeland said bank accounts of protesters and their backers have been frozen, “and more accounts will be frozen.”
Authorities have also moved to choke off crowdfunding and cryptocurrency transactions supporting the protesters, she said.