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'All options on the table' to end protest ensnaring Ottawa, says police chief

OTTAWA — The head of the Ottawa police says "all options are on the table," including calling in the military, to end the ongoing anti-vaccine mandate protest that some city councillors are calling an "occupation" of the capital.
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OTTAWA — The head of the Ottawa police says "all options are on the table," including calling in the military, to end the ongoing anti-vaccine mandate protest that some city councillors are calling an "occupation" of the capital.

Chief Peter Sloly warned Wednesday that there "may not be a policing solution" to the demonstration. 

He said he knows people in Ottawa want to see more enforcement as protesters continued to cause gridlock and put a significant burden on residents and businesses, many of which have closed in the downtown core.

Sloly said ending the protest, which rolled into the city as a convoy last Friday, could come through negotiations or it could come through police enforcement.

Or the military could be called in, he said, noting that's something that happened during the Oka standoff with Indigenous protesters in Quebec in 1990 and the October Crisis, which was fuelled by militant Quebec separatists in 1970. 

"All such options come with significant risks," Sloly said at a public briefing for city councillors.

Police estimated the protest involved 8,000 to 15,000 people on Saturday but has since dwindled to several hundred.

"What remains is a highly determined and highly volatile group of unlawful individuals," acting deputy Chief Trish Ferguson said Wednesday. 

More people are expected to arrive in Ottawa over the weekend, with the local hotel association saying people rebooked rooms. Police intelligence hasn't revealed how many are expected to descend on Parliament Hill again. 

A "significant element from the United States" has been involved in funding and organizing the demonstration," Sloly said, adding the longer the demonstration goes on, the greater the risk to public safety.

Ottawa police are watching other demonstrations across the country. 

In southern Alberta, initial efforts to remove an illegal blockade at the Coutts border crossing led to public safety risks and little progress, Sloly said. But on Wednesday the protesters agreed to make some room to allow traffic through.

Ultimately, he said, it may be up to politicians or others to finally stop these demonstrations. 

Coun. Diane Deans, chair of the police services board, said she expects police to step up enforcement of city bylaws as officers are redeployed from the area around Parliament Hill to other communities in the city. That's something police said began Tuesday night.

"The message I've been getting loud and clear from the public is they sense this sort of lawlessness that has been allowed to happen," Deans said in an interview.

"We need to restore law and order in these communities and these people need to be subject to our laws and bylaws while they're in our city."

Police said they had charged three men related to the protest and there were 25 active investigations.

A 48-year-old man from Quebec was charged with uttering threats over social media and counselling to commit an indictable offence. The man was not named.

Andre Lacasse, 37, was charged Sunday with carrying a weapon to a public meeting. Police allege he carried a knife and a baton. Deputy police Chief Steve Bell had earlier mentioned a long gun, but police say he was referring to a different investigation and could not provide any more details at this time.

Matthew Dorken, 29, was charged Tuesday with mischief under $5,000.

"We want to be very clear, both for the current demonstrations and any planned demonstrations: Illegal activity will not be tolerated," police said in a release.

Late Wednesday, police asked the public for tips to help their investigation into the desecration of the National War Memorial on Saturday.

Investigators asked people to review photos and a video of a suspect provided to police by The Sun.  

Ottawa residents have voiced frustration with the incessant blare of truck horns, traffic gridlock and harassment by some protesters. An online petition urging police to end the demonstration was posted on Change.org on Tuesday and garnered more than 10,000 signatures on the first day.  

Coun. Catherine McKenney, who represents downtown, said the federal government should send in the RCMP to help get a handle on the demonstration.

"The residents of downtown have been abandoned during a national crisis and occupation of our city," McKenney said. "People are terrified and there is no presence of the police."

Ottawa police said they requested RCMP intelligence officers to assist with negotiations and other elements of the protest, Deans said.

Deans also called on Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to get in touch with the crowdfunding site GoFundMe and demand that protesters be barred from millions of dollars raised by organizers. GoFundMe has confirmed $1 million has been released to organizers so far.

"They're funding these mercenaries and that funding stream needs to get cut off," Deans said.

The GoFundMe website Wednesday shows the "Freedom Convoy 2022" fundraiser has reached $10,097,500 in donations but has been "currently paused and under review to ensure it complies with our terms of service and applicable laws and regulations."

The website's terms of service prohibit violating laws and regulations.

It also says funds can't be used in support of hate, violence, harassment, bullying, discrimination, terrorism, or intolerance of any kind relating to race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, serious disabilities or diseases.

The terms also state donations can't be used for the legal defence of such activity.

Tamara Lich, part of the convoy's fundraising team, was not immediately available for comment.

Late Wednesday, GoFundMe issued a statement about its decision to put a hold on the funds after earlier saying the organizer met its requirements.

"Our monitoring includes maintaining close communication with the organizer as well as collaborating with local law enforcement. This process takes time and may slow down the withdrawal process," reads the statement.

"We also requested more information from the organizer regarding the use of funds to ensure the fundraiser is still compliant with our terms of service. When we do not receive required information, we may put a pause on donations as we did in this case." 

In a statement Wednesday, one of the Ottawa convoy leaders said responsibility for the city's current hardships rests on politicians who "prefer to vilify and call us names" instead of engaging with them.

"The fastest way to get us out of the nation's capital is to call your elected representatives and end all (COVID-19) mandates," wrote Chris Barber. 

Barber said interactions with police have been "mostly positive," especially with front-line officers.

Late Wednesday, Watson lashed out at a group of Conservatives MPs and a senator from Saskatchewan who had their picture taken in front of one of the protest trucks.

The group, including MPs Warren Steinley, Kevin Waugh, Andrew Scheer, Fraser Tolmie, Rosemarie Falk and Sen. Denise Batters are seen grinning in front of the truck, some giving the thumbs-up.

"A few of our SK Caucus members went to show our appreciation for the hardworking, patriotic truckers who have kept our supply chains healthy & grocery shelves stocked for the past two years," Waugh said on Twitter. "It’s great to see Canadians championing freedom on Parliament Hill." 

Watson called on them to apologize.

"This is an absolute disgrace that you would come out & praise this illegal action that has caused stress and hardship to residents who have been putting up with horns blasting throughout the night and residents harassed for wearing a mask & businesses forced to close," he said on Twitter. 

Erica Ifill, founder of equity and inclusion consultancy firm Not In My Colour, said it appears police "have no control over this at all," and are using less proactive and aggressive measures than those used at other demonstrations held by people of colour. 

"Don't we pay them to figure it out? I mean, isn't that what they're there for?" she said. "What it looks like is that they are more concerned with inciting violence of white men than they are about the bodies of Black and Indigenous people."

Police estimate they have already spent more than $3 million to manage the protest and respond to emergencies. In comparison, the Canada 150 celebrations on Parliament Hill in 2017 cost Ottawa police about $1.5 million. 

The city has begun delivering essentials to people downtown who are afraid or unable to leave their homes, Watson said.

Watson said he has spoken with federal and provincial officials about getting financial relief for businesses that have been unable to open during the ongoing demonstrations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2022.

Laura Osman and Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version reported that police alleged the person charged with carrying a weapon to a public meeting had planned to attend the rally downtown with a long gun, but was intercepted before that could happen. In fact, police allege the person charged carried a knife and a baton. Ottawa police said Thursday that Steve Bell, the deputy police chief, had been talking Wednesday about a different investigation and would not comment further.

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