OTTAWA—As police in Ottawa escalated operations for the second day in a row against the trucker protest opposed to the government’s COVID-19 mandates, a spokesperson for the movement, dubbed the “Freedom Convoy,” called for a peaceful withdrawal, saying they are not going to be a “punching bag for law enforcement.”
Speaking at a press conference at the Lord Elgin Hotel in downtown Ottawa on Feb. 19, retired Canadian military officer Tom Marazzo said many truckers feel that the best course of action for them and their families is to withdraw in order to avoid further harm.
“As a movement, we have chosen to peacefully withdraw from the streets of Ottawa. There is nothing to be gained by being brutalized by police,” Marazzo said.
Police began escalating their operation against the protesters in Ottawa on Feb. 18, announcing mid-morning Feb. 20 that they have thus far made 191 arrests and had 57 vehicles towed away. Mounted police and officers on foot advanced on demonstrators, with horses knocking down protesters in some instances.
Some police officers were heavily armed, including with assault rifles and what appeared to be rubber bullet launchers. Some wielded batons and pepper spray, while some smashed truck windows to remove truckers from their vehicles.
“It’s a dark day in our history,” Marazzo said. “Never in life would I believe anyone if they told me that our prime minister would refuse dialogue and choose violence against peaceful protesters.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has continued to refuse to meet with the organizers of the trucker convoy, which arrived in Ottawa on Jan. 28 and 29.
The convoy began as a protest by truck drivers opposed to the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for their cross-border travel. It turned into a much larger movement after many Canadians from across the country began joining in or voicing their support for ending the various COVID-19 mandates and restrictions.
Prior to the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa, at a press conference on Jan. 26 Trudeau dismissed the protesters as a “small fringe minority … who are holding unacceptable views.”
On Feb. 14, Trudeau became the first prime minister in Canada to invoke the Emergencies Act, aiming to use it as a means to quash the protest in Ottawa and similar ones in other parts of the country.
“The Emergencies Act will be used to strengthen and support law enforcement agencies at all levels across the country. This is about keeping Canadians safe, protecting people’s jobs, and restoring confidence in our institutions,” Trudeau said at a press conference on Feb. 14.
“The police will be given more tools to restore order in places where public assemblies can constitute illegal and dangerous activities such as blockades and occupations as seen in Ottawa, Ambassador Bridge, and elsewhere.”
Ottawa police called the protest in Ottawa “unlawful.”
Several of the Freedom Convoy organizers have been arrested, including Chris Barber and Tamara Lich on Feb. 17. Daniel Bulford, a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who was coordinating security for the protest, was arrested on Feb. 18 and later released without charge.
Marazzo, who isn’t aware whether there is a warrant for his arrest, said the protest in Ottawa has not engaged in any illegal activity.
“There was no damage. There was a little inconvenient noise. I’m sorry, but we’re here fighting for all the people that actually hate us too,” he said.
The retired officer criticized what he described as the “mainstream media” that has portrayed the protesters as being “anti-government,” noting that the convoy organizers have been trying to establish a dialogue with the federal government but have had no success.
“I want to be very clear that our intent has always been, and always will be, to talk to the official government of Canada,” he said. “I have stood at this podium, I have done other media events where I have outlined a plan, and I’ve said ‘I would like to talk to you.’”
“The response was riot police—no discussion, no dialogue.”
During a press conference on Feb. 17, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino diverted his reply when a Francophone reporter asked whether the government has received intelligence that weapons were being brought to Ottawa or were already in Ottawa with the convoy, something the minister had been “insinuating for days,” according to the reporter.
“I am not saying that there is an intelligence saying there are weapons in Ottawa,” Mendicino said. “There are public reports showing that there are indications that there [are] extremist ideological positions and there is a link between the blockades.”
He added that “there is a similarity in the rhetoric emerging in social media and elsewhere.”
“This is a government that has invoked an emergency statute on its own admission on the basis of something that somebody has said,” Pardy said. “They have no actual violence occurring. They have no intelligence about threats of violence occurring.”
Marazzo said the attempt by the federal government to “intimidate” the Freedom Convoy is futile as it is a grassroots movement, which if removed, “others will fill their roles.”
“You could say that we inspired people to actually take action, but we certainly were not giving any direction,” he said. “These movements are just organic. They pop up where people want to get up and do something because they’re fed up after two years of being treated like this.”
Marazzo said legal counsel and support for those injured and those being arrested by police is currently being organized. He added that “the truckers will be initiating a charter challenge seeking to have the court strike down the unconstitutional vaccine mandates that discriminate against us all.”
“I never thought I’d see the day when law enforcement officers would be arresting citizens for the crime of exercising their charter rights and freedoms to free assembly and free speech,” he said.
Marazzo also confirmed that his bank account has been frozen and credit cards cancelled. His spouse’s credit score also dropped 109 points on Feb. 18 even though she was not with him in Ottawa, he said.
At a press conference on Feb. 14, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said that under the Emergencies Act, the government has authorized banks to cut off services to both individuals and business clients who they suspect are aiding the blockades.
In a media briefing on Feb. 19, Interim Chief Steve Bell of the Ottawa Police Service said the Ottawa police will pursue the protesters even after the protest is over.
“If you are involved in this protest, we will actively look to identify you and follow up with financial sanctions and criminal charges. Absolutely. This investigation will go on for months to come,” he said.
Marazzo said the grassroots movement will regroup and plan their next move. “This is one battle in a larger war for our freedoms,” he said.
He added that all members of Parliament at the federal level have “failed us.”
“We elected these people to represent our best interest, but not to lord over us like kings and queens,” he said.
“Can you hear democracy, democracy’s death knell? It rings louder than the truckers’ horns.”
Noé Chartier contributed to this report.
By Isaac Teo and Limin Zhou