Ottawa police arrested scores of demonstrators at gunpoint, seeking to tamp down on protests against a vaccine mandate for truckers that have been consuming the Canadian capital for weeks.
Riot police armed with batons and rifles moved to clear out sections of downtown Ottawa on Saturday, where protesters have parked trucks and largely disrupted the flow of normal life in the city.
The assembled anti-vaccine mandate activists chanted, “Shame on you!” at officers as they made arrests.
A recording, played in both French and English, warned the assembled crowd, “You must leave. Anyone found in the zone will be arrested.”
“We’re in control of the situation on the ground, and continue to push forward to clear our streets,” interim police chief Steve Bell told The New York Times on Friday, when clear-out operations began. “We will work day and night until this is completed.”
Demonstrations have been cleared from Wellington Street, which runs near Parliament and has been the epicenter of the protests.
A statement on behalf of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” condemned the tactics of officers but said demonstrators were leaving the area to avoid further clashes.
“The Freedom Convoy 2022 is shocked at the abuses of power by the law enforcement in Ottawa. The police have horse-trampled on demonstrators and deployed riot control agents,” the statement, posted on Twitter on Saturday, read. “They have also beaten peaceful protestors with batons and with the stock of their guns,” the statement continues. “We have therefore asked our truckers to move from Parliament Hill to avoid further brutality.”
A few abandoned vehicles remained in the area and were towed away, though most of the movement’s long-haul trucks, parked symbolically in downtown and blaring their horns around-the-clock, drove off at the approach of riot police.
The arrests are the latest escalation yet in a movement that began as a niche anti-vaccine protest in a Canada, a country with one of the highest vaccine rates globally, and blossomed into a wider venue to voice dissatisfaction with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and his handling of the pandemic.
Both the prime minister and the province of Ontario declared states of emergency in response to the protests, and a unit of mounted police was called in on Friday during a standoff between officers and protesters.
Police say the assembled truckers shoved them and resisted orders to disperse, while demonstrators say at least one person was stepped on by a horse.
There may be less protest activity in downtown Ottawa, but the fissures exposed by the trucker convoy will persist.
At the parliamentary level, Canadian leaders continue to debate the government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act for the first time in its history, giving it expanded police powers but raising concerns about civil liberties.
“I support it. I felt we were at a point of no return,” Senator Vernon White, a former Ottawa police chief, told the CBC. Others, like Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen criticised the measures.
“I’m disturbed and saddened by what we are seeing today in Ottawa,” she said on Friday on Twitter, when police stepped up operations against the convoy protesters. “This situation was created by the PM and his desire to divide Canadians. It’s time for MPs to return to the House tomorrow to stop the overreach by this government and restore unity, wholeness and hope back to our nation.”
Meanwhile, at the street level, the demonstrations showed a vocal minority with a deep dissatisfaction with Mr Trudeau and wider pandemic policies.