OTTAWA — The mood of the Ottawa anti–vaccine mandate trucker protests has shifted to tension as police bus in huge numbers of officers to try to take back control of the city.
Police are telling people to leave the packed downtown area and warning that anyone who stays will face “severe penalties” including criminal charges and seizure of property. So far they have not started mass arrests or attempted to tow any of the hundreds of vehicles that make up the so-called Freedom Convoy and have clogged the city core for three weeks. But there is a widespread feeling among protesters and residents that that may happen soon.
The protesters are, for the most part, not going anywhere willingly. Organizers are urging supporters to “hold the line” and prepare for nighttime police raids. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared a state of emergency, empowering authorities to freeze the bank accounts and suspend the driver’s licenses of anyone who takes part in the convoy or tries to aid it.
“If he takes my insurance away, the truck can’t move. They can take everything I own away,” said Lucas Sawatzki, who drove in from Winkler, Manitoba. His truck has been parked on Kent Street in downtown Ottawa since the start of the protests. “There’s always risk to a protest,” he said, “especially when you’re protesting against the government.”
As recently as Wednesday, the street party vibe of the last few weeks remained in place. Protesters soaked in a hot tub, barbecued hot dogs, and danced to music from the Trolls movie. That shifted early Thursday morning as vans and buses full of police started arriving. Workers put up makeshift barricades between the crowd and the parliament buildings. There was a distinct feeling of calm before the storm.
High-profile convoy figure Pat King made the rounds downtown Thursday morning urging people to stay to the point of going to jail if that’s what it takes to end vaccine mandates. Asked if he was concerned about the government seizing the bank accounts of his supporters and seizing their trucks, King said he was concerned for their physical safety.
“Bank accounts? That’ll get fixed,” he said. “It’s just money. They make new money every day.”
For police, the same logistical nightmares remain in place: How do you tow out so many vehicles when protesters will do whatever they can to physically block you? If you have to arrest hundreds or thousands of people, where do you put them? What do you do about the children and pets amidst the crowd?
Police have choked off most access points to the downtown core. But they’re facing an informal Friday deadline to make their move: After that, the protest attendance will surge as people from hours away drive in for the weekend, as they have over the past three weeks. During the week, their numbers dwindle back down to the permanent protest residents.
Some protesters question the legality of the state of emergency or see it as mere scare tactics.
“We’ve heard very convincing scare tactics for two weeks now,” said Spencer Bautz, who drove his truck to Ottawa from Saskatchewan over four days. “Some people are obviously more skittish than others, some are a little more brave. Some see through the BS right away, some take a little bit of time.”
Outside of the city, in the farmlands that surround Ottawa, satellite camps have popped up to house protesters who are either on their way to Ottawa or who are looking for a place to sleep outside of the city core. BuzzFeed News visited two such sites this week. The largest, near the township of Embrun, Ontario, had a couple dozen vehicles parked midday Monday. Jake, the guard for the front entrance, said they have guards posted day and night after a woman drove in and tried to hit people. He said the incident was not reported to the police.
“Luckily we had a couple of cars ready to chase her out,” he said. “We don’t need the police. We police ourselves.”