Ontario Provincial Police mobilized outside downtown Ottawa on Thursday, in what appeared to be preparation for a promised crackdown on protesters who have paralyzed Canada’s capital for three weeks.
“Action is imminent,” Ottawa Police Service acting chief Steve Bell said Thursday afternoon, adding that police are committed to ending the “unlawful occupation.”
He said the police had created a perimeter with around 100 police checkpoints in the city center to ensure that those seeking to enter the area for an illegal reason, such as joining a protest, could not not access it.
Five city buses were seen idling Thursday morning on a street adjacent to a convention center near the airport, and police were seen boarding at least two of them, which drove into the western suburbs of the city. Ontario Provincial Police officers were seen congregating at major hotels in this area.
Around the Parliament Building in the city center, construction workers spent the dawn hours erecting 12ft-high metal fencing in a soggy morning rain, and protesters braced for the action of the police. Among them was Andrew Broe, who said the truckers were exchanging text messages with protest leaders. He said their instructions were to stay in their trucks, lock the doors and not open them to anyone, including the police.
Addressing the House of Commons on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on protesters to go home. “It is high time that these illegal and dangerous activities stop, including here in Ottawa,” he said.
In a sign of heightened frustration over the protests, on Thursday the scope of a class action lawsuit against protesters was widened to include more workers and businesses whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the protests. In total, the lawsuit seeks approximately C$306 million in compensation for lost revenue.
The protests began weeks ago with a loosely organized group of truckers opposing the requirement to get vaccinated if they crossed the Canada-US border. With the help of right-wing activist organizations, the protests grew into a broader movement opposing a range of pandemic measures and Mr. Trudeau in general.
If the crackdown happens, it could help end a crisis that has undermined Trudeau’s leadership and disrupted local residents and the local economy. Truckers and their supporters have blocked key border crossings and other roads, hampering trade and slowing down automakers’ factories. Some streets blocked and harassed Ottawa residents, creating a round-the-clock cacophony in quiet residential neighborhoods. Physical violence was rare.
Ottawa residents and many Canadians have grown impatient with the slow police response, and earlier this week Ottawa’s police chief resigned amid criticism of the forces of the order.
Mr Trudeau took the rare step this week to declare a national public order emergency – the first such declaration in half a century – to end the protests. The move extended more robust policing across the country and targeted both protesters’ fundraising, which was deemed a criminal activity, and protesters’ personal and business bank accounts.
At a special city council meeting on Wednesday, Steve Bell, Ottawa’s acting police chief, said officers now have the resources and a plan to end the protest. He did not discuss the timing or specifics of the plan, citing operational reasons, but said officers were prepared to use tactics that “are not what we are used to seeing in Ottawa,” in as part of a “legal” escalation.
“We are going to take over the entire city center” Mr Bell said. “We have a good, well-funded plan to end the occupation.”
The police had started distribute written notices to protesters in Ottawa on Wednesday warning those remaining to leave the area or face penalties. A few of the truckers have their children with them, and a police notice warned that anyone taking a minor to an illegal protest could face up to five years in prison.
Police have warned protesters they could be jailed for bringing children to protests. But some protesters were defiant.
Surrounded by five of his eight children, Daryl Sheppard, a teacher from North Bay, Ont., 220 miles northwest of Ottawa, walked through the protest Thursday holding an anti-vaccination sign. Mr. Sheppard, 41, said he and his children would remain in Ottawa.
“I’m not really concerned with laws that infringe on my rights as a citizen, my right to testify,” he said.
Sarah Maslin Nir contributed report.