TORONTO – Ottawa police said Wednesday that a “significant element” from the United States has been involved in the participation, funding and organization of a self-described “Freedom Convoy” that has for several days jammed streets in the capital to protest public health measures and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“They have converged in our city, and there are plans for more to come,” said Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly. He said that the participants, who also include locals and other Canadians, are “putting our city and our residents, our partners and our officers at great risk.”
The number of protesters has declined substantially from the thousands on Parliament Hill over the weekend. But a determined core group remains, officials say. With trucks noisily blocking streets, businesses shut down and residents frustrated for the sixth day, pressure has mounted on police to bring a resolution to the disruption.
“We are trying to be responsible, lawful, ethical and measured,” Sloly said. “The longer this goes on, the more I am convinced there may not be a police solution in this demonstration.”
Meanwhile, media reported that there had been a breakthrough in a blockade of a busy U.S.-Canada border crossing in southern Alberta, with protesters agreeing to open up one lane of traffic in each direction, citing lawyers working with the group.
Canadian officials had denounced the blockade as “unlawful.” It has blocked traffic since Saturday, creating traffic chaos and disrupting the flow of goods and services in solidarity with the demonstrators in Ottawa.
“What may have begun as a peaceful assembly quickly turned into an unlawful blockade,” the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Alberta said in a statement Tuesday, pledging to take action to clear the blockade under local laws that prevent interference with critical infrastructure, after attempts to negotiate with the protesters broke down.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday that he had been told of “people aligned with the protesters assaulting RCMP officers” and “trying to ram members . . . later leading to a collision with a civilian vehicle.”
The protests in Ottawa have sparked “several criminal investigations” into “threatening” and “illegal” behavior. Monuments including the National War Memorial were defaced, and demonstrators displayed “intimidating” behavior toward police and others, including staff members at a soup kitchen for homeless people, police said.
Some protesters carried Confederate flags, and at least one flag with a swastika drawn on it could be seen. Three people have been charged with offenses related to their actions during the protest, according to Ottawa police, and more than a dozen other investigations are underway.
Trudeau, who earlier said the demonstrations represented a “small fringe minority,” condemned protesters who displayed “symbols of hatred and division” this week. The convoy has garnered the support of several federal Conservative lawmakers.
A GoFundMe campaign for the Freedom Convoy organized by Tamara Lich – a former regional coordinator of “Wexit,” a movement pushing for Alberta to separate from Canada – had raised nearly $8 million as of Wednesday morning. The page says that it seeks funds for fuel, food and lodging and argues that vaccine mandates are “destroying the foundation of our businesses, industries and livelihoods.”
GoFundMe said Wednesday that it was pausing and reviewing the fundraiser “to ensure it complies with our terms of service and applicable laws and regulations.”
The convoy also has attracted support beyond Canada’s borders. Former president Donald Trump and Tesla founder Elon Musk, an opponent of vaccine mandates, have spoken in support of the truckers.
Canada and the United States announced last year that they would require truck drivers entering their respective countries to be fully vaccinated. Canada implemented its measure Jan. 15, while the U.S. requirement started on Jan. 22. Most cross-border trade between the two countries occurs over land.
If Canada were to drop its rule, unvaccinated Canadian truckers still would not be able to enter the United States.
The protest has snowballed into a demonstration against Trudeau, who was reelected in September with a minority government, and against coronavirus restrictions in general, which are imposed mostly by provincial governments.
Canada Unity, one of the groups behind the protests, said it wanted the governor general, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Canada, and the Senate to rescind the mandates or to dissolve the government – which is beyond their constitutional powers.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance, an industry group, said Saturday that many of the people at the weekend’s protests “do not have a connection to the trucking industry.” The alliance said the vast majority of its members are fully vaccinated.
In Alberta, local lawmaker Grant Hunter, of the right-of-center United Conservative Party, sparked a controversy when he posted a photo from the Coutts border crossing over the weekend with the caption: “I brought the grandkids down to the Coutts border today to show them the importance of standing up for freedom and liberty.”
In a follow-up statement Tuesday, Hunter wrote that he exercised his “constitutional right” to support the protest and its goal of ending public health restrictions.
“When I was there, the highway remained open to traffic and was not blocked off,” he said. “I have stated my support to get back to normal in Alberta and move from pandemic to endemic. . . . That being said, a peaceful protest is not a blockade that stops people from moving freely and so I ask those who are blocking the Coutts border crossing to let people through.”
Sonya Savage, Alberta’s energy minister, tweeted Tuesday that while she supports “Canadians’ democratic rights to peaceful protest,” she believes that “blockades of critical infrastructure cross the line.”
“This blockade must end,” she said.
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The Washington Post’s Jennifer Hassan and Adela Suliman contributed to this report.