Truckers' bank accounts could be frozen and their vehicles towed away, Canada's prime minister has said as he invoked emergency powers to quell protests by lorry drivers and others who have paralysed Ottawa and blocked border crossings in anger over the country’s Covid-19 restrictions.
For more than two weeks, hundreds and sometimes thousands of protesters in trucks and other vehicles have clogged the streets of the capital, and besieged Parliament Hill, railing against vaccine mandates for truckers and other Covid-19 precautions and condemning Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.
Many of the drivers are protesting against a mandate that requires all drivers entering Canada to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
A surge of the highly contagious Omicron variant has led to record cases and recent lockdowns in Ontario and Quebec, Canada’s most populous provinces.
There are also vaccine mandates imposed by the provincial governments.
Members of the self-styled "Freedom Convoy" have also blockaded various US-Canadian border crossings, though the busiest and most important — the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit — was reopened on Sunday after police arrested dozens of demonstrators and broke the nearly week-long siege that had disrupted car production in both countries.
Many in Ottawa are frustrated by the protesters who as well as blocking border crossings are causing traffic chaos in the city.
In invoking Canada’s Emergencies Act, which gives the federal government broad powers to restore order, Justin Trudeau ruled out using the military.
His government instead threatened to tow away vehicles to keep essential services running; freeze truckers’ personal and corporate bank accounts; and take further action to strike at their livelihoods and the sources of their financial support.
“Consider yourselves warned,” deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland said.
"If your truck is used in these blockades, your corporate accounts will be frozen. The insurance on your vehicle will be suspended. Send your rigs home.”
Ms Freeland said the government will also target crowd-funding sites being used to support the blockades.
Mr Trudeau gave assurances the emergency measures “will be time-limited, geographically targeted, as well as reasonable and proportionate to the threats they are meant to address”.
“These blockades are illegal, and if you are still participating the time to go home is now,” he said after meeting virtually with leaders of the country’s provinces.
Invoking the Emergencies Act allows the government to declare the Ottawa protest illegal and clear it out by such means as towing vehicles. It would also enable the government to make greater use of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the federal police agency.
One of the protest organisers in Ottawa vowed not to back down in the face of pressure from the government.
“There are no threats that will frighten us. We will hold the line,” Tamara Lich said.
Doug Ford, the Conservative premier of Ontario, which is Canada’s most populous province and includes Ottawa and Windsor, indicated support for the emergency action before the meeting with Mr Trudeau, saying: “We need law and order. Our country is at risk now.”
But at least three other provincial leaders — from Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan — warned the prime minister against taking emergency action, some of them cautioning that such a move could inflame an already dangerous situation.
“At this point, it would not help the social climate. There is a lot of pressure, and I think we have to be careful,” said Quebec premier François Legault. “It wouldn’t help for the polarisation.”
The protests have drawn support from right-wing extremists and armed citizens in Canada, and have been cheered in the US by Fox News personalities and conservatives such as Donald Trump.
Other conservatives pushed Mr Trudeau to drop the pandemic mandates.
“He’s got protests right around the country, and now he’s dropping in the polls, desperately trying to save his political career. The solution is staring him in the face,” said Conservative legislator Pierre Poilievre, who is running for the party’s leadership.
In other developments, the Mounties said they arrested 11 people at the blockaded border crossing at Coutts, Alberta, opposite Montana, after learning of a cache of guns and ammunition.
Police said a small group within the protest was said to have a “willingness to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade”. Authorities seized long guns, handguns, body armour and a large quantity of ammunition.
Alberta premier Jason Kenney said protesters in a tractor and a heavy-duty truck tried to ram a police vehicle at Coutts on Sunday night and fled. He said some protesters want to “take this in a very dangerous and dark direction”.
Over the past weeks, authorities have hesitated to move against the protesters. Local officials cited a lack of police manpower and fears of violence, while provincial and federal authorities disagreed over who had responsibility for quelling the unrest.
An earlier version of the Emergencies Act, called the War Measures Act, was used just once during peacetime, by Mr Trudeau’s late father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to deal with a militant Quebec independence movement in 1970.