While protests intensified around the country on Saturday following Ontario’s new emergency measures, heavily armed police began clearing the week-long blockade of Canada’s busiest commercial route.
The Ambassador Bridge remained closed to the public as of Saturday evening, keeping millions of dollars in commercial goods from flowing through the country as protesters decrying the country’s pandemic restrictions squared off with at least six police forces dispatched to Windsor, Ont.
Early Saturday morning, police had successfully removed trucks blocking access to the storied suspension bridge spanning the Detroit River. But by the evening, a crowd of more than 100 protesters had congregated further south on Huron Church Rd. — the eight-lane artery leading to the bridge — keeping the road closed to drivers.
Protesters grew in numbers throughout the day, draped in Canada flags and “F– You, Trudeau” memorabilia, many of them coming from around Windsor to join the rally. Some carried pro-Donald Trump flags and signs reading “Don’t tread on me,” while others covered their vehicles in handwritten messages disparaging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the media.
In a dramatic show of force, several hundred police began moving protesters at 8 a.m. Saturday morning, equipped with armoured vehicles, rifles, tear gas, rubber bullet guns and a military-style tactical unit from the RCMP.
Five public transportation buses were parked behind the line of officers, seemingly there to transport arrested demonstrators, while police drones monitored the crowd from overhead.
In a tweet, Windsor police said they had begun “active enforcement” early in the afternoon, towing and ticketing vehicles.
Jason Bellaire, Windsor’s deputy police chief, said the protest marked the “biggest event I’ve ever dealt with.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my 27 years on the force,” he said.
The seven-day protest shed light on the limited resources available to Windsor police, who scrambled to bring in reinforcements from police in Waterloo, Chatham-Kent and Hamilton ahead of Saturday’s action.
The city’s police also received help from the OPP and RCMP. According to Bellaire, the city borrowed tow trucks from Michigan to help clear vehicles from the bridge’s entrance.
In Ottawa, the crowd of supporters of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” grew from a few hundred during the week to about 1,500 on the third weekend of protests, according to one policing source.
Saturday mid-afternoon, about 500 lingered on the lawn in front of the Peace Tower, where the Centennial Flame has been extinguished since the Friday night when protests began 16 days ago.
Protesters hauled down a protective fence that surrounded the National War Memorial since the first chaotic weekend when protesters urinated at the base of the memorial and danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Several including at least three wearing what appeared to be service medals posed for photos, according to video that journalists streamed from the area.
Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay condemned the protesters’ actions at the Cenotaph in a statement on Twitter.
“Completely unacceptable. Fences were put up to prevent the flagrant desecration and disrespect of our sacred monuments. This behaviour is disappointing and I’m calling on protesters to respect our monuments.”
A counter demonstration organized Saturday saw several hundred residents opposed to the “Freedom Convoy” gather and march several blocks away from downtown Ottawa.
According to video posted Twitter by observers, some carried public service union flags, many chanted “End the occupation now” and “Hey hey, ho ho, fascist convoy’s got to go.”
Ottawa city councillor Catherine McKenney, who is running for mayor, said the “illegal occupation” is a national crisis with the local police force outnumbered. She said Canada is “complete and utter lawlessness with impunity.”
Speaking to CBC, McKenney said the protesters are “making a mockery of us.”
She said the protest was “certainly mismanaged from the beginning” but McKenney laid a lot of blame at the foot of other levels of government and policing as well.
Ottawa police “cannot manage what is happening,” she said.
“We’ve been told by the federal government, by the province ‘just ask for more resources.’ We asked for more resources, we don’t get them.”
“Whether it’s the OPP coming in or the RCMP coming in, that no longer matters, what we need is, we need a plan for this to end and for it to end soon,” McKenney said.
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Ottawa police had not moved to dismantle the downtown encampment on Parliament Hill insisting they do not have the numbers to take on the protesters.
“We have a plan to end this unlawful occupation and await the necessary reinforcements to do so,” the Ottawa police said in a written release Saturday morning.
Overnight, protesters partied on the Hill, blaring horns, blasting tunes over loudspeakers below the Prime Minister’s Office across from the Peace Tower, and moving a large tent structure and a Jumbotron screen onto Wellington Street.
On Saturday morning, television images showed two men soaking in a hot tub on the street facing Parliament, and no sign anyone was intending to leave anytime soon.
Police said that overnight, demonstrators “exhibited aggressive behaviour towards law enforcement including refusing to follow directions, overwhelming officers, and otherwise subverting enforcement efforts.”
Police chief Peter Sloly said the force is focused on neighbourhood safety in the downtown core, but the statement Saturday morning issued shortly after the Ontario cabinet ratified new tougher regulations said enforcement of the new emergency measures “will begin following their formal implementation by the province.”
To date, Ottawa police say they’ve made 26 arrests on criminal charges, and two for public drunkenness, recovered two stolen vehicles “in relation to the occupation,” put three trucks “out of service,” and issued 10 traffic-related charges “including moving violations, document offences, lapsed inspection and daily log infractions.”
Overall, police and bylaw enforcement officers issued more than 2,600 tickets.
They say there are 140 “active criminal” investigations and teams are gathering “financial and digital” information, as well as “vehicle registration, driver identification, insurance status, and other related evidence that will be used in criminal prosecutions.”
Late Saturday the Ottawa police shifted strategies, announcing the set-up of an “integrated command centre” that will now share management of the crisis in Ottawa with the OPP and the RCMP.
In a statement issued, the Ottawa police said it was in “response to a significant influx of demonstrators into the Ottawa area and escalation of the current occupation.”
The force said there were more than 4,000 demonstrators throughout the day.
It said the integrated command centre “will allow us to make the most effective use of the additional resources our policing partners have provided to us.”
The move was seen by sources as one that was necessary before the RCMP and OPP dispatched further reinforcements.
The RCMP in a statement to the Star before the integrated command centre was announced said it “remains fully committed to providing the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) with the support and resources required to ensure the safety and security of residents and visitors in the National Capital Region.”
“The OPS continues to hold the operational lead and jurisdiction in regards to the ongoing demonstrations in Ottawa, and we are working collaboratively with them.”
In Toronto, a copycat convoy appeared to be smaller and calmer than its counterparts elsewhere in the province — and largely devoid of vehicles, due in part to pre-emptive road closures by Toronto Police Service. As a result, traffic has been snarled throughout the city.
Demonstrators, who were mostly peaceful, marched down Yonge Street, many carrying Canadian flags or wearing them draped over their shoulders. There is a heavy police presence in the city and law enforcement has blocked access to a large section of downtown to contain the protest, which is expected to congregate in front of Queen’s Park.
The Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, both of which service the downtown core, were partially closed to traffic for roughly two hours Saturday afternoon. Police also temporarily prohibited people from carrying fuel cans in the city centre, citing public safety.
Trudeau and his cabinet’s incident response group met Saturday and were briefed by the RCMP about efforts “to secure ports of entry in Coutts, Alberta, and Emerson, Manitoba” and to stop other blockades from emerging, the PMO said late in the evening.
A readout of the meeting said Trudeau and ministers “discussed further immediate actions the federal government is considering.”
It said protesters would face increasingly severe penalties for breaking the law.
“The Prime Minister stressed that border crossings cannot, and will not, remain closed, and that all options remain on the table,” the statement said. The cabinet group meets again Sunday.
Jacob Lorinc is a Toronto-based reporter covering business for the Star. Reach him via email: [email protected]
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