Trudeau mulls invoking emergency powers to quell protests
Don Stephens, 65, a retired graphic designer, holds a sign on Parliament Hill to support trucks lined up in protest of COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions in Ottawa, Ontario, on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. Stephens said he’s come into Ottawa twice to show support for protesters there. He views them as representatives of a “silent majority that had been longing to have their voice heard.” (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
| February 14, 2022 12:00 PM
OTTAWA (AP) — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government weighed whether to invoke emergency powers Monday to quell the protests by demonstrators who have paralyzed Ottawa and blocked border crossings in anger over the country's COVID-19 restrictions.
For the past two weeks, hundreds and sometimes thousands of protesters in trucks and other vehicles have clogged the streets of Ottawa, the capital, railing against vaccine mandates and other virus precautions and condemning Trudeau's Liberal government.
Members of the self-styled Freedom Convoy have also blockaded various U.S.-Canadian border crossings, though the busiest and most important — the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit — was reopened on Sunday after police cleared out the last of the demonstrators and broke the week-long siege that had disrupted auto production in both countries.
In recent days, the prime minister rejected calls to use the military but said "all options are on the table" to end the protests, including invoking the Emergencies Act, which gives the government broad powers.
"Our government is prepared to do what is required to uphold the rule of law and to restore order in our communities and in particular to protect critical infrastructure, particularly at our borders," Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said when asked Monday about whether the Emergencies Act should be invoked.
In other developments, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they arrested 11 people at the U.S. border crossing at Coutts, Alberta, after learning of a cache of guns and ammunition. Demonstrators in trucks and other vehicles have been blocking that crossing since late January.
Police said a small group within the protest was said to have a "willingness to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade." Authorities seized 13 long guns, handguns, sets of body armor, a machete, a large quantity of ammunition and high-capacity magazines.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also said protesters in a tractor and a heavy-duty truck tried to ram a police vehicle at Coutts on Sunday night and fled. "This underscores the severity of what has been happening," he said.
Over the past weeks, authorities have hesitated to move against the protesters around the country. Local officials cited a lack of police manpower and fear of violence, while provincial and federal authorities disagreed over who had responsibility for quelling the unrest.
"This is the biggest, greatest most severe test Trudeau has faced. And if using the Emergencies Act they fail to clear the protest, I think he's done," said Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa professor and national security expert.
Invoking the Emergencies Act would allow the federal government to declare the Ottawa protest illegal and clear it out by such means as towing vehicles, Wark said. It would also enable the government to make greater use of the Mounties, the federal police agency.
An earlier version of the Emergencies Act, called the War Measures Act, was used just once during peacetime, by Trudeau's late father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to deal with a militant Quebec independence movement in 1970.
Trudeau planned to meet virtually Monday with the leaders of Canada's provinces and with lawmakers.
Invoking emergency powers would be "a signal to both Canadians across the country and also an important signal to allies like the United States and around the world who are wondering what the hell is Canada been up to," Wark said.
The demonstrations in Canada have inspired similar convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands. U.S. authorities have said that truck convoys may be in the works in the United States.
In other developments, Ontario's premier Doug Ford announced Monday that Canada's most populous province will lift its COVID-19 proof-of-vaccination requirements in two weeks — not because of the protests that have blocked the border and paralyzed Ottawa, he said, but because "it is safe to do so."
Ford said that on March 1, the province will drop its requirement that people show proof of vaccination to get into restaurants, restaurants, gyms and sporting events. A surge of cases caused by the omicron variant has crested in Canada.
The province will also remove its 50% capacity limit on restaurants on Thursday, four days earlier than planned. Ford gave no timetable for dropping the requirement that people wear masks in public places.
"Let me very clear: We are moving in this direction because it is safe to do so. Today's announcement is not because of what's happening in Ottawa or Windsor but despite it," Ford said.
Ford said he would support Trudeau's government if it proposed further measures to quell the protests.
""We need law and order. Our country is at risk now. It's not just not happening here in Ottawa, but it's happening in Alberta and British Columbia," Ford said. "We won't accept. it"
Police in Windsor, arrested 25 to 30 protesters and towed several vehicles Sunday near the Ambassador Bridge. The span, which carries 25% of all trade between the two countries, reopened to traffic late Sunday night.
After protesters began blocking bridge access Feb. 7, automakers began shutting down or reducing production at a time when the industry is already struggling with pandemic-induced shortages of computer chips and other supply-chain
About 470 miles (750 kilometers) northeast of Windsor, the protest in Ottawa has paralyzed downtown, infuriated residents who are fed up with police inaction and turned up the pressure on Trudeau.
"It's stressful. I feel angry at what's happening. This isn't Canada. This does not represent us," Colleen Sinclair, a counter-protester who lives in Ottawa.
Sinclair said all demonstrators have had their say and need to move on — with police force, if necessary.
"They're occupiers," she said. "This is domestic terrorism and we want you out of our city. Go home."
While the protesters are decrying vaccine mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 restrictions, many of Canada's public health measures, such as mask rules and vaccine passports for getting into restaurants and theaters, are already falling away as the omicron surge levels off.
Pandemic restrictions have been far stricter in Canada than in the U.S., but Canadians have largely supported them. The vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and the COVID-19 death rate is one-third that of the United States.