OTTAWA — Police arrested over 100 protesters and took back a chunk of downtown Ottawa on Friday as they moved to put an end to the three-week-old demonstration against vaccine mandates in the streets of Canada’s capital city.
The interim Ottawa police chief, Steve Bell, said those arrested have been charged with “multiple, various offenses, including mischief.” Several protest leaders are among those arrested.
Police have moved slowly to crack down on protesters, forming a line and then moving gradually forward. They spent most of Friday overtaking and clearing one camp of truckers that was nearby but separate from the main groups. Protesters tried to lock arms and “hold the line” but were steadily pushed back.
If truckers refused to exit their vehicles, police shattered their windows and forced them out. Ottawa police say 21 vehicles were towed away.
The most dramatic moments came when mounted police units charged their horses toward the crowd, causing protesters to flee and allowing officers to gain more ground. Police and witnesses said one man threw a bicycle at a horse, causing it to briefly trip. Police said the man was arrested for intentionally harming a police service animal.
The slow-moving police line is steadily gaining ground and could run all night. Bell said the removal operation is prepared to run around the clock. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Ontario Provincial Police, and other forces from across Ontario and Quebec came to Ottawa to join the crackdown.
Meanwhile, many truckers decided to slip out before the police got to them. Some downtown streets are still full of vehicles, but the protest is now a fraction of its peak size. Police set up a blockade around the downtown core with around 100 checkpoints, limiting entry to those who have a lawful reason to be there. Even when all the people are gone, it will take days or weeks to tow out all the vehicles.
Many protesters are refusing to give in, withdrawing to Wellington Street, in front of the Canadian Parliament buildings, where they have more truck cover. But the joyous street party vibe of the past three weeks has come to an end. The focus of those who remain is mostly holding out as long as possible against the police.
Young children and dogs remain among the crowd. During a news conference, Bell pleaded with parents to take their families home. “Get the kids out of there. They do not need to be in the middle of this. It is not a safe place for them,” he said.
Police started busing in waves of reinforcements Thursday in preparation for the operation. This followed several days of increasingly blunt warnings that staying downtown would lead to arrests and potential criminal charges.
The mood at the time remained one of defiance. Several truckers told BuzzFeed News they would stay until the bitter end, even if it meant their truck being seized. Organizers repeatedly urged the crowd to stay where they are. “It is not a time to party, it is a time to stand,” one speaker told a crowd of dozens of people Thursday night. “Call your friends, call your family, call the sympathizers, and bring in the human reinforcements.”
The protests have been widely peaceful over the past three weeks, but residents and demonstrators alike are concerned about the potential for violent clashes with police. Police recently uncovered a cache of weapons and ammunition at a similar anti–vaccine mandate blockade in Coutts, Alberta. They say the guns belonged to a tightly knit group that took part in the larger blockade. Now 13 people face weapons charges, including four charges of conspiracy to murder.
Federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said people at the Coutts blockade had ties to “a far-right extreme organization with leaders who are in Ottawa.”