Canada’s capital is long used to hosting protests. But the self-described Freedom Convoy has been an unusual and intimidating presence in Ottawa since it rolled up nearly a dozen days ago with its snowballing list of grievances, from opposition to vaccine mandates and lockdowns to antipathy toward recently reelected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Big rigs and other vehicles continue to block crucial downtown arteries, snarling traffic, blaring their horns and fraying residents’ nerves. The protest has had the effect of forcing several businesses to close because of safety concerns. National monuments are now fenced off after protesters desecrated them. In a surreal scene, a man on horseback traveled down a road in front of Parliament over the weekend, waving a Trump 2024 flag.
Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly has called it a “siege.” Ontario Premier Doug Ford cast it as an “occupation.”
The convoy, which has attracted the attention of combatants in the U.S. culture wars and drawn support from former president Donald Trump and Elon Musk, is spurring solidarity demonstrations elsewhere in Canada and inspiring similar protests from Europe to Australia. As it drags on, questions are mounting about what critics say he been the insufficient response of authorities - and what comes next.
“It’s so unprecedented that as we watched it, and as the police and government watched it approaching, they could not recognize it for what it was,” said Michael Kempa, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa. “It was figuratively outside our conceptual frame for what was possible for the city of Ottawa or for a protest in Canada.”
Police have now begun trying to choke off the supply lines of food, fuel and other goods that have sustained the protesters. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency on Sunday, saying authorities were “losing the battle” against groups that were “calling the shots.” He asked the federal and provincial governments for 1,800 more officers.
Police said Sunday that they had “fully cleared” and fenced off a downtown park near city hall where protesters had erected a wooden structure that functioned as a makeshift kitchen. They also seized fuel, including a full tanker of gas, from a well-stocked logistics hub in the parking lot of a baseball stadium.
Photos and videos shared to social media showed protesters chanting “shame” at officers.
“We are turning up the heat every way we possibly can,” Sloly said Monday. He also said he needed far more resources to bring the “unlawful” blockade to an end and that officers are working with no days off.
Ottawa police said they have launched 60 criminal investigations, issued hundreds of tickets, towed vehicles and made at least 20 arrests since Friday. They warned that anyone found to be supplying trucks with fuel could face charges. Local media on Monday still documented people carrying jerrycans of fuel to blockading vehicles.
“Every time we knock something down, there are attempts for it to pop up in four or five other locations,” Sloly said.
Canada Unity, one of the main groups behind the protest, had tried in the past to launch such a convoy. The imposition last month of U.S. and Canadian rules requiring cross-border truckers to be fully vaccinated and broader pandemic fatigue helped galvanize support.
The protest has since grown into a broader movement against all coronavirus measures, which are mostly imposed by provincial governments, and Trudeau. Police say a “significant element” from the United States has been involved in organizing and funding it.
The demonstrators are a mix of people opposed to vaccine mandates and public health measures, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, far-right extremists and anti-government activists.
Canada Unity has been seeking signatures on a “memorandum of understanding” asking the governor general, who represents Queen Elizabeth II in Canada, and the Senate to rescind public health measures or dissolve the government - actions that lie well outside their constitutional powers.
“It’s a moment of maturing of populist sentiment in Canada,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a Queen’s University professor who studies extremism. “There was always a kind of populist bent to some politics in Canada, but it was always pretty small. That changed after covid . . . because it really brought a lot of different groups that were anti-government and ideologically quite disparate in the same sandbox.”
Kempa said the United States is more experienced at dealing with “radicalized political protest.”
“Canada, for its own conceits, has imagined that this is not our problem,” he said. “I think we are realizing we have much more in common with our American neighbors.”
Sloly has warned that “there may not be a policing solution to this demonstration” and that he and other commanders were “looking at every single option, including military aid to civil power” to end it.
Trudeau said last week that sending in the army to end the protests was “not in the cards.” He noted that most Canadians supported parties during the federal election in September that supported vaccine mandates.
His government said Monday it was convening a “trilateral table” with provincial and local officials to respond to the protesters. But officials gave no indication that they would back down from the vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers.
“We cannot allow an angry crowd to reverse a course that continues to save lives in this last stretch,” Marco Mendicino, Canada’s public safety minister, said during a news conference. “This should never be a precedent for how to make policy in Canada.”
Some protesters have flown Confederate flags or flags with swastikas on them. Ottawa police and local residents say they’ve been intimidated, subjected to racist vitriol and harassed for wearing masks.
A women’s shelter said some clients were checking themselves into hospital because the incessant honking had “retraumatized” them.
“It feels like we are being held hostage,” said Kiavash Najafi, who lives in Centretown, a diverse, bustling neighborhood just south of Parliament Hill.
An Ontario court issued a 10-day injunction on Monday against the use of air horns, but it was unclear how it would be enforced.
Though the number of vehicles blockading the roads and people participating in the protests has dropped off significantly since the first weekend, there appears to be no end in sight.
Amid the frustration, the police have drawn criticism for not anticipating the disruption or preparing for it. Police officials in other cities, wary of following the path Ottawa police took, have managed to prevent protesters in their cities from prolonged blockades.
Sloly has said that police fear the demonstrators could use their vehicles as weapons against them and that some protesters might be armed. He told reporters Monday that the protest’s core organizers told police that they would arrive on Jan. 28 and leave on Jan. 30.
“That is what we planned for,” he said.
Kempa said Ottawa police tried to respond with a strategy of containment, having learned the lessons of the 2010 Group of 20 summit in Toronto, where an aggressive and widely criticized response to protests resulted in authorities paying out more than $13 million in a class-action settlement.
“The police are meant to contain mass protests, only intervene when there are flagrant and dangerous violations of the law involving violence, damage to property hate speech and more or less allowing this thing to peter out with the passage of time,” he said. “That is not an approach that will work with this type of protest, where the intention is to stay until specific political demands are met. . . . Now there’s stalemate.”
Amarasingam sees various ways this could end, including an internal collapse within the movement over money or objectives, a “spark” that would spur authorities to take a harsher response or through negotiation.
“I’m not sure where this goes,” he said. “I think the way they’ve set up shop, they’ll be here for a while.”