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Concerns about violence make it difficult to know when protests will end: Trudeau

OTTAWA — Government officials invoked stronger measures Friday to stop illegal blockades that were paralyzing the national capital and halting traffic at Canada's busiest border crossing with the United States.
Protestors gather along Wellington Street as a protest against COVID-19 restrictions that has been marked by gridlock and the sound of truck horns reaches its 14th day, in Ottawa, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nick Iwanyshyn

OTTAWA — Government officials invoked stronger measures Friday to stop illegal blockades that were paralyzing the national capital and halting traffic at Canada's busiest border crossing with the United States.

The City of Ottawa went to court for an injunction to enforce bylaws while Ontario declared a state of emergency that will allow for hefty fines and jail time.

Even so, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not venture to say when the crisis might end, and antigovernment protesters railing against COVID-19 measures seemed unfazed by the latest efforts to rein them in.

"Everything is on the table because this unlawful activity has to end and it will end," Trudeau said.

"Of course, I can't say too much more now as to exactly when or how this ends because, unfortunately, we are concerned about violence. So we're taking every precaution to keep people safe."

Jurisdictional battles and partisan tensions also appeared to be hindering collaboration on resolving the disruptions dragging into a third weekend in Ottawa and almost a full week at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont.

The Ottawa protest is billed by many involved as a demand to end all COVID-19 restrictions, but various people leading the fight have also said they want to oust the democratically elected Liberal government, suggesting several different but illegal methods for doing so.

City of Ottawa solicitor David White said the city had asked for a court injunction against the "flagrant and repeated violations" of bylaws against noise, idling, fireworks, open air fires, encroachments on city highways and illegal use of parks and facilities.

Protesters, including many with large trucks, have turned the streets around Parliament Hill into a party pit, blasting music, setting up barbecues and mini-kitchens, burning fires in the streets, setting off fireworks into the wee hours, and idling endlessly, spewing diesel fumes into the air.

White said bylaw officers have been unable to enforce the laws because of safety concerns, and even when tickets were issued, it did not stop the behaviour.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency that will allow his cabinet to impose $100,000 fines and up to one year in jail as punishments against people who continue to illegally block roads, bridges, walkways and other critical infrastructure.

Both Ford and Trudeau told protesters if they don't go home the sanctions they face could ruin their lives.

"You now need to understand you're breaking laws," Trudeau said. "The consequences are becoming more and more severe. You don't want to end up losing your licence, end up with a criminal record which will impact your job, your livelihood, even your ability to travel internationally, including to the U.S."

Even as he spoke on Parliament Hill, protesters were outside dancing in the streets, undeterred in the slightest by the threats.

From the cab of a truck on Wellington Street, Tyler Armstrong said he had been in town for two weeks and won't leave "until we get our freedoms back."

“I believe in karma, like very heavily ... I stand by my decision, so whatever happens (is) going to happen and I’m prepared to face any consequence," he said.

Bethan Nodwell, a nurse from Quebec, mocked Ford for telling protesters to go home and called for more border crossings to be blocked.

She also cheered the fact that Alberta, Saskatchewan and now Manitoba have announced plans to ease COVID-19 restrictions. Ford said Friday a plan to do so in Ontario is coming based on public health expertise, not the demands of protesters.

By Friday evening, protesters on Parliament Hill had set up a large screen and stage lights on a flat-bed truck. A crowd gathered listening to live music as the screen displayed a Canada flag.

Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly said Friday the biggest limitation on his force's ability to end the crisis is a lack of officers, adding he had no response to his request for 1,800 personnel from the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police.

Trudeau said the RCMP and OPP had carefully examined the request "to look at what exactly the plan is, what is exactly needed — and what is needed is being provided to be able to move through this in a peaceful responsible way."

Trudeau spoke with U.S. President Joe Biden about the crisis Friday morning. The Americans have said Canada must fix the problem at the border crossings because it is hampering trade. In addition to the Ambassador Bridge, border crossings at Emerson, Man., and Coutts, Alta., are being blockaded.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in Washington that Biden told Trudeau the blockades are hurting American companies and workers. Trudeau said he talked to Biden about the Americans involved in the crisis, including some demonstrating in person, others helping to fund protests and still others flooding Ottawa with fake 911 calls to distract police.

Trudeau said almost half the funds flowing to the protesters are coming from American sources. Ontario got a court injunction Thursday blocking the distribution of those funds, and the prime minister said Canadian banks were monitoring the situation very closely.

Trudeau did not rule out eventually ordering the military to help but said using soldiers against civilians should be avoided.

"We are a long way from ever having to call in the military," he said. "Although, of course, we have to be ready for any eventuality. But it is not something we are seriously contemplating."

While publicly most politicians say they want the protests to end, tensions between the federal and provincial governments have been mounting. Ottawa tried to hold trilateral meetings with the province and city this week, but the province refused to attend.

A senior provincial government source, who spoke on condition they not be identified, said provincial ministers were already talking to their federal counterparts and the so-called "trilateral table" was not going to add any value.

Two sources close to the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters not public, told The Canadian Press a phone call Wednesday between federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and Ontario Transport Minister Caroline Mulroney was extremely tense.

Alghabra said five days ago he planned to talk to Mulroney about using provincial powers over highways to revoke commercial truck licences and go after their insurance, and raised that in the call, but the sources said Mulroney only wanted to hear what Ottawa would do.

The federal government doesn't have the authority to stop protests on provincial highways, but the province does, said one of the sources who spoke about the call between Alghabra and Mulroney.

On Friday Mulroney tweeted that the province's decision to invoke a state of emergency came because the federal government wouldn't do anything.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2022.

— With files from Allison Jones

Mia Rabson, Mike Blanchfield and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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