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Canada’s Trudeau invokes emergency powers to quell protests

Protesters on Parliament Hill to support trucks lined up in protest of COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Ottawa, on Saturday
A retired graphic designer holds a sign on Parliament Hill to support trucks lined up in protest of COVID-19 vaccination mandates in Ottawa on Saturday.
(Ted Shaffrey / Associated Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked emergency powers Monday to quell the paralyzing protests by truckers and others angry over Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions, outlining plans not only to tow away their rigs but to strike at their bank accounts and their livelihoods.

“These blockades are illegal, and if you are still participating, the time to go home is now,” he declared.

In invoking Canada’s Emergencies Act, which gives the federal government broad powers to restore order, Trudeau ruled out using the military.

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His government instead threatened to tow away vehicles to keep essential services running, freeze truckers’ personal and corporate bank accounts, and suspend the insurance on their rigs.

“Consider yourselves warned,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said. “Send your rigs home.”

Freeland, who is also the finance minister, said the government will also broaden its anti-money-laundering regulations to target crowd-funding sites that are being used to support the illegal blockades.

Trudeau did not indicate when the new crackdowns would begin. But he gave assurances the emergency measures “will be time-limited, geographically targeted, as well as reasonable and proportionate to the threats they are meant to address.”

For more than two weeks, hundreds and sometimes thousands of protesters in trucks and other vehicles have clogged the streets of Ottawa, the capital, and besieged Parliament Hill, railing against vaccine mandates and other virus precautions and condemning Trudeau’s Liberal government.

OTTAWA, Canada — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he has invoked emergency powers to try to quell the protests by truck drivers and others who have paralyzed Ottawa and blocked border crossings in anger over the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Members of the self-styled Freedom Convoy have also blockaded various U.S.-Canadian border crossings, though the busiest and most important — the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor to Detroit — was reopened late Sunday after police arrested the last of the demonstrators and broke the nearly weeklong siege that had disrupted auto production in both countries.

“This is the biggest, greatest, most severe test Trudeau has faced,” said Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa professor and national security expert.

Invoking the Emergencies Act allows the government to declare the Ottawa protest illegal and clear it out by such means as towing vehicles, Wark said. It also enables the government to make greater use of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the federal police agency.

One of the protest organizers in Ottawa vowed not to back down in the face of pressure from the government.

“There are no threats that will frighten us. We will hold the line,” Tamara Lich said.

Cadalin Valcea, a truck driver from Montreal protesting for more than two weeks, said he will move only if forced: “We want only one thing: to finish with this lockdown and these restrictions.”

Trudeau met virtually with leaders of the country’s provinces before announcing the crackdown.

Doug Ford, the Conservative premier of Ontario, which is Canada’s most populous province and includes Ottawa and Windsor, expressed support for emergency action, saying: “We need law and order. Our country is at risk now.”

But the leaders of other provinces warned the prime minister against taking such a step, some of them cautioning it could inflame an already dangerous situation.

“At this point it would not help the social climate. There is a lot of pressure and I think we have to be careful,” Quebec Premier François Legault said. “It wouldn’t help for the polarization.”

Belgian police screen cars around Brussels during the morning rush hour to try to keep a vehicle protest against COVID-19 restrictions in check.

The protests have drawn support from right-wing extremists and armed citizens in Canada, and have been cheered on in the U.S. by Fox News personalities and conservatives such as Donald Trump.

Some conservatives pushed Trudeau to drop the pandemic mandates.

“He’s got protests right around the country and now he’s dropping in the polls, desperately trying to save his political career. The solution is staring him in the face,” said opposition Conservative lawmaker Pierre Poilievre, who is running for the party’s leadership.

Millions in donations have poured in supporting the protests, including a big chunk from the U.S.

Hackers who apparently infiltrated one of fundraising websites, GiveSendGo.com, dumped a file online that showed a tally of nearly 93,000 donations totaling $8.4 million through Thursday, an Associated Press analysis of the data found.

Roughly 40% of the money raised came from the U.S. while slightly over half was from Canada.

In other developments, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they arrested 11 people at the blockaded border crossing at Coutts, opposite Montana, after learning of a cache of guns and ammunition.

Police said a small group within the protest was said to have a “willingness to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade.” Authorities seized long guns, handguns, body armor and a large quantity of ammunition.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also said protesters in a tractor and a heavy-duty truck tried to ram a police vehicle at Coutts on Sunday night and fled. He said some protesters want to “take this in a very dangerous and dark direction.”

Over the last weeks, authorities have hesitated to move against the protesters. Local officials cited a lack of police personnel and fears of violence, while provincial and federal authorities disagreed over who had responsibility for quelling the unrest.

An earlier version of the Emergencies Act, called the War Measures Act, was used just once during peacetime, by Trudeau’s late father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to deal with a militant Quebec independence movement in 1970.

The demonstrations have inspired similar convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands. U.S. authorities have said that truck convoys may be in the works in the United States.

Invoking the Emergencies Act is a signal to Canadians and allies like the United States and around the world “who are wondering what the hell has Canada been up to,” Wark said.

Also Monday, Ford announced that on March 1, the province Ontario will lift its requirement that people show proof of vaccination to get into restaurants, gyms and sporting events. The surge of cases caused by the Omicron variant has crested in Canada.

“We are moving in this direction because it is safe to do so. Today’s announcement is not because of what’s happening in Ottawa or Windsor but despite it,” Ford said.

In Windsor, the Ambassador Bridge, which carries 25% of all trade between Canada and the U.S., reopened to traffic Sunday night. The interruption had forced General Motors, Ford, Toyota and other automakers to close plants or curtail production on both sides of the border. Some of them have yet to get back to full production.

The siege in Ottawa, about 470 miles away, has infuriated residents fed up with government inaction. They have complained of being harassed and intimidated by the protesters who have parked their rigs bumper to bumper on the streets.

“It’s stressful. I feel angry at what’s happening. This isn’t Canada. This does not represent us,” said Colleen Sinclair, a counterprotester who lives in Ottawa.

Many of Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask rules and vaccination passports for getting into restaurants and theaters, are already falling away as the Omicron surge levels off.

Pandemic restrictions have been far stricter in Canada than in the U.S., but Canadians have largely supported them. The vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and the COVID-19 death rate is one-third that of the United States.

Gillies reported from Toronto. Associated Press writers Ted Shaffrey in Ottawa, Larry Fenn in New York, Frank Bajak in Boston and Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.


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