Police urge public to avoid downtown Ottawa during trucker convoy protest

Officials are urging people to avoid downtown Ottawa this weekend with a cross-country ‘Freedom Convoy’ of truckers expected to arrive at Parliament Hill.

Police say they don’t yet know how many demonstrators to expect downtown, or how long they plan to stay. But they have developed a strategy that will manage the demonstrations and respond to events as they happen.

“This will be a significant an extremely fluid event that could go on for a prolonged period,” Acting Deputy Chief Trish Ferguson told a briefing of the city’s police services board on Wednesday.

“We are planning for a range of potential risks, including but not limited to counter-demonstrations, blocking of intersections, interfering with critical infrastructure, and unlawful and violent activity.”

The convoy of truckers opposed to vaccine mandates is expected to arrive on Parliament Hill this weekend. The convoy passed through Winnipeg on Tuesday. The movement has gathered steam nationwide, with videos showing highway gatherings in support of the truckers.

Police received 'direct threat'

Chief Peter Sloly said what started out as a single demonstration, the Freedom Convoy, has “changed substantially” in the past 24 hours or so. Now, police are preparing for other groups to flood the downtown core as well who aren’t affiliated with the main convoy.

“There are an increasing amount of other interested parties who are considering, if not articulating coming to the nation’s capital,” Sloly said.

Sloly also say police are monitoring a "misinformation campaign" on social media that suggests police officers are actively supporting the demonstrators.

"I can tell you that within the last 24 hours the Ottawa Police Service received a direct threat from a counter-protest source to the safety of our officers," Sloly said. "That is the reality of what we’ve been dealing with."

Ferguson said police have been in contact with the convoy’s organizers and had “productive and cooperative” communication. They are trying to reach out to organizers of other demonstrations and counter-protests.

She said residents and visitors can expect to see a large police and emergency services presence in the downtown core, as well as on local roads and highways. Residents should be aware of traffic updates and expect “significant delays.”

People who already live downtown should plan to go about their lives as normal; there’s no need for people to close businesses or stay in their homes.

“As of right now, the message is avoid the downtown core for travel purposes, predominantly vehicular travel,” Sloly said. “As of right now we don’t have any information to suggest that the entire core will be untravellable.”

Sloly noted that the convoy has been peaceful and well-coordinated as it passes through cities across Canada.

“In every other jurisdiction so far, the core demonstration associated with the Freedom Convoy has been peaceful, lawful and cooperative with local police,” he said.

However, he noted that those places were stops along the way, whereas Ottawa is the convoy’s destination.

Mayor Jim Watson urged the truckers and protest organizers to be respectful.

“You’re coming into someone else’s community, someone else’s neighbourhood, and please respect that. Make sure you keep passageways clear at all times, especially for emergency vehicles.”

Councillor: ‘Come peacefully. Come respectfully. Or do not come.’

One city councillor is urging protesters to stay away if they plan to damage infrastructure or threaten violence.

Coun. Catherine McKenney says although they believe protest is a legitimate part of the democratic process, “the event we’re looking at this weekend is not what it appears.”

“Several members of this group are connected to militant racist, sexist, and homophobic groups,” McKenney said in a statement. “Their statements and placards promote xenophobia. They are not here to only raise voices against vaccination mandates, but to also fuel hatred against the very fabric of our society.

“I believe I speak for most Somerset Ward residents and others across our city when I say to these protestors: You are not welcome here. You have the right to protest. You have the right to disagree. You do not have the right to damage our infrastructure, to threaten violence, or to spew your statements of hatred, xenophobia, and racism to those who disagree with you.

“Come peacefully. Come respectfully. Or do not come.”

Businesses unsure what to do

Chief Sloly said on Wednesday that downtown businesses should feel as though they can open as normal this weekend.

But Christine Leadman, downtown Bank Street BIA executive director, said it's not going to be an easy weekend for them. 

"Downtown businesses unfortunately, once again,will bear the brunt of these actions," she said. "This is going to be a fluid issue and things may change day by day and hour by hour."

McKenney, who represents downtown Somerset ward, said they have heard from a lot of business owners who are unsure what to do for the weekend.

"I’ve also heard from many businesses who don’t know what they can do for the weekend .. whether they can open, whether they will be safe," McKenney said. "Every weekend, every day, means a lot to the survival of small local businesses."

- with files from Natalie van Rooy, CTV News Ottawa