Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government is working with the Ottawa police to put an end to the ongoing trucker protest in the nation’s capital as officials brace for a resurgence in demonstrators in the downtown core this coming weekend.
“We will continue to work with law enforcement agencies to ensure that people are protected and to ensure that this protest, which is now becoming illegal, does come to an end,” Trudeau said in French in the House of Commons on Wednesday, when asked what the federal government is doing to remove truckers from downtown Ottawa as the demonstration stretches into its sixth day.
While the RCMP and Parliamentary Protective Service have offered resources to OPS in managing the demonstration — composed of both convoy truckers and their supporters seeking an end to COVID-19 public health mandates — Trudeau said he wouldn’t personally step in to ensure the demonstration ends.
“One of the important issues with a situation like this is to respect our institutions, systems and laws … politicians are not the ones who order law enforcement agencies to take any particular action,” he said.
“We are here to provide resources if law enforcement agencies request them but they are the ones who are doing the work on the ground and we want to see a peaceful resolution for this conflict.”
Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said Wednesday in a briefing with city council that the prospect of asking for support from the military is not off the table.
‘We’re looking at every single option, including military aid to civil power. I’ve had those discussions with mayor, council members, the board. There is a process extremely well established, extremely well covered, and extremely rare,” he said.
“That option in particular would come with massive risks….mixing them into a population in the downtown core, in a highly volatile demonstration without any much more than days in advance warning may mitigate some risks and may create and escalate a whole bunch of other risks.”
Might be no 'policing solution' to protests
Sloly offered a warning Wednesday that the removal of the convoy might not be in his hands.
“The more this demonstration continues, the more the risk to public safety increases. Every option remains on the table. That said, there may not be a policing solution,” he said.
Sloly later said that it is not his role as chief of police to “negotiate the end of any demonstration, no matter how large or small, no matter what the reason is” and that “other solutions are going to have to be considered, well beyond my ability to dictate or even influence,” he said.
He was asked whether Trudeau needs to be directly involved in a political solution to the protests but did not provide an answer.
“That’s a question for politicians to decide. That’s a question for the Prime Minister’s Office.”
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said Wednesday that the city will require “resources and goodwill” from all levels of government to bring the protests to a “peaceful end.”
He also noted that, ultimately, the power to end the protests lies in the hands of the organizers themselves.
“If they’re concerned about our city and they give a damn about our city, they’d move on and stop harassing our people. This has gone on far too long,” he said.
Protests becoming a 'living hell'
Watson also said Wednesday he is working with Mona Fortier, Ottawa Vanier MP and president of the Treasury Board, to try to get financial support for residents and businesses affected by the lockdowns.
Ottawa city councillors have recently been calling for more involvement from the federal government to manage the protest, which has seen downtown residents besieged by around-the-clock honking and harassment on the streets.
Ottawa Coun. Diane Deans, chair of the city’s police board, said Wednesday afternoon that she is “sorry for the living hell that you are going through.”
Deans said the demonstrators were “unlawfully protesting and occupying our communities.”
“It is not just disruptive and difficult, it is violent and terrorizing, and it is targeting residents in their homes, near their homes as they walk down their street. Residents downtown have been abandoned during a national crisis and an occupation of our city,” Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, whose ward covers much of the downtown protest, said.
The councillor reiterated their calls for the RCMP to step in and take control of the downtown protest, freeing up OPS officers to respond to complaints in neighbourhoods outside the main Wellington Street demonstration.
Police Chief Peter Sloly said he had been in touch with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki asking for additional resources, and his latest request for more officers and intelligence officials was granted.
But he pushed back on McKenney’s request the RCMP take over, noting that the jurisdiction of the protest remains solely that of the OPS.
Resurgence of protesters expected this weekend
While police gave estimates there are as few as 250 protesters remaining from highs of 8,000-15,000 at its peak, Deputy Chief Steve Bell told city council that OPS expect those numbers to swell again over the weekend.
“We’re now somewhere between a demonstration and a longer-term effort to occupy our streets,” Bell said.
Multiple downtown hotels told Global News on background that they’re sold out — or near sold out — for the upcoming Saturday. While they couldn’t confirm whether their guests were protesters, two hotels said this weekend is shaping up to be busier than usual.
Bell said early indications show that the convoy’s footprint in the downtown core will remain “relatively stable” through the weekend with additional vehicles expected to come into the city to join the demonstration.
Police are also expecting more foot traffic in areas such as the ByWard Market, similar to crowd sizes seen last weekend.
The difference this time could be a sizeable presence of counter-protesters who have signalled their intentions to be downtown as well, Bell said.
While Sloly and the OPS have been criticized for a lack of enforcement related to the protest, as noise bylaws and traffic disruptions go largely unpenalized, enforcement officials pointed to the numerous ongoing criminal investigations and the three arrests made as of Wednesday as proof that they are responding and punishing offenders.
One of the men was arrested for allegedly planning to attend a demonstration with a long gun, but police said they interceded and seized the weapon.
“To the unlawful demonstrators, let me be clear once again, there are consequences for your behaviour. There have been arrests made. There have been charges laid. There are more coming,” Sloly said.
Police estimate they have already spent more than $3 million to manage the protest and respond to emergencies. In comparison, the Canada 150 celebrations on Parliament Hill in 2017 cost Ottawa police about $1.44 million.
Sloly said police believe U.S. backers have been a “significant element” of the convoy’s funding and organization, but did not elaborate on those sources Wednesday.
The GoFundMe page set up by convoy organizers, which recently surpassed the $10 million mark, has meanwhile been listed as “under review.”
“This fundraiser is currently paused and under review to ensure it complies with our terms of service and applicable laws and regulations. Our team is working 24/7 and doing all we can to protect both organizers and donors. Thank you for your patience,” reads a notice on the web page.
— with files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly, Rachel Gilmore and the Canadian Press