Ottawa police issued a long-awaited warning to the protesters clogging Canada’s capital to clear the streets or risk criminal charges on Wednesday, while deep political divisions burst forward on Parliament Hill after nearly two weeks of anti-vaccine mandate protests.
“The unlawful act of blocking streets in the downtown core is resulting in people being denied the lawful use, enjoyment and operation of their property,” the police said in a written statement, which told demonstrators to stop blocking streets or face the possibility of being charged with mischief to property.
“You could be arrested without a warrant for this offence if you are a party to the offence or assisting others in the direct or indirect commission in this offence.”
The police also warn that protesters’ vehicles and other property may be seized and possibly forfeited, and that charges or convictions related to unlawful activity may lead to them being barred from travelling to the United States.
After the warning was issued, those at the protest continued to walk around, sit in their trucks and eat food at the site, as well as listen to a speaker talk about COVID-19 vaccines from a stage assembled on a flatbed truck. As it grew dark, some huddled around a makeshift bonfire.
With an injunction in place on the incessant honking from the protesting truckers, the streets, which appeared to have fewer vehicles than last week, were quiet of horns.
The declaration from police comes after municipal officials in Ottawa spoke with the federal government to find solutions to end the protest that has sparked solidarity rallies, some of which have blocked traffic at border crossings in Coutts, Alta., and the busy Windsor-Detroit Ambassador Bridge crossing.
Earlier Wednesday, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair acknowledged the serious difficulties Ottawa residents have endured. Blair said he and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino met Tuesday night with Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and his officials.
“They’ve been subject to acts of thuggery and disrespect. Crimes have been committed,” Blair said.
“We are working very closely with our municipal partners to ensure that the Ottawa Police Service has the resources that they need to enforce the law to restore public order and to bring this unlawful protest to an end.”
The new law enforcement effort came as political divisions bubbled to the surface within the governing Liberals and the Conservative Opposition as two provinces began easing COVID-19 restrictions while the anti-vaccine mandate protests in Ottawa and elsewhere went on.
The Trudeau government faced growing pressure Wednesday to provide a concrete pandemic endgame after a Quebec MP broke ranks and accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of trying to “demonize” people who have legitimate criticisms of the way the pandemic is being managed. He also called for a clear road map detailing how federal pandemic restrictions will be lifted.
The Conservative caucus also started showing new cracks whether it was time for the Ottawa protesters to move on.
Conservative MP Kevin Waugh, who was criticized along with other Saskatchewan Conservative MPs and a senator last week for showing support to the protest by posing in a photo with a truck on Ottawa’s streets, said it was time for them to leave.
“They’ve made their statement,” said Waugh. But he added one key caveat: “The Liberals need to move on. We’ve seen that out here. The convoy’s done one thing: changed minds in this country.”
Not all of his colleagues agreed.
“They should stay,” said Conservative MP Rachael Thomas.
Liberal ministers, including Trudeau, were forced to address the internal divisions that were exposed when Quebec Liberal MP Joël Lightbound broke ranks with his party, a move that cost him his position as the province’s caucus chairman.
The divisions emerging within the Liberal caucus were immediate fodder for the Conservatives, with interim Leader Candice Bergen saying if Trudeau won’t listen to the science telling him he is wrong, will he at least listen to his MPs.
“Why is the prime minister so offside, not only with the science, but it would seem, with a growing number of his caucus?”
Trudeau said he’d spoken to Lightbound and will continue to do so, but that science and public health guidance is what will get Canadians out of the pandemic.
The debate in Ottawa is unfolding against the backdrop of decisions by the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan to end pandemic restrictions in the coming days.
Alberta has just ended its COVID-19 vaccine passport program for non-essential businesses and events. It will also lift its mask mandate for children 12 and under and for all students in schools on Monday.
Saskatchewan announced its proof of vaccination mandate will end on Monday, and indoor masking and self-isolation rules will stay in place until the end of the month.
“It’s not going to be going away entirely,” said Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson. “But now is not the time to be … dropping those kinds of restrictions.”
Ontario Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski, a former emergency room doctor in Thunder Bay, said with Omicron waning now, it is time to start looking at lifting some restrictions. But he said the occupation in Ottawa makes it difficult to do anything without making it appear as if you’re giving in to the convoy rather than following science.
The divisions appear to have also extended to the protest movement in Ottawa. Earlier this week, some of the leaders involved in the demonstration suggested that if the prime minister would not meet with them, they would form a coalition with the federal New Democrats and Conservatives.
Keith Wilson, the lawyer for the convoy’s organizers, called those earlier statements “fairy dust,” Wednesday, and that the convoy’s objective is to get protesters’ rights respected and to eliminate COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
The NDP is calling on David Cohen, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, to testify before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee about American influence in funding the protests.
“This is very clearly an attack on our democracy,” New Democrat foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson said. “There is funding coming in from foreign countries that is funding a far-right protest.”
The Commons committee meets Thursday and would require unanimous consent of all parties to issue an invitation to Cohen.
Earlier this week, an Ottawa judge granted a 10-day injunction that orders truckers to stop honking their loud horns, which has led to the downtown core being noticeably quieter in recent days. The injunction was the result of a court action brought by a group of private citizens, not the city.
“It shouldn’t be up to residents to seek this kind of protection from the court on clearly public danger and harms,” Coun. Jeff Leiper said Wednesday.
“I am very keen to see that the city begin seeking those injunctions.”
— Mike Blanchfield, Laura Osman and Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press