Police have pushed into crowds of demonstrators to clear them from the streets of downtown Ottawa, arresting 70 and hauling away vehicles that have been blocking the core of the capital for more than three weeks in a protest against pandemic restrictions.
Fearing escalation or violence, Ottawa police had sought to disperse them with fines and threats of possible arrest, but on Friday hundreds of them moved in despite the frigid temperature and freshly fallen snow, slowly clearing one part of the city.
But dozens of trucks still occupy the downtown area, though fewer now after several left when the arrests began. Police have have also arrested the three most prominent organisers, two on Thursday and one on Friday.
“We will run this operation 24 hours a day until the residents and community have their entire city back,” Steve Bell, Ottawa’s interim police chief, told reporters.
Officers set up 100 road blocks near the protest site to deny people access and starve them of food and fuel. Police said they had towed 21 vehicles on Friday.
Commenting on the arrest of its leaders, Freedom Convoy 2022, an umbrella group representing the protesters, said: “We will continue to hold the line. We refuse to bow to abuses of power. The world is watching, Canada.”
After a night of heavy snow, protesters with shovels erected a chest-high snow bank on Wellington Street outside parliament and positioned themselves behind it as they waved Canadian flags and “Freedom Convoy” posters.
Police have been driving the protesters toward parliament, clearing territory along the way.
The protesters initially wanted an end to cross-border COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truck drivers, but the blockade has gradually turned into an anti-government and anti-Trudeau demonstration. They have vowed to remain peaceful but say they will stand their ground until police physically remove them.
On Friday some protesters were dragged from their vehicles, others who resisted the police advance were thrown to the ground and handcuffed.
While mostly non-violent, protesters did shout and push against the police line, and there were brief scuffles. Video shared by Canadian media showed a young girl at the centre of a tightly packed group of protesters facing off with dozens of officers.
“Protesters have put children between police operations and the unlawful protest site,” Ottawa Police said on Twitter. “The children will be brought to a place of safety.”
Police say clearing the protests could take days.
Trudeau on Monday invoked emergency powers to give his government wider authority to stop the protests. Legislators had been due to debate those temporary powers on Friday but the House of Commons suspended its session, citing police activity.