Police have begun moving into downtown Ottawa to make some arrests in hopes of breaking weeks of deadlock in the Canadian capital with demonstrations sparked by vaccination requirements and other abuses.
Among those arrested Thursday night was Tamara Lich, 47, one of the main organizers of the protests, according to Dagny Pawlak, a spokeswoman for the protest.
Ms Pawlak called the arrest “absolutely unfounded and a disgrace to any liberal democracy, albeit not a surprise”.
Ms. Lich has emerged as the public face and most visible leader of the trucker convoy against pandemic restrictions. She is a former fitness trainer who worked in the energy sector and sang and played guitar in a band called “Blind Monday” in Medicine Hat, Alberta. She was also a senior member of a splinter party campaigning for Canada’s western provinces to secede from the country.
During the protests, Ms Lich, who speaks in measured tones publicly, has developed adept at using social media – and her Twitter feed – to amplify protesters’ grievances.
Police also arrested another organizer, Chris Barber, on Thursday afternoon, a protest spokesman confirmed.
Officials had been signaling for days that what had been criticized as a slow law enforcement response would soon end, and on Thursday city, provincial and state police in Ottawa mobilized in preparation for a crackdown. Officials were seen gathering at a convention center near the airport and at major hotels on the outskirts of the city.
“Action is imminent,” Steve Bell, interim chief of the Ottawa Police Service, said Thursday afternoon, adding that police are committed to ending the “unlawful occupation.”
Police on Thursday set up a perimeter of about 100 checkpoints in core downtown Ottawa to bar anyone but residents from entering, and declared downtown a security zone off-limits to outsiders.
Officials also closed all exits leading to downtown Ottawa on the Trans-Canada Highway, the expressway through the city of Ottawa. By Thursday evening, there was a widespread traffic collapse in several parts of the city center.
On Parliament Hill, the sleet that had drenched Ottawa for most of the day turned to snow, and defiant protesters stayed in the streets, some dancing. A group of protesters followed a news camera team and shouted: “Are you proud of what you do?”
Just after 8pm, a yellow Volvo semi-trailer truck voluntarily pulled out of Confederation Square – which surrounds the National War Memorial – after police approached the driver. As the trucker answered his door for the last time before he left, protesters shouted thank you messages while berating the police.
The protesters said they received text message alerts with the location of police, who confronted the driver to intervene. It was the second truck in the area to set off on Thursday.
Police issued increasingly urgent warnings Wednesday and throughout Thursday – online, on social media and in printed leaflets hand-distributed to protesters – saying that blocking the streets was illegal. They threatened the protesters with arrest, confiscation of their vehicles and other penalties.
In a sign of growing frustration at the protests, the scope of a class-action lawsuit against the protesters was expanded Thursday to include more workers and businesses whose livelihoods have been upended by the protests. In total, the lawsuit seeks approximately CA$306 million in compensation for lost revenue.
In recent weeks, truckers and their supporters have blocked key border crossings and other routes, hampered trade and shut down automakers’ factories. Some blocked roads and harassed residents in Ottawa, causing a 24-hour cacophony in quiet neighborhoods. While many of the protesters are from marginalized communities, others are people fed up with the pandemic restrictions. Physical violence was rare.
Ottawa residents and many Canadians have grown impatient at the sluggishness of the police response, and earlier this week the Ottawa Police Chief resigned amid criticism of law enforcement.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week took the rare step of declaring a national public order emergency – the first such declaration in half a century – to end the protests. The move extended tougher police action across the country, targeting both the protesters’ money-raising, which was classified as criminal activity, and the protesters’ personal and business bank accounts.
Mr Trudeau addressed the House of Commons on Thursday and urged protesters to go home. “It’s high time these illegal and dangerous activities stopped, including here in Ottawa,” he said.
Sarah Maslin Nir and Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting.