OTTAWA — After weeks of protests that have paralyzed parts of Canada and seized global attention, police forces mobilized on Thursday in and around Ottawa, scene of the last major blockade, warning that a crackdown was “imminent” and threatening demonstrators with an array of legal penalties.
Tension built throughout the day as the authorities issued a stream of warnings, saying that once they move in to clear the streets of the capital city, the protesters face arrest, seizure of their vehicles, loss of any pets in their trucks and cars, revocation of their drivers’ licenses, fines — and up to five years in prison if they bring children to an unlawful demonstration.
“We’ve been bolstering our resources, developing clear plans and preparing to take action. The action is imminent,” Ottawa’s interim police chief, Steve Bell, said in an afternoon news conference. He said the police had created a perimeter with about 100 checkpoints to keep any newcomers from joining the protests in the downtown area around Parliament Hill.
After declaring the downtown a secure zone closed to outsiders, police officials also closed all exits leading to the city center on the Trans-Canada Highway, which is Ottawa’s crosstown expressway. By Thursday evening, there was widespread gridlock through several neighborhoods in the inner parts of the city.
On Parliament Hill, the sleeting rain that had drenched Ottawa much of the day turned to snow, and defiant protesters remained in the streets, some of them dancing. One group of demonstrators followed a news camera crew, yelling, “Are you proud of what you’re doing?”
Just after 8 p.m., a yellow Volvo semi truck voluntarily departed from Confederation Square — which surrounds the National War Memorial — after the police approached the driver. As the trucker opened his door for the last time before leaving, protesters shouted messages of gratitude to him while scolding the police.
The demonstrators said they had received text message alerts with the location of the police who were confronting the driver to try to intercede. It was the second truck in the area to leave Thursday.
On Wellington Street, one of the streets heavily occupied by trucks, few police officers were visible, despite the repeated warnings from officials during the day.
The protests, organized by members of far-right groups, initially seized on opposition to a mandate that truck drivers be vaccinated against Covid-19 if they cross the border from the United States, and arranged convoys that blockaded border crossings, highways and some city streets. But the largely peaceful civil disobedience grew into a small but potent outlet for broader frustration and anger at pandemic restrictions in general and the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Organizers made appeals on Wednesday for more truck drivers and supporters to flood Ottawa, making the blockade there too large for the police to disperse. But the number of protesters’ vehicles on the streets there dwindled in recent days — though it remained in the hundreds — as it became evident that official patience was wearing thin.
The weather forecast called for heavy snow overnight and temperatures well below freezing on Friday — conditions that could greatly complicate the movement of heavy trucks. The dire police warnings and deteriorating conditions fueled expectations on the street that the police would move in on Thursday night or early Friday, though how much resistance they would meet was unclear.
As the convoy protests appeared to be nearing an end, at least temporarily, it remained to be seen what lasting effect they might have on the usually restrained arena of Canadian politics.
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After Mr. Trudeau’s declaration on Monday of a national state emergency under the Emergencies Act gave the police greater powers, law enforcement officials clearly hoped that days of escalating warnings would scatter protesters without the use of force — particularly truckers who would face financial ruin with the loss of their expensive vehicles and drivers’ licenses, as well as time in prison.
But many protesters remained defiant. Surrounded by five of his eight children, Daryl Sheppard, a teacher from North Bay, Ontario, 220 miles northwest of Ottawa, walked through the protest on Thursday holding an anti-vaccination sign. Mr. Sheppard, 41, said he and his children would remain in Ottawa, no matter what the police ordered.
“I’m not really concerned with laws that infringe on my rights as a citizen, my right to bear witness,” he said — a view echoed in some form by many of his comrades.
Protesters say organizers have instructed them that if the police come to uproot them, they should lock themselves in their vehicles and refuse to cooperate. But those who blockaded border crossings largely dispersed when the police moved in, and there were few arrests.
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Officials — and many ordinary Canadians — have insisted that it is the protesters who are infringing on the rights of others, impeding commerce and clogging streets. The border blockades forced some automakers’ plants to halt or slow production, sending workers home.
“We’re not using the Emergencies Act to call in the military,” Mr. Trudeau said in Parliament on Thursday. “We’re not limiting people’s freedom of expression. We’re not limiting freedom of peaceful assembly.”
But, he added, “the blockades and occupations are illegal” and are threatening the economy “and the availability of essential goods like food and medicine.”
On Thursday, lawyers for a group of Ottawa residents expanded on a lawsuit they filed, seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from the protesters, the organizers and those who have given them financial support.
Along with the checkpoints in Ottawa, the police erected barriers around the Parliament building. On the city’s outskirts, officers gathered in large numbers at various spots, including a number of hotels. In addition to the Ottawa police, the mobilization included the Ontario Provincial Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the national force, though it was not clear how many officers had mustered for a push to clear out the demonstrators.
Mr. Trudeau and other officials have been criticized for not acting faster and more forcefully against the protests, but Canadian government and law enforcement have long espoused a patient approach to peaceful protest. The prime minister notes frequently that he has no direct control over law enforcement, and his emergency declaration was the first such move by a government in more than 50 years.
Sarah Maslin Nir and Ian Austen reported from Ottawa, Richard Pérez-Peña from New York and Vjosa Isai from Toronto. Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting from Ottawa, Dan Bilefsky from Montreal, and Allison Hannaford from North Bay, Ontario.