Police on Wednesday ordered protesters clogging Ottawa’s streets to leave or face criminal charges, appearing to set the stage for a clampdown on the demonstrations that have roiled the nation’s capital for weeks.
“You must leave the area now. Anyone blocking streets, or assisting others in the blocking streets, are committing a criminal offense and you may be arrested,” Ottawa Police Service said in a statement and in leaflets handed out to protesters. “You must immediately cease further unlawful activity or you will face charges.”
The statement added that anyone coming to Ottawa to join the demonstration would also be breaking the law.
This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made his most aggressive move yet, declaring a national emergency aimed at ending the demonstrations that began nearly three weeks ago in the capital of Ottawa to protest vaccine mandates, and have since spread across the country.
His invocation of the Emergencies Act conferred enormous, if temporary, power on the federal government — and was the first time in more than a half-century that a Canadian government had taken such a drastic step.
The police will now be able to seize trucks and other vehicles used in the protests. Demonstrations that “go beyond lawful protest” would be banned, the prime minister said, and the government would formally ban blockades in designated areas like border crossings, airports and the capital.
But Mr. Trudeau and members of his cabinet offered repeated assurance that the act would not be used to suspend “fundamental rights.”
After the leaflets were handed out to protesters in Ottawa, a group of them near Parliament Hill asked police officers if they were going to be arrested. “If you’re given the order will you follow orders?” one of the protesters asked. Officers responded that for now they were not making arrests.
Denis Brown, 57, who quit his job as a technology service provider because he didn’t want to get vaccinated for travel, was circulating his own message on a piece of paper: The politicians should be arrested, it said.
The patience of many Canadians with the protests has grown thinner by the day. The nation’s image of serenity and order has given way to scenes of truckers shouting “freedom,” honking horns, confronting police and, in some cases, taunting fellow citizens who wear masks.
While most of the protests have been peaceful, the presence of more hard-line elements was underlined this week when four protesters in Alberta on Tuesday were charged with conspiracy to murder police officers, in relation to what the police described as a plan to use violence if officers tried to break up a blockade in Coutts, a village in southern Alberta bordering Montana.
A stockpile of weapons — including 13 long guns, handguns, a machete, multiple sets of body armor, a large quantity of ammunition and magazines — was discovered by the police in trailers in Alberta on Monday. Police said a small protest cell in the province had been prepared to use force to maintain the now-disbanded blockade in Coutts.
Thirteen people were arrested, ranging in age from 18 to 62, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Alberta said in a statement on Tuesday. In addition to charging four with conspiracy to commit murder, the police charged most of the remaining protesters with possession of a weapon and with “mischief” over 5,000 Canadian dollars.
Marco Mendicini, the minister of public safety, said Wednesday that three of the main border crossings previously impeded by protesters — in Coutts, Alberta; Surrey, British Columbia; and the Ambassador Bridge linking Windsor, Ontario to Detroit — were now open. The Ambassador Bridge is a vital supply route for the global automobile industry.
“For those thinking of coming to Ottawa this weekend, don’t,” Mr. Mendicini said, warning that people who did so would be risking involvement in criminal actions.
Ottawa’s chief of police, Peter Sloly, resigned on Tuesday amid criticism that the police and Mr. Trudeau’s government have been ineffectual and sluggish in stemming the disruptions.
While trucks continue to snarl traffic and disrupt daily life in Ottawa, there have been signs in recent days that the protests and blockades appear to be slowly diminishing. The Ottawa police said on Tuesday afternoon that the number of trucks in the downtown core had shrunk to 360 vehicles compared with more than 400 vehicles earlier in the week while about 150 protesters remained on the streets.
Deputy Chief Patricia Ferguson said the police had so far opened 172 criminal investigations related to the protests, charged 33 people, and issued 3,000 tickets.
“This is not a peaceful protest,” Mr. Trudeau said this week. “The time to go home is now.”