Ottawa mayor would like protesters to move on, but organizers say they're not going anywhere
Police investigating incidents at Unknown Soldier's memorial, Terry Fox statue
The mayor of Ottawa says many residents have reached a boiling point over the rowdy protests against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and public health restrictions, and he wants demonstrators to let the city return to normal. But organizers say they're willing to stay in the capital for months until their demands are met.
On Sunday, Ottawa's city centre was still filled with the sound of honking and cheering as thousands of truckers and others opposed to the restrictions gathered near Parliament Hill for a second full day of protests.
While crowds began to thin out Sunday evening, much of downtown Ottawa remained clogged by parked vehicles. A large police presence was patrolling the area.
Mayor Jim Watson said the protests have bled into residential areas, disrupting life for the city.
"Quite frankly, [residents] feel they're prisoners in their own home. 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. They can't keep blocking routes that are emergency routes, that are bus routes, that allow people to get in and out of the downtown core," he told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton on Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday.
"You have the right to protest, you've had your protest, please move on. Our city has to get back in normal stead."
The protest was initially focused on the federal government's vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers, but it has expanded into a larger movement against broader public health measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Aside from honking and yelling, police say the protests have been mainly peaceful with just one arrest by Sunday afternoon.
"That was to make sure that a situation that could have evolved into a violent situation was alleviated," Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly said in an interview.
Organizers have repeatedly urged protesters to be peaceful and avoid aggressive behaviour, threats and trespassing.
However, the loud and disruptive protests on Saturday featured several incidents roundly condemned as disrespectful, including protesters jumping on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and adorning a statue of Terry Fox with anti-vaccine material and an upside down Canadian flag.
Criminal investigations underway, police say
Ottawa police say there are several criminal investigations underway relating to those incidents and others.
"The investigations we're doing have everything to do with public mischief, threatening, dangerous driving, a dangerous operation [of a] vehicle. We have one report of a potential bribe involving a member of the public trying to bribe an employee of the city," Sloly said.
The Shepherds of Good Hope homeless shelter, located just a few blocks from Parliament Hill, reported that a service user and a security guard were assaulted and its staff were harassed by protesters pressuring them to provide meals over the last 24 hours.
Ottawa police said in a statement Sunday night that they have avoided ticketing and towing vehicles so as not to "instigate confrontations with demonstrators."
"Still, confrontations and the need for de-escalation has regularly been required," reads the statement.
Some of the protesters carried Canadian flags, while others held placards that urged people to "Think for Yourself," a slogan used in anti-vaccine circles. Some demonstrators were seen flying the Patriotes flag, a nod to the Lower Canada rebellions of 1837-38, when French-speaking settlers from present-day Quebec fought against British colonial rule.
At least one Confederate flag was spotted in the crowd, a holdover from the U.S. Civil War that is often associated with racist and far-right elements. Indigenous demonstrators flew the Mohawk warrior flag and waved the flag of the Métis Nation.
B.J. Dichter, one of the organizers behind a GoFundMe page that has amassed more than $8 million to support the convoy, said the goal is to create a "logistics nightmare" for the government and force it to repeal vaccine mandates.
"Right now, yeah, it's really cold, but we hang in there, the days are going to get longer and we take this block party and put it into overdrive," he said at a gathering at an undisclosed location with invited media representatives which Dichter described as "independent." The organizers said they had "banned" mainstream media outlets such as the CBC and Toronto Star.
"We're in this one for the long haul. We don't have a time limit."
Dichter once ran as a candidate for the Conservatives — in Jack Layton's old riding of Toronto–Danforth — in the 2015 federal election, finishing third behind the Liberals and New Democrats with just over 5,000 votes.
In 2019, Dichter spoke at the first People's Party of Canada conference held in Gatineau, Que., where he railed against "political Islam" and argued that the radical left in Canada is working with Islamic groups to undermine the Canadian state.
On Twitter, he regularly criticizes public health measures to fight COVID-19, major media organizations, socialism and established political parties.
Police working to get some protesters out
Ottawa's police chief said the force is working to get protesters who want to leave out of the traffic congestion.
"The communication and negotiation is focused on the vast majority of people understanding that the demonstration is over and choosing to exit the city and go back to their homes as safely as possible," Sloly said.
"For those who choose to remain, we'll make that assessment once we understand who is still here, what purposes and what public safety risks are associated to that."
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Sloly said there will continue to be a large police presence on Sunday night into the morning, and police would take action if there's an "unreasonable risk."
"And we will see what tomorrow brings and we'll do our risk assessment then," he said.
A statement from the Ottawa police said it estimates policing the protest is costing around $800,000 a day.
House of Commons set to resume sitting
Uncertainty around the protest's duration comes as the House of Commons is set to resume sitting on Monday following the holiday break.
Government House leader Mark Holland said Parliament will sit as planned.
"We have important work to accomplish for Canadians in Parliament, and we're looking forward to getting this done and delivering results," said a statement from his office.
"We've already passed a motion that gives MPs the flexibility to work in a Hybrid House in this sitting — which remains in effect until June. Some MPs will be in the chamber on Monday and beyond, and others will participate virtually."
Meanwhile, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the federal government stands by its vaccination rule for cross-border truckers and still plans to move forward bringing in regulations to make vaccination mandatory for federally regulated industries, which would include inter-provincial truck drivers.
"So there is ongoing work as of right now. That policy is not in place, but no one should be surprised that there's work happening to get us there," he said Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live.
"The government's job is to always listen to all points of view and take them into account. I also want to say that I am relieved that the protest so far has been peaceful, and I hope that if the protest continues, that it continues to remain peaceful and respectful — although it's debated whether it's been respectful or not."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family were not at their home in Rideau Cottage over the weekend, and his office did not discuss his whereabouts for security reasons.
- This story has been updated from an earlier version to remove "right-wing" as a description of organizations invited to the convoy press conference, to accord with CBC language guidelines.Mar 08, 2022 3:53 PM ET