© Reuters. Trucks from the protest are driven from the downtown area as truckers and supporters continue to protest coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine mandates, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, February 18, 2022. REUTERS/Lars Hagberg
By Steve Scherer and Carlos Osorio
OTTAWA (Reuters) -Canadian police on Saturday used pepper spray and stun grenades in a final push to clear the capital of trucks and demonstrators who have occupied the downtown core of Ottawa for more than three weeks to protest against pandemic restrictions.
After clearing a portion of the blockade and making more than 100 arrests on Friday, 47 more arrests were made on Saturday morning as police moved quickly to disperse the main portion of the blockade in front of parliament and the prime minister’s office.
“We told you to leave. We gave you time to leave. We were slow and methodical, yet you were assaultive and aggressive with officers,” police said in a statement to the truckers posted on Twitter (NYSE:TWTR). Police used loudspeakers to warn the crowd to disperse or face arrest.
Protest organizers for the so-called Freedom Convoy said they had asked trucks to withdraw because of heavy-handed police tactics, and many trucks did exit the downtown core on Saturday. Thirty-eight vehicles have been towed, police said.
Officers smashed vehicle windows to arrest people locked inside, but the overall number of protesters has dwindled dramatically compared with previous days, with a couple hundred remaining near the advancing police cordon.
Some of those arrested on Saturday wore body armor and had smoke grenades and other fireworks in their bags and vehicles, police said.
Some loud bangs of stun grenades were heard. People were sprayed with “a chemical irritant in an effort to stop the assaultive behavior and for officer safety,” police said.
Protesters threw smoke canisters, police said. Several large trucks that have been parked in front of parliament for weeks drove away as the police approached their position. No tear gas has been used, police said.
Many of the main organizers have been taken into custody, and some have reportedly left. On Saturday, organizers said on Twitter they were “shocked at the abuses of power by the law enforcement in Ottawa” and so had “asked our truckers to move from Parliament Hill to avoid further brutality”.
The protest organizers said protesters had been “horse-trampled” on Friday, which police deny.
“We hear your concern for people on the ground after the horses dispersed a crowd. Anyone who fell got up and walked away. We’re unaware of any injuries,” police said on Twitter.
The protesters initially wanted an end to cross-border COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truck drivers, but the blockade has gradually turned into a demonstration against the government and against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“This is our final stand … When it ends, it ends and it’s in God’s hands,” said Jeremy Glass, a protester from Shelburne, Ontario. “At the end of this, we all need to get back to unity and get rid of this division.”
Trudeau on Monday invoked emergency powers to give his government wider authority to stop the protests. He authorized banks and financial institutions to temporarily freeze the accounts of those suspected of supporting the blockades, without obtaining a court order.
Financial services providers have used the emergency powers to freeze at least 76 accounts with a total of C$3.2 million ($2.5 million), Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said on Saturday.
The federal government said on Saturday it would provide up to C$20 million to Ottawa businesses that have suffered losses due to the blockades.
Debate in parliament over the emergency powers resumed on Saturday, and a final vote is scheduled for Monday. Trudeau’s Liberals and opposition New Democrats have indicated their support, which should ensure its passage.
American politicians, including former President Donald Trump, have expressed support for the protesters, as has Tesla Inc’s chief executive, Elon Musk, who on Saturday replied on Twitter to a woman asking him to help the protesters.
“I wish I could help. At this point, it seems that voting at the next election is the remedy,” Musk replied.
After the protest crowds swelled on the three previous weekends, police set up 100 road blocks around the downtown core on Friday to deny people access and prevent food and fuel from getting in.
($1 = 1.2749 Canadian dollars)