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Ottawa declares a state of emergency over truckers' growing anti-government protests

Demonstrators opposed to the Canada's COVID-19 mandates block the streets of Ottawa as they continue to protest on Saturday.
Minas Panagiotakis
Getty Images
Demonstrators opposed to the Canada's COVID-19 mandates block the streets of Ottawa as they continue to protest on Saturday.

The so-called "Freedom Convoy" that arrived in Ottawa more than a week ago to protest the Canadian government's vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers has been honking horns, blocking downtown streets and disturbing residential neighborhoods.

They faced little pushback from law enforcement until this weekend, when officials in the Canadian capital ramped up their response by ticketing protesters, confiscating their fuel and declaring a state of emergency.

Mayor Jim Watson told the CBC that the emergency declaration will help police and city staff get the resources they need faster.

"We're in the midst of a serious emergency, the most serious emergency our city has ever faced, and we need to cut the red tape to get these supplies available to our police officers and to our public works staff," he said.

Police have seemed largely unprepared to deal with the unusual protest, NPR's Emma Jacobs toldMorning Edition from her base in Montreal on Monday (between reporting trips to Ottawa). Authorities have largely hesitated to confront protesters and their massive vehicles, not wanting anyone to get hurt, police have said.

But the situation appears to be growing increasingly untenable, with residents reporting harassment and defiant demonstrators unwilling to budge.

Thousands of protesters in tractor-trailers and other large vehicles have been running their engines and honking their horns day and night since descending on the city late last month.

"This is the seat of government, where Parliament meets and government offices are, but it's also a residential neighborhood full of apartments where people have been going about their lives in what the mayor called 'a living hell,'" Jacobs explained.

Jacobs said it's clear why the noisy protests have been so hard on residents, many of whom have said they are being confronted by convoy supporters for wearing masks.

The protesters represent a range of ideologies and priorities, she added, with the initial anti-vaccine protest evolving into a broader demonstration against COVID-19 measures.

Many in attendance say they'll stay put until all public health mandates are lifted, while others have called for more extreme outcomes like the dissolution of the current government. QAnon followers and people with far-right ties are also in the mix.

"Many members of the convoy and their supporters, they insist the worst behavior and the right-wing views are really a tiny part of the movement," she said. "At the same time, many protesters repeated misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines and COVID-19."

A number of Canadian provinces require vaccine passports to access certain public spaces, and because the federal government can't lift those mandates, Jacobs said, "It's tough to see how this protest will end."

This weekend, protesters arrived in a few other cities, like Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver and Quebec City. But Jacobs said police there had learned from Ottawa's example and were able to clear people out by the end of the weekend.

Here's what else we know.

Police interrupt protesters' supply lines and issue tickets

The convoy is well-supplied with food, firewood and fuel to keep their vehicles running.

Armed police seized hundreds of gallons of fuel from the protesters' staging area — a baseball stadium parking lot — over the weekend, as protesters chanted, "shame, shame, shame."

Police warned that anyone trying to bring fuel or other "material aid" to protesters could be arrested.

Officers have also been handing out tickets and making more arrests in recent days.

The Ottawa Police Service said on Sunday that it had issued more than 450 tickets since the previous morning, after "demonstrators exhibited extremely disruptive and unlawful behaviour, which presented risks to public safety and unacceptable distress for Ottawa residents."

The violations included excessive noise, use of fireworks, driving on the sidewalk, red-light violations, stunt driving and suspended licenses.

And on Sunday, the police ticketed 100 people, seized vehicles and arrested seven individuals primarily for mischief. The other notices were issued for excessive honking, driving the wrong way, not wearing seat belts, having alcohol readily available and other traffic violations.

Police added that they had responded to more than 650 calls for service since the protest began and have opened 97 criminal offense investigations — primarily involving mischief, thefts, hate crimes and property damage. The hotline for hate-motivated crimes had received more than 200 calls, which detectives are investigating.

"Intelligence and evidence gathering teams continue to collect financial, digital, vehicle registration, driver identification, insurance status, and other related evidence that will be used in criminal prosecutions," it said, adding that police are also working with Canadian, U.S. and international security agencies to "investigate email-based threats to public officials."

