Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demanded an end Monday to a protest by hundreds of truckers against Covid-19 restrictions that has paralyzed the capital, as Ottawa’s mayor called on federal authorities for support.
“It has to stop,” Trudeau said during an emergency debate in the House of Commons on his return to parliament after isolating for week due to a positive Covid-19 test.
“This pandemic has sucked for all Canadians,” the premier said, visibly frustrated over the protests that have brought Ottawa to a standstill for more than week.
“But Canadians know the way to get through it is continuing to listen to science, continuing to lean on each other,” he added.
He pledged federal government support “with whatever resources the province and city need,” without elaborating what measures might be planned.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson earlier urged the federal government to send an additional 1,800 police officers and appoint a mediator to work with protesters to “end this siege” that has infuriated local residents with incessant honking and diesel fumes.
On Sunday, Watson declared a state of emergency in the capital, declaring the protests “out of control.”
“They don’t know what to do with us,” said 59-year-old farmer and trucker John Lambert, who was taking part in the protest.
“All they’ve got to do is come to their senses. It’s up to them to resolve it.”
– Police measures –
The “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations began January 9 in western Canada as protests by truckers angry with vaccine requirements when crossing the US-Canadian border.
They have since morphed into broader protests against Covid-19 health restrictions and Trudeau’s government.
Protest organizer Tamara Lich said activists were willing to engage with the government to find a way out of the crisis, but insisted that pandemic restrictions be eased.
“What we’re trying to do right now is reaching out to all of the federal parties so that we can arrange a sit down,” Lich said during a meeting streamed on YouTube.
With the capital’s center blocked and businesses forced to close, police have come under fire for the protracted crisis.
To up the pressure on protesters, Ottawa police Sunday announced new measures to tame the demonstrations by banning people from bringing fuel and other supplies to the rallies.
“Anyone attempting to bring material supports (gas, etc) to the demonstrators could be subject to arrest,” the police said on Twitter.
Officers have since arrested several people, seized multiple vehicles and issued hundreds of traffic tickets.
Protesters had been raising funds to keep up the protests, but were cut off by fundraising site GoFundMe, which said they had violated its policy against content that “promotes behaviour in support of violence.”
Organizers quickly launched a fundraising campaign on Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo that had raised more than $5 million as of Monday night.
– ‘Reacted too strongly’ –
Trudeau last week ruled out deploying the army to disperse the protesters “for now,” saying that one must be “very, very cautious before deploying the military in situations against Canadians.”
“Trudeau has nothing to gain by going to speak to the demonstrators,” Genevieve Tellier, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, told AFP.
But another political analyst, Frederic Boily of the University of Alberta, said the protests could escalate into a full-blown political crisis.
“Justin Trudeau reacted badly initially,” Boily said. “He reacted too strongly and too abruptly at the start of the protests when he tried to paint them as a far-right protest.”
Boily added that Trudeau “added fuel to the fire” by turning vaccination into a political issue, especially during last summer’s election campaign.
But the opposition also finds itself in a bind politically.
The Conservatives, who will soon be voting to elect their new leader, are themselves divided on the issue of the protests.
“They are afraid that part of their supporters will be tempted by the extreme right, but it is a risky bet for them,” said political analyst Daniel Beland.
While only about 10 percent of Canadian adults remain unvaccinated, as many as 32 percent of the population support the anti-mandate protests, according to a recent survey.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino voiced support for vaccines and hit out at the protests, saying, “We cannot allow an angry crowd to reverse a course that continues to save lives in this last stretch” of the pandemic.
“This should never be a precedent for how to make policy in Canada.”