As anti-vaccine mandate protest enters 5th day in Ottawa, some worry about how it might end

As anti-vaccine mandate protesters continue to gum up downtown Ottawa, many are wondering how long police will let the protesters stay — and how they might eventually move them out.

Experts suggest containment, fines and giving protesters a deadline to leave

Toronto Police Public Order officers and paramedics stand near Parliament Hill during a rally against COVID-19 restrictions in Ottawa, on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

As anti-vaccine mandate protesters continue to gum up downtown Ottawa, many are wondering how long police will let the protesters stay — and how they might eventually move them out.

While many residents have been calling for an end to the noise and disruption caused by raucous demonstrations, observers are calling on authorities to avoid public displays of force.

"It's in everyone's best interest that they bring this to some type of peaceful closure," said Jack Rozdilsky, an associate professor of disaster and emergency management at York University.

"That does not mean you do not have, in the background, the ability to respond with force if you need to, if the situation gets out of hand. But probably heavy-handed use of force at this point would not be constructive."

The protest, now into its fifth day, started in opposition to the federal government's vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers. It has since expanded into a movement against broader public health measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, including provincial mandates.

Asked during a Monday afternoon news conference whether police might end up clearing the protesters out, Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said that police have "all options" on the table.

"We have seen it as much as an hour ago online, as the demonstration goes into its full fifth day — clear statements and incitements to riotous behaviour, injury, the bringing of arms and weapons into the National Capital Region, specifically in direct support of or indirect support of the range of demonstration causes and activities," he said.

WATCH | Former RCMP deputy commissioner discusses police response to demonstrations in Ottawa

Former RCMP deputy commissioner discusses police response to demonstrations in Ottawa

1 year ago
Duration 10:21
Former deputy commissioner of the RCMP Pierre-Yves Bourduas joins Power & Politics to give his take on the police response in Ottawa to anti-vaccine mandate demonstrations.

Rozdilsky said that, over the next few hours, he'd like to see police try to contain the size of the protest and establish limits on protesters' activities.

Participants in the protest convoy have been driving through residential neighbourhoods, blaring truck horns and chanting slogans. Their vehicles have been restricting access to downtown Ottawa, forcing businesses to shut their doors and disrupting service centres, a COVID-19 vaccine clinic and an elementary school.

"The situation is untenable. The footprint of the protests needs to shrink," Rozdilsky said. 

He said that between the Ottawa police, the RCMP, the Parliamentary Protective Service and the other police services now deployed to the capital, there's enough force on hand to arrest protesters and tow away trucks — but that could end up doing more harm than good.

"At least initially, having the protesters make the decision to leave on their own accord would be much better for everyone," he said.

"Using more police force, using heavy equipment, using various crowd control tactics, would move ... in the direction of paramilitary action. The types of actions we don't traditionally see on the streets in Canada."

Timelines, fines an option

Pierre-Yves Bourduas is a former deputy commissioner of the RCMP, now president of PY Safety. He said one likely scenario involves police giving the "hardcore" protesters — those who have indicated they intend to stay until their demands are met — a deadline to leave, with consequences for non-compliance.

"They will have to either be nudged to leave, or if it doesn't work then there are municipal bylaws that could apply, [where] they're offered an option of having to depart within a certain timeframe or else [a] fine will ensue" he said.

"Then the removal of vehicles will take place ... a monumental task, but it will have to be done if it's where it goes."

A truck is parked on Albert Street as a rally against COVID-19 restrictions continues throughout downtown Ottawa on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The Ottawa Police Service, which is leading the police response to the protest, wouldn't answer CBC's questions about how it would move protesters' vehicles out of the city.

"We continue to talk with the leaders of the convoys to plan a safe departure from Ottawa. We are aware of the stated intentions to remain in place," said Const. Amy Gagnon.

"Our plans considered this and will be responding."

The RCMP said it wouldn't respond to speculation about how the protest might end.

Rozdilsky said that police tactics need to take into account the fact that the convoy protest is "an amorphous group having a social identity of its own."

"What if, for example, a police action takes place and inadvertently angers the crowd in a different way? And then the social identity of the crowd morphs into, 'Now we're here to stay to protest this police action,' and they forget about what was being protested before?" he said.

Demands hard to negotiate

While the main crowd has gotten smaller since its peak on Saturday, some participants — including the organizers behind the GoFundMe page that has collected more than $9 million to support the convoy — have said their goal is to create a logistical nightmare for the government that forces it to repeal vaccine mandates.

One organizing group, Canada Unity, is demanding that government leaders either repeal the mandates or "RESIGN their lawful positions of authority immediately." But almost all COVID-19 measures to date — from mask mandates to business and school closures — have been introduced by provincial governments.

Bourduas said the indistinct nature of the protesters' stated goals makes it difficult for police to predict the outcome.

"Law enforcement agencies have to actually have a sense as to how this whole thing will unfold, which hasn't been the case," he said.

"It represents, clearly, a challenge that they need to manage."

Occupy Ottawa?

Rozdilsky said that police will need to reassess if the protest becomes an occupation.

"If so, what does that occupation look like? Where does it set up? How much of a footprint does it take in the city? What portions of the city does it interrupt?" he said.

A person lights a campfire on Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill’s West Block as a rally against COVID-19 restrictions continues in Ottawa, on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"Can it be a situation where some form of protest can coexist with the function of the city, such as what we saw with the Occupy Wall Street movement? We don't know that yet. It depends on the actions of the people engaging in the protest."

In Ottawa, members of the "occupy" movement camped in Confederation Park in 2011, not far from the Rideau Centre mall (which has been closed for days during the protest). They stayed for just over a month before they were evicted.

So far, Sloly said, there have been no riots, injuries or deaths associated with the protest.

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