Protesters draw outrage from many Canadians, and support from some in the U.S.

The protesters have also outraged many onlookers with their crude behavior and symbols of hate. Some have urinated and parked on the National War Memorial, while one danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and others carried flags with swastikas, according to PBS.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations — which represents 70 First Nations in Saskatchewan — has spoken out against the protests, as Indian Country Today has reported.

In a statement, the group said it "opposes the actions and tactics of the Freedom convoy protesters, some of whom have been openly sharing ignorant acts of cultural appropriation of First Nations culture and spirituality publicly and online."

"The FSIN condemns such open acts of racism and ignorance which are being committed across our traditional treaty territories," it said, adding that the pandemic has hit Indigenous communities particularly hard.

Some of the Freedom Convoy supporters reportedly set up a teepee, held a pipe ceremony and burned a "sacred fire" in Confederation Park, which First Nations leaders called unacceptable.

The Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council and the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg said in a statement that they did not give consent to the ceremonial practices — which it said could "cause more harm to who we are as First Nations/Algonquin people" — or the convoy that is happening on their Traditional Unceded Territory.

They added that if such actions continue, they will have no choice but to support Ottawa police in their efforts to stop the protest.

Other Indigenous leaders have criticized not only the protesters' behavior but also the government's response.

In the western province of Alberta, where another trucker blockade turned violent last week, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said he had no doubt that the government would have responded quickly to dismantle the blockade if it had been organized by Indigenous people.

Still, the standoff — and the movement it represents — has galvanized many conservative leaders in Canada and the U.S., with figures like former President Donald Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene praising the convoy and championing its cause.

Trump praised the movement in a statement issued Friday, in which he called Canadian President Justin Trudeau a "far left lunatic ... who has destroyed Canada with insane COVID-19 mandates."

As Jacobs reported over the weekend, polling shows that Canadians are becoming more supportive of lifting certain public health measures — "but that doesn't equal support for protesters' methods or some of the other far-right causes of the organizers in Ottawa."

Members of the opposition federal Conservative Party in Canada are split on how to respond, she added. Party lawmakers are largely supporting the convoy, and some have posed for photos with demonstrators. But two have broken with the party and called for the protest to end, with Ontario Premier Doug Ford saying it had "become an occupation."

Trudeau, who is recovering from COVID-19, has said that engaging the military in response to the protests is "not in the cards right now."

GoFundMe is withholding and refunding donations for the protesters

The online fundraising platform GoFundMe is no longer collecting or distributing money to the protesters, saying on Friday that the fundraiser violated its rules around promoting violence and harassment.

"GoFundMe supports peaceful protests and we believe that was the intention of the Freedom Convoy 2022 fundraiser when it was first created," it said in a statement. "We now have evidence from law enforcement that the previously peaceful demonstration has become an occupation, with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity."

The page had raised some 10 million in Canadian dollars, or nearly $8 million USD, according to the BBC.

GoFundMe said that protest organizers had provided a distribution plan for the initial $1 million that was released early last week, in which it confirmed funds would be used "only for participants who traveled to Ottawa to participate in a peaceful protest."

As the situation evolved, however, GoFundMe said it would no longer distribute any funds to Freedom Convoy organizers. GoFundMe first said it would work with organizers to send the remaining undistributed funds to "credible and established charities" chosen by organizers and verified by the platform, with donors able to request a full refund using an online form.

The following day, the company said it was simplifying the process due to donor feedback and would be automatically refunding all contributions within seven to 10 business days.

GoFundMe's announcement sparked a backlash from several conservative U.S. states, with the attorneys general of West Virginia, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio and Texas promising to investigate the platform for allegedly deceptive practices.

The CBC reports that convoy organizers are pointing potential donors toward a Christian fundraising site called GiveSendGo, which had received more than $2.5 million USD as of Sunday morning.

GiveSendGo was the platform used to raise thousands of dollars for the legal defense of Kyle Rittenhouse, who was tried and acquitted in the killings of protesters in 2020. NPR has also reported on the site in the context of online fundraisers collecting donations for Capitol riot defendants.

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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