Ottawa Fears Vaccine Protest Has Morphed Into an Occupation

OTTAWA—Police in the Canadian capital are weighing military help or a court order to bring an end to a weeklong protest against vaccine mandates that has forced businesses to close, frayed residents’ nerves and strangled swaths of the city’s core.

The protests, led by truckers and their supporters, have clogged Ottawa traffic and disrupted residents’ daily lives. Police said this week their intelligence indicates that more truckers and citizens, perhaps in the tens of thousands, are headed toward Ottawa this weekend. City politicians say the protest, which began Jan. 28, has morphed into an occupation.

“The sentiment is unanimous: This occupation of our city needs to end,” said

Laura Dudas,

Ottawa city councilor and deputy mayor.

The prospect of more protesters this weekend threatens to further unnerve residents who find themselves in the middle of a fight over measures to contain Covid-19 and encourage vaccination.

Louise Pitre,

who is working from home due to the pandemic, said she sought solace in a closet to escape the incessant blaring of air horns from dozens of parked trucks on major corridors.

“I can’t concentrate,” she said.

The Ottawa demonstrators oppose a decision by Canada and the U.S. to ban unvaccinated truckers from entering their countries.



Photo:

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Associated Press

Dustin Carey

said antimask protesters harassed him for wearing a mask while he was afoot running errands.

“I didn’t particularly want to escalate things, so I tried to ignore it,” he said. But “the people who live downtown are kind of getting to their breaking point.”

The city’s major downtown shopping mall has shut until Monday, and vaccination clinics in the area stopped operating for a few days. A downtown homeless shelter said protesters harassed staff and volunteers for a meal from its soup kitchen.

Ottawa Police Chief

Peter Sloly

said authorities fear protest organizers—who call their demonstration “Freedom Convoy 2022”—are benefiting from expertise and fundraising at a national and international level, including the U.S., although he declined at a news conference to elaborate. To date, protest organizers have raised more than $10 million through donations on the crowdsourcing website GoFundMe.

Chief Sloly added that protesters are also in possession of firearms and other weapons, which he said is complicating police efforts. Ottawa police on Tuesday arrested and filed a weapon-related charge against one protester.

Neither

Tamara Lich,

a spokeswoman for Freedom Convoy, nor a lawyer representing protest organizers responded to a reporter’s questions at a news conference Thursday about Chief Sloly’s claims. Ms. Lich told reporters the protest would continue until all levels of government eliminate Covid-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates.

“The more this demonstration continues, the more the risk to public safety increases,” Chief Sloly told city officials Wednesday. “Every option is on the table to resolve this demonstration. That said, there may not be a policing solution to this demonstration.”

Some protesters said they had sympathy for nearby residents, but they are in Ottawa because governments ‘are refusing to listen to citizens.’



Photo:

lars hagberg/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Among options being considered, he said, is seeking a court injunction to have the protesters removed and requesting help from Canada’s armed forces. Canadian Prime Minister

Justin Trudeau

said Thursday he hasn’t received a request for military help. Late Thursday night, the Canada government agreed to provide additional officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to assist local law enforcement.

At a Friday news briefing, Chief Sloly promised a beefed-up police presence this weekend, with officers instructed to enforce all laws related to hate, harassment and assaults, among others. Police expect up to 400 additional trucks and thousands of citizens to try to enter Ottawa to bolster the protesters’ ranks. “I take great empathy for those that have endured unacceptable violations of their ability to live and raise their families and conduct their businesses in the city,” he said.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Trudeau said the country was “shocked and frankly disgusted” by the behavior of some protesters, citing harassment of staff at a homeless shelter, the desecration of the National War Memorial, and the presence of a Confederate flag and a banner with swastikas. Mr. Trudeau added he wouldn’t budge on abandoning Covid-19 rules because he was re-elected this past fall with a mandate to make vaccination mandatory for government employees and workers in other sectors, and people who travel on planes and trains.

One of the protesters,

Tyler Chiliak,

said he has sympathy for Ottawa residents. “They’re enduring the consequences of having a multitude of fairly angry people sitting here with some very annoying instruments, namely train horns and air horns,” said Mr. Chiliak, a farmer from western Canada who drove 1,800 miles in a pickup truck with a camper attached to attend the protest. He is in Ottawa, he said, because governments have “gone a bit draconian and tyrannical” with Covid-19 policies, “and are refusing to listen to citizens.”

Hundreds of drivers have parked their vehicles in downtown Ottawa, either directly in front of the country’s main legislative building or along stretches of main north-south corridors. On a recent visit to the protest area, people milled about on the street and sidewalks carrying placards and waving flags, while drivers honked car and train horns and revved their engines. In nearby residential neighborhoods, large transport trucks have for several days been a common sight, along with smaller vehicles decorated with Canada flags.

Truckers and their supporters played street hockey on Wellington Street in Ottawa to pass the time.



Photo:

PATRICK DOYLE/The Canadian Press/Associated Press

Free snacks were offered to demonstrators in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa.



Photo:

BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS

Other trucker protests are bubbling up across the country, in response to a decision last month by Canada and the U.S. to ban unvaccinated truckers from entering their countries. Prior to January, truckers were considered essential workers and allowed to cross the border with goods, while borders were closed to nonessential travel. Canada’s main trucking association has distanced itself from the protest, adding that nearly 90% of drivers are considered fully vaccinated.

At her news conference, Ms. Lich said the protesters in Ottawa “are average, peace-loving and law-abiding citizens from all walks of life who are fed up with being disrespected and bullied by our governments.” She said she wanted to assure Ottawa residents that the demonstrators “would not stay a day longer than necessary. Our departure will be based on the prime minister doing what is right.”

Donald Shultz,

72 years old, said he slipped and banged his head on the floor in his downtown Ottawa apartment Tuesday night. Because he takes blood thinners and suffers from other health ailments, he said he should have called an ambulance. He said he opted not to for fear paramedics couldn’t navigate their way to his building.

“I’m getting stressed out,” said Mr. Shultz, a few blocks away from his building and moving around with the help of a walker. He said personal-care workers who come to clean his place and help bathe him have had difficulty getting to his home. “I want this to end.”

Celeste Côté,

a government employee, said she has had trouble sleeping since the protesters arrived. “There’s a lot of stuff circulating about how constant forms of noise are a form of torture that has been used to break people. And I believe it,” said Ms. Côté, outside of her downtown apartment building. “It’s just constant. And there’s no escape.”

Ottawa police said that on Wednesday, officers filed eight charges for unnecessary noise.

Both Ms. Lich and

Keith Wilson,

a lawyer representing Freedom Convoy organizers, said Thursday the $10 million raised to date through GoFundMe would eventually get to truckers participating in the protest, to reimburse expenses such as fuel.

Supporters of the protest parked their trucks and other vehicles alongside a parkway leading into downtown Ottawa.



Photo:

Adrian Wyld//The Canadian Press/Associated Press

Write to Paul Vieira at [email protected]

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