Police presence will remain overnight as COVID-19 protests continue, says chief

Police continue to keep a close eye on Ottawa's downtown as a large protest against COVID-19 public health mandates stretches into a second day, with Police Chief Peter Sloly hinting demonstrations may not wrap up this weekend.

'We'll see what tomorrow brings,' says Police Chief Peter Sloly

An Ottawa Police Service cruiser is seen at Laurier Avenue West and Metcalfe Street as trucks are parked throughout downtown Ottawa during a rally against COVID-19 restrictions on Jan. 30, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Police continue to keep a close eye on Ottawa's downtown as a large protest against COVID-19 public health mandates stretches into a second day, with the city's police chief suggesting demonstrations may not wrap up this weekend.

Protesters flooded on foot into the parliamentary precinct Saturday in the midst of an extreme cold warning, joining a truck convoy that started to arrive on the scene late Friday night.

They were later joined by other drivers and demonstrators from all regions of the country, some of whom travelled thousands of kilometres to take their message to the streets outside of the Prime Minister's Office.

Police estimated as many as 10,000 people could arrive by the end of Saturday, but did not give an official figure.

On Sunday, the city centre was once again filled with the sound of honking and chanting as thousands gathered near Parliament Hill for a second full day of protests.

The crowds have caused major traffic disruptions in the downtown core, with OC Transpo diverting all bus routes out of the downtown and directing passengers to LRT stations instead.

As of late Sunday evening, the Portage, Chaudière and Alexandra bridges were all closed. 

The City of Ottawa has an interactive traffic map where residents can check on lane and road closures. Police have said pedestrians and cyclists may also be rerouted for safety reasons.

Several city facilities in the downtown will be closed Monday due to the protests, including Ottawa City Hall, the Rink of Dreams, and the Ottawa Public Library's Main and Rideau branches.

St. Luke's Child Care Centre and Centre éducatif Pinocchio will also be closed, the city said Sunday evening. Residential waste and recycling collection should not be affected.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board said Centennial Public School would shift to remote learning Monday, but all other schools would be open.

Numerous businesses decided not to open at all or to shut down early this weekend — including the Rideau Centre, where protesters flocked throughout Saturday, often without wearing masks.

Devin Camara, manager of the New Balance shoe store, told CBC how a customer became upset after being asked to put one on. 

"He basically called me narcissistic and a sociopath for asking him to do that and not fighting for his rights," Camara said. "I'm just like, I'm just a store owner. I'm just trying to protect my staff from getting something that could possibly kill them or endanger them."

People and vehicles fill Wellington Street near Parliament Hill on Saturday during a rally against COVID-19 mandates. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

'We will be investigating'

Organizers have repeatedly urged protesters to be peaceful and avoid aggressive behaviour, threats and trespassing.

Even so, in a Sunday evening update, the Ottawa Police Service said it had seen "multiple cases of disruptive, inappropriate and threatening behaviour" over the weekend and that many demonstrators "have announced their intention to stay in place."

"This will continue to cause major traffic, noise and safety issues in the downtown core. We urge all residents to avoid travel to the core," the statement said.

Only one arrest had been announced by Sunday afternoon.

Police are on high alert for any threats or violence, said Const. Amy Gagnon in an interview Saturday.

"If they're going to be causing mischief, if there is going to be any damage being caused, we will be charging people. We will be investigating," Gagnon said.

Police also said Sunday they were aware of complaints from residents about parking, noise levels and inappropriate behaviour, but "due to safety concerns, management of the protest and traffic must take precedence."

Officers have avoided ticketing and towing vehicles to avoid instigating confrontations, but they've happened "regularly" nonetheless, OPS said.

Situation 'tenuous,' says chief

Police Chief Peter Sloly has said it's possible the protest — which does not have a permit — could extend into later this week.

Sloly said Sunday there had been a "peaceful and co-operative approach by the majority of people" in the city, but also that there were increasing signs of stress on residents, business owners and protesters.

"This is still a very tenuous exercise. It's very fluid in nature," he said.

"Negotiations are indicating that some people are leaving from the demonstration standpoint, leaving the city. That's a good thing. But there are still a lot of risks that we have to manage our way through."

Protesters walk through the Rideau Centre Saturday. The Ottawa mall chose to close its doors early due to the throngs of crowds. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Sloly said a "strong visible uniformed police presence" remains in the downtown core and other parts of the city with a "heightened" risk.

"That will continue right through the night and into tomorrow — and we'll see what tomorrow brings," he said.

Sloly said earlier that any decision to bring the protest to a close would be based on public safety concerns or a breakdown in communications with protest organizers.

Residents 'prisoners' in their homes, says Watson

Mayor Jim Watson said Saturday that while — at that point — the protest had been largely peaceful, the city needs to be able to get back to its routine.

He echoed that sentiment Sunday, saying many residents had reached a boiling point.

"Quite frankly, [residents] feel they're prisoners in their own home," Watson told  Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday.  "And so my hope is that at some point, the police reach the conclusion that it's time to have a serious discussion about moving these people on."

Police have also said that anyone who works downtown should do so remotely Monday.

The financial costs of policing the protest are coming to more than $800,000 each day, OPS said.

Toronto Police Public Order officers work on the grounds of the National War Memorial during the weekend protests on Parliament Hill. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

With files from Judy Trinh, Joseph Tunney, Travis Dhanraj and Michelle Allan