Police pushed into Parliament Hill on Saturday as part of a cordon-off-and-clear strategy to end a three-week anti-pandemic-restriction protest that has blockaded the nation’s capital and disrupted businesses and the lives of residents.
Backed by armoured tactical vehicles and riot police, officers advanced Saturday morning past the Prime Minister’s Office and a stage that protesters had set up in front of the Parliament buildings. The area had been a makeshift party venue for the past three weeks, with food stands and protesters dancing to music.
Police on horses moved in to support officers on foot as they pushed demonstrators back past the Parliament buildings. They used a recorded bullhorn message that urged people to leave or face arrest.
Protesters yelled “stay, stay” and “freedom.”
A large area of Wellington Street from Parliament Hill to the Supreme Court of Canada was empty after truckers, who had blocked the street with their vehicles, left to avoid being arrested and losing their rigs. Trucks and RVs that occupied a significant section of Kent Street left as protesters worked to dig their vehicles out of snow before the police arrived.
“We are in this until it is over ... to finish this unlawful occupation,” Interim Ottawa Police Chief Steve Bell told an afternoon news conference, during which he implored demonstrators to leave. “Go home. And if you don’t go home, we will remove you from the streets,” he said.
He warned that anyone involved in the protest will face charges.
“We will actively look to identify you and follow up with financial sanctions and criminal charges, absolutely. This investigation will go for months,” he said.
Lloyd Crowe, a farmer from Prince Edward County in Ontario, said he was going home rather than confronting the police.
“We are not part of the people pushing the police. That is not us,” he said as he drove away in his tractor trailer.
City workers set up fences on Elgin Street, one of Ottawa’s main arteries, to block access to Parliament Hill and the National War Memorial. Fences were also erected along Sparks Street, effectively shutting off the parliamentary precinct from demonstrators.
Ottawa Police said they had arrested 47 people on Saturday, as of the early afternoon, and had towed 38 vehicles since Friday. More than 170 protesters had been arrested since Friday, and about 3,600 parking tickets had been handed out.
Dani Perron, who was standing in a crowd as police steadily advanced on Wellington Street and pepper sprayed some protesters, said she came to the demonstration from Quebec because she is fed up with pandemic measures.
Ms. Perron said she wants to be able to choose what kind of medicine is good for her and her family, and for them to be free of face masks. She said she is homeschooling her two children.
“This is really sad,” she said of the police action. “They are not just pushing, they are spreading pepper spray … they are spreading fear.”
This was the fourth time she had joined the protesters, she said. She added that she was planning to stay in Ottawa until Monday.
She said people were being warned that children would be taken if they were brought to the area where police are clearing protesters.
The Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa (CASO) said parents who had been camping out with children on Parliament Hill had left, but raised concerns about people bringing their children to watch the continuing police action.
“The presence of children and youth within or near the zone is highly concerning. Ottawa Police have warned that anyone within the site will be arrested,” said CASO executive director Kelly Raymond.
On Saturday afternoon, Ottawa Police tweeted: “We are seeing young children being brought to the front of the police operation. This is dangerous and it is putting the children at risk. Children may be taken to a place of safety.”
The police mobilization in the parliamentary precinct took place as the House of Commons resumed sitting to debate the never-before-used Emergencies Act, which the federal government invoked this week in response to the blockades. The Commons and Senate shut down Friday for safety reasons.
The invocation of the Emergencies Act gave police sweeping powers to clear the streets. The emergency measures include freezing of protest-related bank accounts, removal of protesters’ vehicle insurance and banning protests near Parliament Hill and border crossings. The measures require tow-truck drivers, who had been afraid of reprisals from protesters, to assist the police.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told reporters Saturday that 76 bank accounts containing a combined $3.2-million had been frozen. Authorities believe those accounts belong to protesters or their supporters.
Mr. Mendicino said the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FinTRAC), the agency that monitors money laundering, is continuing to track money and accounts that it will ask banks to freeze.
One of the organizers of the protest, Tom Marazzo, said Saturday that his bank account was frozen and his credit card had been cancelled.
During Saturday’s debate in the Commons, Conservative MP Michael Barrett objected to the freezing of bank accounts, calling the measure a “gross overreach” and an infringement on Canadians’ charter rights.
“We are talking about Canadians having Canadian bank accounts frozen because they have political views that the Justice Minister does not like,” he said. “That is not a liberal democracy. It is, frankly, illiberal.”
Veteran NDP MP Charlie Angus denounced the Conservatives for refusing to challenge the protest leaders, some of whom have espoused racist views and promoted the overthrow of the government.
“I have never ever heard a single Conservative stand up and say that those views are fundamentally wrong,” Mr. Angus said. “There is a problem in our nation when we decide that it is okay to burn down the house of democracy.”
