Standoff in Ottawa: 'How did we get here?'

About 170 arrests have been made since the police first moved in on protesters on Friday, interim Ottawa Police Chief Steve Bell said Saturday afternoon.

He told reporters pepper spray was used “to disperse unlawful demonstrators who were resisting police orders.”

Children continue to be brought to the front line of police operations, Bell said. “This is dangerous and is putting young children at risk.”

Bell warned that those who stick around in defiance of the emergency measures are breaking the law — and that they should know what they’re in for. Investigations are far from over, he said.

“If you are involved in his protest, we will actively look to identify you and follow up with financial sanctions and criminal charges,” he said. “We will hold people accountable for taking our streets over.”

Those who remained on the streets shouted about freedom. They took selfies, sang “O Canada” and live streamed their proximity to the action. While the never-before-used emergency measures enacted this week by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau make it clear that taking anyone under the age of 18 to an unlawful assembly is illegal, some brought children anyway.

At the intersection of Sparks and Bank Streets in downtown Ottawa, two adults whisked two children, bundled up in their snow suits and clutching hand-drawn signs supporting the protest, through the crowd to take pictures against the police backdrop.

During the past 24 hours, police have made significant moves, reclaiming stretches of Wellington Street, where the House of Commons and Senate are situated, which had been occupied by big rigs and a disruptive ad-hoc encampment for three weeks.

As the police operation continued, MPs were in the House of Commons debating use of the Emergencies Act.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino took part in a press conference on Saturday morning during which he defended use of emergency measures that allow the federal government to temporarily expand policing and give it broad financial powers to punish violators.

“We will only use the Emergencies Act for as long as is necessary,” he said.

Medicino said the measures have allowed authorities to freeze at least 76 accounts associated with the illegal blockades, representing approximately C$3.2 million.

He was short on answers when asked what will happen to the frozen accounts after emergency orders expire or are revoked. It would be “inappropriate” to comment due to the “operational sensitivity” of a situation that continues to roll out in real time, Mendicino said.

“I want to assure you, and everyone that is watching, that this is a tool that is being used effectively, to bring about the conclusion of the illegal blockades peacefully, expeditiously, but within the parameters of the charter,” Mendicino said.

Inside the Commons, Conservatives railed against the government, characterizing the emergency orders a Liberal power grab and an egregious overreach that tramples the rights of Canadians.

“History will not be kind to those who approve of this illiberal power grab,” said Conservative MP Michael Barrett during Saturday’s House debate. “That is not who we are as Canadians.”

Beginning of the end: What took so long?

A battalion of police — supported by horses, drones, armored vehicles and heavily armed tactical officers — started its push into the demonstrators’ territory early Friday.

The clashes Saturday between the most-determined protesters and police took things up a notch from a day earlier, when both sides generally showed more restraint.

But there were still tense moments in the early hours of the operation.

In one example, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested a man after smashing their way into an RV led by an officer with a shield in one hand and a drawn gun in the other.

Many people refused to leave their vehicles.

The first surge of police targeted trucks and occupiers on the edge of the zone. Dozens were arrested and more than 20 vehicles were towed away. The police line moved methodically through the downtown.

The massive, multi-layered push to rid the capital’s core of hundreds of heavy trucks and demonstrators produced results almost immediately.

The streets around Parliament Hill had been jammed since Jan. 28 with semi-trailers, RVs and pickups.

Protesters, many of whom had brought their children with them, had transformed the parliamentary precinct into an encampment. Mess tents were pitched in the middle of downtown streets where demonstrators served soup, snacks and barbecued meat.

For three straight weekends, supporters flocked to the city to join the most-dedicated protesters who were living in the parked vehicles.

The crowd reached into the thousands at times around a sound stage set up outside the Prime Minister’s Office. They trucked in porta potties, inflated bouncy castles and even managed to heat an inflatable hot tub amid the freezing temperatures.

Though it may have been a nonstop tailgate party for the protesters, citizens and businesses in downtown Ottawa were displaced and outraged: shops and restaurants closed and downtown residents were subjected to nonstop truck horns and diesel fumes.

“For the past 22 days, members of my community have been held hostage by an unlawful occupation,” Ottawa Center MP Yasir Naqvi said Saturday morning. “They have been harassed, subjected to hurtful and racist symbols and there have been reports of assaults.”

The federal government announced Saturday that C$20 million will be earmarked to help businesses impacted by the illegal blockades.

With the massive police operation finally taking back neighborhoods, residents are asking the obvious: “What took so long?”

It’s the first on a long list of questions leaders at all levels will be called on to answer. And at the top of that pecking order is Trudeau, whose decision to invoke emergency measures adds to a firestorm of criticism that accuses him of politicizing the pandemic.

Saturday in the House: ‘How did we get here?’

While the Trudeau’s orders have been in effect since Tuesday, under the Emergencies Act, debate must be held “without interruption” in both the House of Commons and Senate.

This procedural quirk under the act allows both MPs and senators to debate and possibly amend the measures. Parliament has the ability to vote down the government’s motion declaring a public order emergency — a result that would effectively revoke Ottawa’s temporary extraordinary powers.

Over in the House of Commons, left of center New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus got existential Saturday morning during parliamentary debate on the use of the Emergencies Act.

“How did we get here?” he asked before reading a long list of culprits into the parliamentary record.

He started with Ottawa police, Mayor Jim Watson, Canada’s security establishment and Facebook. “I blame the prime minister, I blame his failure to stand up and give a vision when we needed a vision,” he continued. “I blame [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford who was off snowmobiling and kept missing key security briefings.”

He accused the federal Conservative party of opportunism and condemned their support for the leaders of the so-called Freedom Convoy, three of whom were arrested soon after police moved in on Thursday night. “Chris Barber is a vicious racist who likes truckers as long as they are white. Tamara Lich is a woman who wants to break up our country,” Angus said. “Pat King is a man who talks openly about shooting the prime minister of the country.”

The perimeter doors of the buildings on Parliament Hill were locked Saturday and anyone inside was advised against leaving as the police operation unfolded.

In the House, the debate carried on with Conservative MPs accusing the Liberal government of overreach and blaming Trudeau for the standoff in the streets below.

The Conservatives said from the start that they will vote against the measure and have used every opportunity in the debate to accuse Trudeau of instigating the crisis.

“Earlier in 2021, even before the protests began, the prime minister called people who opposed mandatory vaccinations racist and misogynist, among other epithets,” Conservative MP Dane Lloyd said Thursday when debate kicked off.

Conservative House Leader John Brassard didn’t mince words, saying Saturday that the unrest was stoked by a prime minister who plays identity politics, “wedging, stigmatizing, dividing, calling people racist, misogynist, extremist and asking whether we have to tolerate these people .”

The minority Liberal government appears to have the support it needs thanks to the NDP, which says the measures are justified against threats posed by the convoy protest.

“They have been brazen about it,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said last week of convoy organizers. “They came here to overthrow a democratically elected government. It is a movement funded by foreign influence and it is fed on disinformation. Its goal is to disrupt our democracy.”

He said the crisis underscores the urgent need for an examination of policing in Canada. “Occupiers get hugs from the police while Indigenous and racialized protesters are met with the barrel of a gun,” Singh said.

Conservative MP Adam Chambers told the House on Saturday that MPs don’t even have enough information to know if the measures are justified.

“There were no briefings. No secret intelligence has been shared,” he said. “Ministers have held press conferences and conducted interviews implying terrorists are at the steps of Parliament, but have offered the House no evidence.”

Debate on the Emergencies Act will continue morning to night until a vote scheduled for 8 pm on Monday.

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