OTTAWA, Ontario — The center of a sprawling protest in the Canadian capital was cleared of demonstrators for the first time in three weeks Saturday, following an aggressive push by armed police officers to drive out the protesters.
Starting about 10 a.m. police advanced on trucks that had been parked on Wellington Street, the thoroughfare in front of the Parliament building, drawing guns on some vehicles, and arresting protesters inside and nearby the trucks.
The operation was an escalation by authorities to finally end the protests, which began with a convoy of truckers rallying against vaccine mandates, and later inspired demonstrations around the world.
Officers, some brandishing batons, others holding rifles, pushed to regain the area in front of Parliament, expanding an operation that began Friday to remove demonstrators and parked trucks that have blocked the city’s downtown core.
In the heart of the encampment, police pushed people back with batons and irritant spray. They advanced methodically truck by truck as demonstrators shouted, “Shame on you!” At points, officers trained guns on individual trucks, or pointed them at the vehicles’ windows. They banged on doors, opening them up in an attempt to check for or dislodge any occupants who were still inside.
A recording played in French and English, as the police advanced. “You must leave,” it said. “Anyone found in the zone will be arrested.”
The police operation appeared to be a final salvo in the government’s belated effort to break up the occupation. In recent weeks, the demonstrations have attracted a variety of protesters airing grievances about pandemic restrictions, claims of government overreach and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s stewardship of the country.
By midmorning, police had cleared the demonstrators from what had been the occupation’s core, Wellington Street, in front of the house of Parliament, and set up barricades. Most of the trucks entrenched there for the past three weeks drove off when the advance began; a few abandoned vehicles remained.
As police pushed demonstrators away from Parliament, some congregated on side streets while police warned that there were children in the crowd. “We are seeing young children being brought to the front of the police operation,” Ottawa police said on Twitter. “This is dangerous and it is putting the children at risk.”
The Ottawa Police Service said that as of Friday evening, more than 100 people had been arrested on various charges, including “mischief,” a serious offense under Canada’s criminal law, which can carry a prison term of up to 10 years.
The protests had been by and large nonviolent, evoking the atmosphere of a carnival. But they snarled traffic across the capital, disrupted business and annoyed residents with incessant honking. Organizers inflated bouncy castles in the street, and people brought small children and dogs. DJs spun music from flatbed trucks-turned stages. At one point people soaked in a hot tub erected in front of the Parliament building.
Demonstrators condemned the show of force against their occupation. “It’s horrific,” said Dagny Pawlak, a spokesperson for the truckers, said in a text message Saturday. “A dark moment in Canadian history.” She added: “Never in my life would I have believed anyone if they told me that our own PM would refuse dialogue and choose violence against peaceful protesters instead.”
While the protesters grew more entrenched, criticism of the government’s failure to remove the occupation built across the country — and especially among many Ottawa residents.
Kathryn Moore, an administrator at the University of Ottawa, who said she lived close enough to the downtown core to hear the horns of the truckers when the wind blows in her direction. “I lost my patience after Week 2.”
Copycat protests, including the blockade of a vital international trade route between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, cost millions in lost revenue. And others, as far away as France and New Zealand, turned the world’s attention to the disruption in Ottawa, caused by a small, but vocal minority, in a country with one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world.
Efforts to rout the demonstrators began Friday in a standoff where police and demonstrators stood at loggerheads for more than five hours, a stalemate punctuated by the sudden appearance of a horse-mounted unit towering over the crowd. Police warned the shoving protesters that they were assaulting them, then deployed the mounted officers who charged parallel across the fault line between the two groups, the animals knocking over some protesters and stepping on at least one person. Police said that they were “unaware” if anyone was injured in the fracas.
Throughout the course of the protest, public opinion has shown that pandemic fatigue is high here, in a country that has frequently rolled out stringent coronavirus restrictions. In opinion polls, some expressed sympathy with the truckers’ motivations, but not their methods. Still, as the horns blared incessantly — a trademark of the demonstration, even after a judge enjoined it — many Canadians, particularly locals, lost their tolerance for the occupiers.
Some of the convoy’s self-appointed leaders had right-wing organizing backgrounds, including Tamara Lich, a former member of a fringe party that advocated secession for western provinces. Trump, QAnon or Confederate flags began to crop up in some of the trucker demonstrations across the country. Police officers arrested a group of people with a cache of weapons involved in a blockade in Alberta.
On Monday, Trudeau declared a national public order emergency — the first such declaration in half a century — giving the government the power to seize trucks and other vehicles used in the protests, seal off the demonstration’s stronghold and freeze the bank accounts of anyone involved.
Invoking such sweeping new powers was “unnecessary, unjustifiable and unconstitutional,” said a representative of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which plans to sue the government over the move. Trudeau and members of his Cabinet offered repeated assurance that the act would not be used to suspend “fundamental rights.”
In any case, many of the powers enabled Monday by Trudeau had already been given to police and authorities under a state of emergency by the province of Ontario.
On Friday, officers, backed by at least two armored vehicles, began to force demonstrators back toward Parliament Hill. Heavy tow trucks, their company names covered with Ottawa police stickers, hauled away semis that hadn’t budged for weeks.
Roadblocks set up around the city were tightly enforced. Cars going north were stopped and checked several times between the expressway and Parliament. People on foot who tried to bypass the police were warned they would be immediately arrested, which persuaded many to turn away.
Among those who have been taken into custody were some of the most prominent leaders of the protests: Daniel Bulford, a former police officer; Lich, a singer turned right-wing activist; Pat King, a prominent online champion of the protests; and Chris Barber, a trucker and official spokesperson of the movement.
On Friday, B.J. Dichter, a spokesperson for the convoy, wrote on Twitter that it was time for protesters to leave, saying that police had smashed the windows of one driver’s truck. But some of those who remained near the Parliament building said they had no plans to go home yet, even as law enforcement closed in.
“We can’t stop them,” said Mike Marsh, 48, nodding in the direction of the police. “All we can do is slow them down.”