OTTAWA, Ontario (AP) — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked emergency powers Monday to quell crippling protests by truckers and others angry at Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions, outlining plans not just to tow their platforms, but also to hit their bank accounts and livelihoods.
“These blockades are illegal, and if you’re still participating in them, it’s time to go home,” he said.
Citing Canada’s Emergencies Act, which gives the federal government broad powers to restore order, Trudeau ruled out the use of the military.
His government has instead threatened to tow vehicles to keep essential services running; freezing truckers’ personal and corporate bank accounts; and suspend insurance on their platforms.
“Consider yourself warned,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said. “Send your rigs home.”
Freeland, who is also finance minister, said the government would also expand its anti-money laundering regulations to target crowdfunding sites that are used to support illegal blockades.
Trudeau did not say when the new crackdown would begin. But he assured that the emergency measures “will be limited in time, geographically targeted, as well as reasonable and proportionate to the threats they are supposed to face”.
For more than two weeks, hundreds and sometimes thousands of demonstrators in trucks and other vehicles blocked the streets of Ottawa, the capital, and besieged Parliament Hill, protesting vaccination mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 precautions and condemning Trudeau’s Liberal government.
Members of the so-called Freedom Convoy also blocked various Canada-US border crossings, although the busiest and most important – the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ont., to Detroit – was reopened on Sunday after police arrested dozens of protesters and broke the nearly week-long siege that had disrupted auto production in both countries.
“This is the biggest, biggest and toughest test Trudeau has ever faced,” said Wesley Wark, a uOttawa professor and national security expert.
Invoking the Emergencies Act would allow the government to declare the Ottawa protest illegal and clean it up through means such as towing vehicles, Wark said. It would also allow the government to make greater use of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the federal police force.
One of the protest organizers in Ottawa has vowed not to back down in the face of government pressure.
“There are no threats that will scare us. We will hold the line,” Tamara Lich said.
Cadalin Valcea, a Montreal trucker who has been protesting for more than two weeks, said he would only move if forced to: “We only want one thing: to end this confinement and these restrictions.
Trudeau met virtually with provincial leaders across the country before announcing the crackdown.
Doug Ford, the Conservative Premier of Ontario, which is Canada’s most populous province and includes Ottawa and Windsor, voiced his support for the emergency action saying, “We need the law and order. Our country is in danger now.
But leaders in other provinces have warned the prime minister against such a move, with some warning it could escalate an already dangerous situation.
“At this stage, it would not help the social climate. There is a lot of pressure, and I think we have to be careful, ”said Quebec Premier François Legault. “That wouldn’t help polarization.”
The protests drew support from right-wing extremists and armed citizens in Canada, and were cheered in the United States by Fox News figures and conservatives like Donald Trump.
Some conservatives pushed Trudeau to simply ditch the pandemic warrants.
“He’s got protests all over the country, and now he’s plummeting in the polls, desperately trying to salvage his political career. The solution is obvious to him, ”said Conservative opposition MP Pierre Poilievre, candidate for the leadership of the party.
Millions of donations have poured in to support the protests, much of it from the United States
Hackers who apparently infiltrated one of the fundraising websites, GiveSendGo.comdumped an online file that showed a tally of nearly 93,000 donations totaling $8.4 million through Thursday, an Associated Press analysis of the data found.
About 40% of the money raised came from the United States, while just over half came from Canada.
In other developments, RCMP said they arrested 11 people at the blocked border crossing in Coutts, Alta., across from Montana, after learning of a cache of guns and ammunition.
Police said a small group within the protest were “willing to use force against the police if attempts were made to disrupt the blockade”. Authorities seized long guns, handguns, body armor and a large amount of ammunition.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also said protesters in a tractor and heavy truck tried to ram a police vehicle in Coutts on Sunday night and fled. He said some protesters wanted to “take this in a very dangerous and dark direction”.
In recent weeks, authorities have been reluctant to intervene against protesters. Local officials cited a shortage of police personnel and fears of violence, while provincial and federal authorities disagreed on responsibility for suppressing the unrest.
An earlier version of the Emergencies Act, called the War Measures Act, was used only once in peacetime, by Trudeau’s late father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to face a militant movement for the independence of Quebec in 1970.
The protests have inspired similar convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands. US authorities have said truck convoys may be in preparation in the United States.
Invoking emergency powers would be a signal to Canadians and their allies like the United States and the world “who wonder what the hell Canada has done,” Wark said.
Also on Monday, Ontario’s premier announced that on March 1 the province will lift its requirement that people must show proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, eateries, gyms and sporting events. The wave of cases caused by the omicron variant peaked in Canada.
“We are going in this direction because it is safe to do so. Today’s announcement is not because of what is happening in Ottawa or Windsor, but despite it,” Ford said.
The Ambassador Bridge, which carries 25% of all trade between the two countries, reopened to traffic on Sunday evening. The disruption forced General Motors, Ford, Toyota and other automakers to close plants or cut production on both sides of the border. Some of them have not yet returned to full production.
The siege in Ottawa, about 470 miles (750 kilometers) away, has infuriated residents who are fed up with government inaction. They complained of being harassed and intimidated by protesters who parked their rigs bumper-to-bumper in the streets.
“It’s stressful. I feel angry about what’s going on. This isn’t Canada. It doesn’t represent us,” Colleen Sinclair, a counter-protester who lives in Ottawa.
Many of Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask rules and vaccination passports to enter restaurants and theaters, are already falling as the omicron surge stabilises.
Pandemic restrictions have been much stricter in Canada than in the United States, but Canadians have largely supported them. The vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated.
Gillies reported from Toronto. Associated Press writers Ted Shaffrey in Ottawa, Ontario, Larry Fenn in New York, Frank Bajak in Boston and Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.