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Heavy police presence as truckers arrive in downtown Ottawa

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Ottawa's police chief is urging people to avoid downtown Ottawa this weekend, as a large convoy of truckers and supporters fill streets around Parliament Hill to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the first of several convoys parked outside of Parliament Hill Friday afternoon, Chief Peter Sloly issued a stark warning to any protesters who break the law: they will be prosecuted.

“Let me be very clear: we are prepared to investigate, arrest if necessary, charge and prosecute anyone who acts violently or breaks the law in the demonstrations, or in association with the demonstrations," Sloly said.

"We have the capability and commitment to pursue investigations and prosecutions well after the demonstrations have ended.”

Hundreds of participants in the freedom convoy gathered on Wellington Street and on Parliament Hill Friday afternoon, as dozens of trucks parked in front of the hill. 

Many more trucks were seen driving through the downtown area, honking horns and waving signs calling for an end to the COVID-19 mandates and restrictions.

Big rigs were lined up on Wellington Street west of Metcalfe, while others farther east were being diverted down Elgin Street. The Queen Elizabeth Driveway was jammed full of trucks for several hours.

Sloly said the convoy's organizers have assured police the demonstration will be peaceful, and the planned events will take place on Saturday and Sunday.

However, Sloly said he anticipates other "lone wolf" protesters not directly affiliated with the main group. He also warned of "social media actors who may or may not actually come to the city ... but who are nonetheless inciting hate, violence and in some cases criminality to take place in our city."

Sloly said police still don't have a confirmed number of demonstrators and don't know how long they will stay, but anticipate "major traffic safety issues" over the weekend.

Kingston police said the departing group included 17 full tractor-trailers, 104 tractors without trailers, 424 passenger vehicles and six RVs. More truckers are expected from other parts of the country.

Police have been managing small protests from people who have already arrived in the past 24 hours, which Sloly said have been "peaceful and uneventful."

He warned the weekend's events will be "unique, fluid, risky and significant."

"These demonstrations are national in scope, they are massive in scale, unfortunately they are polarizing in nature." Ottawa residents can expect a ramped-up police, national security and other emergency services presence Friday and into the weekend.

They will also be out in force on major highways and roads in and around the city.

Convoys from western Canada arrived in Arnprior, Ont. late Friday evening. CTV News reporter Mackenzie Gray estimated 250 to 300 vehicles arrived just before 10 p.m., with the main group expected to turn off the highway into a truck stop just before midnight.

Convoys from eastern Canada rolled into Vankleek Hill Friday evening, before completing the journey to Ottawa on Saturday morning.

Police urge drivers to avoid Ottawa highways, downtown

Ontario Provincial Police are urging motorists to avoid Hwy. 416 and 417 this weekend. In a message on Twitter Thursday, the OPP said, "OPP advises motorists to avoid travel on Hwy 417 and Hwy 416 in the Ottawa area, beginning Friday afternoon and on Saturday."

The Ottawa Police Service is asking people not to travel in Ottawa this weekend, and if you do travel to expect delays. People should do their shopping on Friday if possible.

"Expect major disruptions to traffic throughout Ottawa and especially in the downtown core. If you have appointments, children in activities, are expecting food deliveries, please be prepared to adjust your plans," said Ottawa police.

Sloly warned of "significant impacts" for people who live and work downtown, and said there may be limited mobility in the core for drivers, cyclists and even pedestrians depending on where demonstrators are.

He stopped short of advising local businesses should close, saying "it's irresponsible and quite frankly impossible for us to dictate which of those services can and should operate."

However, he said if the situation changes or authorities learn of direct threats to any parts of the city, police would make more direct recommendations.

Ottawa police say they are planning to route trucks down certain highway exits, including the Pinecrest and Kent street off-ramps for those coming in from the west.

Ottawa police are working with the RCMP, OPP, the Parliamentary Protective Service and other local police forces.

Ottawa Public Health has closed two vaccination clinics in the Glebe and Lowertown in anticipation of traffic disruptions this weekend. The Ottawa Public Library has also closed two branches due to expected road closures. The NCC is closing the Queen Elizabeth Driveway from Laurier Avenue to the Pretoria Bridge. From the bridge to Fifth Avenue, it will be open for active users only.

The city is also warning that OC Transpo and Para Transpo service could be delayed . 

Stay up to date on the latest transit information by visiting octranspo.com.

Police prepared to investigate

Sloly said Friday that the right to demonstrate is at the heart of Canadians' democratic freedoms, but that comes with responsibilities and limitations.

He said Friday police are prepared to arrest anyone who is engaging in more serious behaviours such as damaging property. And he also warned that those not present who are inciting such behaviours online could also face punishment.

"It is irresponsible to inflame this already volatile situation, and in some cases it may be illegal to express hate or incite criminality and violence in association to the demonstrations,” he said.

“We have seen in other jurisdictions where such inflammatory behaviors have led to people getting injured, killed, and/or incarcerated. We are doing everything we can toensure that does not happen here.”

What is the Freedom Convoy?

The freedom convoy is calling for the end of vaccine mandates in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"On January 15th, a small team of Alberta truckers, their family members and friends, came to the decision that the Government of Canada has crossed a line with implementing Covid-19 vaccine passports and vaccine mandates," said a statement Wednesday on the Freedom Convoy 2022 Facebook page.

"As of today, we now have the support of millions of Canadians from across the country."

The list of demands includes the federal and provincial governments terminating the vaccine passports and all other "obligatory vaccine contact tracing programs", and terminate COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The protest was initially sparked by outrage over a vaccine mandate imposed this month on cross-border truckers, but has since garnered support from anti-vaccine mandate group.

Canadian Trucking Alliance

The Canadian Trucking Alliance has made it clear it does not support "any protests on public roadways, highways and bridges."

In a statement last weekend, the association noted the vast majority of the Canadian trucking industry is vaccinated.

"The Government of Canada and the United States have now made being vaccinated a requirement to cross the border. This regulation is not changing so, as an industry, we must adapt and comply with this mandate," said CTA president Stephen Laskowski.

Mayor: 'Please come peacefully'

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson reiterated his message to the truckers Friday morning, asking people to come peacefully and respectfully.

"We're asking the protesters, please come peacefully," he said. "Protest is part of our democratic rights, but make sure that you follow our rules and regulations when you get here. You're coming into another community's neighbourhood and it's important to respect that."

Watson asked the demonstators to leave lanes available for emergency vehicles and wear masks when entering local businesses.

"Don't harass someone, a 17-year-old employee making minimum wage, because you won't wear a mask. Be sensible and be kind to one another.

"This is going to be a stressful time for the next two days, at least."

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