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Police push to break up Ottawa ‘Freedom Convoy’ protest as Parliament sits empty

Two protest organizers — Chris Barber and Tamara Lich — were arrested Thursday

Police stepped up the arrest of antigovernment protesters and began towing large trucks blocking streets around Parliament Hill on Friday in an effort to end a weeks-long occupation that has left Ottawa residents angry and frazzled.

Truck horns blared and demonstrators scurried about as scores of officers moved in to reclaim the congested downtown core.

Some protesters say they came to Ottawa simply to demand that COVID-19 measures be lifted, but others, including those who claim to be leading the convoy, have demanded the Liberal government be ousted.

The protest in Ottawa quickly spread to other parts of the country, disrupting business and trade amid concerns far-right extremists and hate groups were trying to use the demonstrations to advance their ideological agendas.

Police started to clear the protesters in southern Ontario, Alberta and elsewhere earlier this week. Ottawa police, working closely with the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police, began arresting key convoy members Thursday. The Ottawa force’s chief resigned Wednesday amid intense criticism over the state of lawlessness downtown.

The crackdown accelerated early Friday, with the lights on police vehicles flickering in intersections across Ottawa’s downtown core as officers at dozens of checkpoints vetted any driver and vehicle trying to get into the area that stretches several blocks.

Protesters on the street in front of Parliament Hill huddled around fires set up under tents, as the trucks that have clogged the downtown core for weeks idled in the frigid cold following an overnight snowstorm.

Two protest organizers — Chris Barber and Tamara Lich — were arrested Thursday. They were to appear in court Friday on mischief charges. Barber has also been charged with counselling to disobey a court order and to obstruct police.

Lyndsay Kruisselbrink, who was on her third trip to the Ottawa protest on and planned to stay until Monday, said the feeling among participants was “very calm,” adding everybody was happy with “lots of love.”

“You have to be here to know the feeling,” she said. “You just don’t want to leave. You just love the cause and all the people. It’s like your family.”

A short time later, Ottawa police issued a warning that a fresh round of arrests had begun before tow trucks started to arrive on the eastern edge of Ottawa’s downtown to begin dragging vehicles away.

While police said a number of protesters had decided to leave rather than face charges, one trucker parked by the Rideau Centre shopping mall said he was willing to get arrested.

On Kent Street, near the western edge of the core, two protesters said they had no plans to leave. One, who identified himself only as Dave, said he expected thousands of people to pour back into downtown Ottawa this weekend.

Asked about the police warnings, Dave said it was a little nerve-racking, but insisted the protesters were peaceful people.

An Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruling Thursday temporarily froze the bank accounts — including bitcoin and cryptocurrency funds — of Pat King, a leading figure among the protesters, as well as those of Lich and other organizers of the so-called Freedom 2022 protests.

In addition, a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of downtown Ottawa residents seeks millions of dollars in damages for the noise and serious disruptions caused by the protest.

The Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa said Friday it was working closely alongside police to help ensure the safety and well-being of children in downtown Ottawa. Concerns had been raised about children in the protest zone whose parents might be arrested.

The society said it had not yet had to intervene with regard to children or youth connected to the demonstration, nor had any been transferred to its care. Parents involved have been urged to make the alternate care arrangements for their kids.

While police were clearing the streets outside, members of Parliament were forced to cool their heels on a divisive debate around the Liberal government’s decision this week to invoke the Emergencies Act in response to the protests.

Government House leader Mark Holland said House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota and House leaders from all parties agreed to cancel the sitting on the advice of parliamentary security.

The government was closely monitoring the police operation and would await further advice from security officials on when the House could reopen, he added.

MPs had been scheduled for another daylong debate of the government’s emergency orders, which took effect earlier this week but require confirmation by the House of Commons and Senate.

The new powers include the ability to freeze bank accounts of protest participants and bar people from assembling in specific places or joining protests that threaten trade, critical infrastructure, individuals or property.

It is also now illegal to bring children to within 500 metres of the blockades or provide supplies or property to participants.

The measures are facing a legal challenge from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. However, they are expected to receive House of Commons approval with support from the Liberals and NDP and opposition from the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois.

The Senate was also expected to begin debate Friday but issued a notice saying it would remain adjourned until Monday at 2 p.m. ET.

The Canadian Press