Police poured into downtown Ottawa on Thursday in what truckers feared was a prelude to a crackdown on their nearly three-week, street-clogging protest against Canada's COVID-19 restrictions.
Work crews in the capital began erecting fences outside Parliament, and for the second day in a row, officers handed out warnings to the protesters to leave. Busloads of police converged on the area.
“It’s high time that these illegal and dangerous activities stop,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared in Parliament, not far from where the more than 300 trucks were parked.
“They are a threat to our economy and our relationship with trading partners,” he said. “They are a threat to public safety.”
Many of the protesters in the self-styled Freedom Convoy reacted to the warnings with scorn.
“I’m prepared sit on my ass and watch them hit me with pepper spray,” said one of their leaders, Pat King. As for the big rigs parked bumper-to-bumper, he said: “There’s no tow trucks in Canada that will touch them.”
Ottawa represented the movement's last stronghold after weeks of demonstrations and blockades that shut down border crossings into the U.S., inflicted economic damage on both countries and created a political crisis for Trudeau.
The protests have shaken Canada's reputation for civility and rule-following and inspired similar convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
On Wednesday, Ottawa police handed out leaflets warning the truckers to leave immediately or face the consequences, and the city's police chief declared his intention to break the siege and take back downtown “in the coming days.”
The protests around the country by demonstrators in trucks, tractors and motor homes initially focused on Canada’s vaccine requirement for truckers entering the country but soon morphed into a broader attack on COVID-19 precautions and Trudeau’s government.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.