In the U.S., New Mexico Republican Congresswoman Yvette Herrell tweeted her opposition to what she called Justin Trudeau’s heavy-handed crackdown on peaceful protesters. She vowed to introduce legislation to grant asylum to Canadian demonstrators who are being “persecuted by their own government.”
As the police sweep was happening in Ottawa on Saturday, two of the protest’s organizers, Tamara Lich and Pat King, were set to face court appearances. A bail hearing took place Saturday for Ms. Lich, who was arrested Thursday night and faces several charges, including mischief and interfering with the lawful use and operation of property.
The judge reserved her bail decision. Ms. Lich was return to jail until a court appearance on Tuesday morning.
A bail hearing for Mr. King, who livestreamed his own arrest on Friday, is now expected to take place early next week. Mr. King faces charges of mischief, counselling to commit the offence of disobeying a court order and counselling to obstruct police.
Ms. Lich has been a prominent voice throughout the protest. She launched a GoFundMe fundraising campaign that collected millions of dollars before the online platform cancelled the drive.
Wayne Lich, Ms. Lich’s husband, testified at her bail hearing that he flew to Ottawa on Feb. 2 on a private jet, the $5,000 cost of which was covered by a “really nice gentleman” he doesn’t personally know.
Ms. Lich appeared in person, wearing a face mask in the prisoner’s box of an Ottawa courtroom.
She testified that she wants to return to Alberta to be with her husband and children, and she pledged a $5,000 bond, saying that was all she could afford.
She promised to give up her advocacy of the protest and leave Ottawa, saying she would need several days to make those arrangements because she does not have a vaccine passport that would enable her to fly, and because her bank accounts are now frozen.
As police moved on to Parliament Hill, some officers smashed windows and removed people from vehicles. Tow trucks moved in to remove trucks and other vehicles.
The main area on Parliament Hill has large trucks parked bumper to bumper, making it difficult for police to clear out demonstrators. Many truckers said they are ready to give up their rigs for what they describe as the fight of their lives, against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
“What’s my truck worth if I don’t have life?” said Csaba Vizi from Windsor, Ont.
Medicine Hat, Alta., trucker Kevin Eresmen said he is not worried about going to jail or losing his large rig.
“They can go to hell,” said Mike Johnson, who drove his rig to Parliament Hill when the protest began in late January. He said he is strongly opposed to vaccine mandates. “It’s a two-year failed experiment and it never stopped. It should have ended.”
“What do we have left to lose anymore?” added Hank Winkels, a 34-year-old from Norwich, Ont., who arrived in Ottawa Saturday morning.
His father, he said, had been parked at the protest since day one. “I told him to get out. It’s not worth it.” He said his father, who is 68 and contracts out his own truck, had been forced to retire because he didn’t want to get vaccinated. “He made his last run just before the mandates came in.”
Mr. Winkels said his hope is that “we made a statement to the world that this is not right.”
At Bank and Wellington streets, about half a dozen people were getting their eyes washed out with water after being pepper sprayed by police, who were steadily moving a group of protesters back along Wellington.
Kunwar Singh was pepper sprayed while standing near the front of a crowd, close to where some people stood on a makeshift wall of snow.
Mr. Singh, who is self-employed, said he attended demonstrations in Toronto earlier this month, but wanted to come to Ottawa this weekend to defend people who don’t have a voice.
The vaccine mandates are “about segregation and discrimination,” said Mr. Singh, who also opposes the government’s decision to enact emergency measures to end the protest. As a Sikh Canadian, he added, he wanted to contribute a diverse presence to the group.
Many downtown businesses, including Ottawa’s largest shopping mall, have been closed for weeks during the protest. The government announced Saturday that small businesses affected by the blockades can apply for up to $10,000 each to cover certain operational costs.
The crackdown began on Friday morning and was supported by mounted police, special obstacle-removal units and police dog teams, in one of the largest law enforcement operations in Canadian history. A security perimeter has been set up around most of downtown Ottawa, and almost 100 checkpoints are in place, with officers stopping vehicles and only granting access to people who live and work in the area.
Meanwhile in Quebec City, thousands of protesters gathered near the National Assembly, where police said three people were arrested.
Police said the vast majority of demonstrators were peaceful and respected an agreement to only park their trucks and protest in a designated area.
In British Columbia, border officials warned travellers to avoid the Pacific Highway border crossing in Surrey because of continuing protests.
The Canada Border Services Agency said the crossing was still operational, but advised travellers to use other nearby crossings to avoid delays and service disruption.
With files from The Canadian Press and Salmaan Farooqui
The Globe and Mail