By Steve Scherer and Nia Williams
OTTAWA/CALGARY, Alberta -Ottawa’s police chief resigned on Tuesday after criticism that he did not do enough to stop COVID-19 protests that have paralyzed Canada’s capital city and forced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to invoke emergency powers.
A trucker-led movement calling on the government to lift vaccine mandates has occupied parts of downtown Ottawa since late January and blocked U.S. border crossings, inspiring similar protests around the world even as Canada moves to lift some health restrictions.
Protesters retreated from the Ambassador Bridge to Detroit and two other crossings after threats of fines and jail time. But hundreds of trucks are still blocking downtown areas, raising questions over Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly’s handling of the crisis.
Diane Deans, chair of the Ottawa police board, said the city had reached “mutually agreeable separation” with Sloly, without saying why he had stepped down.
Critics alleged he was too permissive toward protesters who at the peak of their movement had parked 4,000 trucks and vehicles near Canada’s parliament, prime minister’s office and other government buildings.
In a statement announcing his resignation, Sloly said he had done “everything possible to keep this city safe and put an end to this unprecedented and unforeseeable crisis.” His defenders had voiced fears the use of force by police could stoke violence.
Trudeau sought on Monday to beef up policing by invoking the Emergencies Act, which empowers his government to cut off protesters’ funding and reinforce provincial and local law enforcement with federal officers.
‘OUR RIGHT TO PROTEST’
Protesters blocked the Ambassador Bridge, a vital trade corridor between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit and a choke point for the region’s automakers, for six days before police on Sunday cleared those who ignored orders to retreat.
Two other U.S. crossings reopened Tuesday after police cleared protesters from one and demonstrators voluntarily left the other, officials said. People blocking a fourth crossing in Manitoba province were expected to leave by Wednesday, police said.
Protesters decided to leave the crossing in Coutts, Alberta, after the Royal Mounted Canadian Police seized weapons from a group that had aimed to cause harm if officers started clearing people, the town’s mayor, Jim Willett, said.
“The federal government will have to look at protecting borders very differently than they have in the past to stop this from happening again,” Willett said.
With new COVID-19 cases falling, Canada’s health ministry said on Tuesday it would ease entry for fully vaccinated international travelers. But officials deny they are loosening curbs to appease protesters, saying instead that the limits are no longer needed to contain infection.
In downtown Ottawa, protesters camping out in frigid temperatures vowed to defy Trudeau’s emergency orders until their demands for a lifting of all pandemic-era mandates are met.
“It’s our right to protest. We’re not doing anything wrong,” said Gord, a trucker from Manitoba who is parked in front of parliament. He declined to give his last name. “We’re not leaving. We’ve dug in this long.”
EMERGENCY MEASURES, FINANCING
Trudeau activated the Emergencies Act after concluding that law enforcement could not cope with the protesters, especially in Ottawa. He says the measures, which require parliamentary approval, will be limited and targeted.
“This illegal occupation needs to end … the measure of success will be, can we get our supply chains back? Can we end the disruption to livelihoods of people who rely on trade to the United States?” Trudeau told reporters.
The emergency measures bring crowdfunding platforms under terror-finance oversight and authorize Canadian banks to freeze accounts suspected of financing the protesters, who officials say have received about half their funds from U.S. supporters.
A U.S.-based website, GiveSendGo, became a prime conduit for money to the protesters after mainstream crowdfunding platform GoFundMe blocked donations to the group.
An Ontario court last week ordered GiveSendGo to freeze all funds supporting the blockade, but it said it would not comply.
The leak website Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoS) has leaked GiveSendGo donor files relating to the Canadian protests, known as the “Freedom Convoy” campaign. DDoS said on Sunday the campaign had raised more than $2 million in donations.
DDoS leaked donor information related to a similar campaign on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer and David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Nia Williams in Calgary; Additional reporting by Nichola Saminather, Anna Mehler-Paperny, Ismail Shakil and Rod Nickel; Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Stephen Coates and Lisa Shumaker)