OTTAWA—Casting the spreading “Freedom Convoy” protests as a grave threat to Canada, the federal government is settling into a back-seat role in the crisis, offering to send police reinforcements to the local officials leading the responses.
Federal ministers outlined the seriousness of the blockades that have now spread across the country, with blockades against COVID-19 health measures choking off key border crossings and threatening jobs, public safety and millions of dollars in trade.
At the same time, police in Ottawa sent their toughest warning yet to protesters occupying the streets of the capital: clear out or face the prospect of arrest.
“They’re essentially putting their foot on the throat of all Canadians,” said Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief and federal minister for emergency preparedness, referring to the protests that have spread across the country.
Yet despite that graphic assessment, the federal government made clear Wednesday that it is not prepared to invoke emergency powers to take the reins of the crisis, which in Ottawa has dragged on for 13 days as truckers and their supporters occupy the streets around Parliament Hill.
“All three orders of government have a responsibility, and that’s why we’re all working together,” Blair said, when asked if the federal government would shift to playing a leading role.
“We know that the law is being broken, and the police have a responsibility here to restore order and uphold the law,” he said.
Premier Doug Ford also expressed confidence that police and federal border agents will be able to resolve the Ontario protests, which in addition to Ottawa include a blockade of the Ambassador Bridge, a vital trade corridor between Windsor and Detroit through which hundreds of millions of dollars in trade occurs every day.
“The ongoing illegal occupation and blockade happening in Ontario must stop,” Ford said in a statement Wednesday.
“The damage this is causing to our economy, to people’s jobs and their livelihoods is totally unacceptable. We cannot let this continue.”
To that end, Ottawa police issued their sternest warning yet — broadcasting that they could be arrested without warning if they persist with the occupation of the city’s downtown core.
Referencing the crime called “mischief to property,” the message said if the demonstrators don’t stop blocking city streets they could be arrested, charged, and have their vehicles seized and possibly forfeited. It also said those charged or convicted for participating in the demonstration may be blocked from crossing the Canada-U.S. border.
“You must immediately cease further unlawful activity or you may face charges,” the message said.
Responding to the Star via text message Wednesday evening, convoy organizer Chris Barber was defiant.
“We replace every driver arrested with three new drivers,” he wrote. “Call just went out.”
Meanwhile, two days after the city asked Ontario and the federal government to send an additional 1,800 police officers and other personnel to aid in the crisis, officials were not clear when any additional help would arrive.
Marco Mendicino, the federal public safety minister, said Wednesday that discussions continue about how many more RCMP officers will be deployed to Ottawa, but that he wouldn’t disclose the exact number of officers to protect “the sensitivity of operations on the ground.”
“We’re working out the timing and the numbers because obviously we’re not going to have everyone that we’ve asked for arrive immediately, but it will be spread out over a number of days,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson told reporters, two days after he appealed to the federal government for more help to “quell the insurrection.”
Mendicino also said the RCMP will send more officers to Coutts, Alta., where protesters have blocked a highway into the U.S. state of Montana.
As of Wednesday, at least six auto plants across Ontario — including Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Company — had either temporarily shut down or reduced production, resulting in “short-term layoffs,” while the plants struggled to receive the parts necessary to create vehicles.
Ford reduced production at its assembly plant in Oakville by 50 per cent, and cut staff hours from eight to four hours per day, according to the local union. It temporarily shut down its auto plant in Windsor.
Ottawa city councillors expressed concern over a new protest encampment that had sprung up in the parking lot of a federal building complex.
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City manager Steve Kanellakos told council the parking lot was housing overflow from another encampment elsewhere in Ottawa, and said the decision to green-light the new site came from the federal government following a request from Ottawa police.
Coun. Theresa Kavanagh said the city’s decision to further accommodate protesters was simply enabling the demonstrations to continue.
“I feel like we’re aiding and abetting. We have to come up with a way to stop this,” Kavanagh said, adding it should fall to the federal government to monitor the encampment instead of drawing upon strained local resources.
The capital is also looking at the possibility of filing a city-led injunction, days after a judge granted an injunction sought by an Ottawa woman to temporarily silence the horns wracking the downtown core.
City solicitor David White said his team was prepared to proceed with such a step, but was still working with police to determine whether any potential injunctions could actually be enforced.
The chief justice of Ontario on Wednesday approved Ottawa’s request to impose stronger penalties on downtown protesters violating the city’s noise, idling, open-air fire and use and care of roads bylaws. Protesters breaking those bylaws will now be on the hook for the maximum penalty of $1,000.
Kanellakos said the city was asking provinces to pursue whatever steps possible to “put pressure” on the licensing, insurance and commercial vehicle registration of trucks unlawfully parked on Ottawa streets to introduce another layer of consequences to protesters.
But behind the scenes, Queen’s Park is taking a hands-off approach in dealing with the truckers, according to an internal letter obtained by the Star.
In a missive to the federal deputy minister of Transport Canada from the provincial transportation deputy, the Ontario government noted local police are “the lead jurisdiction for enforcing the law and ensuring public safety at these protests.”
“I want to clarify some potential misunderstanding on the applicability of driver’s licences and commercial vehicle operator permissions in a protest situation,” wrote provincial deputy Laurie LeBlanc to federal counterpart Michael Keenan.
LeBlanc wrote that all sanctions the province can use, such as cancelling or suspending the registration certificates of commercial vehicles, require authorities to provide “proper notice” and give the vehicle operators a chance to respond or appeal to a tribunal. LeBlanc indicated those rules won’t change for the current protests.
“This regulatory oversight will fully respect the current parameters of the programs and full legal due process,” LeBlanc wrote.
Toronto police closed off a section of the downtown core in response to unconfirmed social media posts suggesting the convoy could relocate from the nation’s capital.
Late Tuesday, Barber, the truck driver and organizer associated with the protest, posted a video on social media saying Ottawa “isn’t really working with us” and that drivers were going to head to Toronto.
On Wednesday, Barber, who is from Saskatchewan, told the Star via text message that his social media post was insincere.
Asked if trucks were really leaving, he wrote: “No. It’s a game.” He added: “Cops messed with us. We just playing back.”
He said the organizers still plan to stay in Ottawa until all pandemic health restrictions are lifted.
Toronto police Insp. Michael Williams told reporters the downtown closures can be quickly expanded if protests do materialize.
“We’ve seen demonstrations right across the province, particularly in Ottawa and Windsor,” he said.
“I certainly don’t think based on what we have seen that we can take this lightly … We’re not looking for any type of confrontation but we certainly do have plans in place if there is criminality.”
With files from Robert Benzie, Jacob Lorinc, Wendy Gillis and David Rider
Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga
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