OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, under pressure to quell the chaos caused by demonstrations against public health measures that have eroded trust in public institutions and tarnished Canada’s reputation abroad, on Monday became the first Canadian leader to invoke the country’s Emergencies Act.
The law, which was passed in 1988 but never before used, will give police “more tools” to bring order to areas where public assemblies “constitute illegal and dangerous activities,” Trudeau said. Financial institutions, meanwhile, will get sweeping powers to halt the flow of funding to the self-styled “Freedom Convoy.”
The demonstrations began in Ottawa on Jan. 28 but soon rippled across the country, choking off several U.S.-Canada border crossings. Trudeau said it had become clear that, despite their best efforts, “there are serious challenges to law enforcement’s ability to effectively enforce the law.”
“This has gone on for far too long,” Trudeau said. “It is no longer a lawful protest against federal government policy. It is now an illegal occupation. It’s time for people to go home.”
He pledged that the measures would be time-limited, geographically targeted and proportionate to the threats to Canada’s national security. He said the act was not being used to deploy the military. Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly has said that military aid might be needed to stamp out the unrest.
“Invoking the Emergencies Act is never the first thing a government should do or even the second,” Trudeau said. “The act is to be used sparingly and as a last resort. Right now, the situation requires additional tools not held by any other federal, provincial or territorial law.”
The announcement followed several dramatic weeks in which demonstrators in big rigs and other vehicles have jammed streets in Canada’s normally placid capital city, snarling traffic and forcing businesses to shut down due to security concerns. Solidarity protests have spread to several U.S.-Canada border crossings.
The move comes a day after authorities reopened the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit. The busiest land border crossing on the U.S.-Canada land border had been partially blockaded for almost a week, forcing auto companies to scale back production as far away as Alabama.
“These barricades are doing great damage to Canada’s economy and to our reputation as a reliable trading partner,” said Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister and finance minister. U.S. officials had urged their Canadian counterparts to get a handle on a situation that had left them flat-footed.
The blockades began in protest of rules in both countries that bar unvaccinated truckers from crossing the border. But they’ve since drawn people with a host of grievances. Some want an end to all public health measures, which are mostly under the jurisdiction of the provinces. Others seek the removal of Trudeau, who was reelected in September to a third mandate.
It was unclear what effect the declaration would have on the demonstrators who’ve remained defiant despite having previously been threatened with fines, prison time and the loss of their driver’s licenses. Over the weekend, demonstrators held loud dance parties in blockaded streets and carted around jerrycans of fuel as police largely stood by.
A din of horns rang into the chilly night sky after the announcement on Monday — a violation of an injunction that barred the honking.
Tamara Lich, a leading organizer of the convoy, told reporters before Trudeau’s announcement that they would remain “planted” on Parliament Hill until the mandates are lifted.
“There are no threats that will frighten us,” she said. “We will hold the line.”
The protesters’ news conference ended abruptly after reporters asked questions that a spokeswoman said were “too aggressive.” Attendees shouted “get out” and “tell the truth” in the direction of several journalists wearing face masks in compliance with a provincial rule.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said Sunday that he had brokered a tentative deal with Lich to move the trucks that have been blockading residential streets to the main road in front of Parliament. Prospects for a deal were cast into doubt when Lich tweeted that there was no agreement.
Some vehicles moved onto Wellington Street on Monday, but they appeared to have made the situation worse. Several trucks were parked side by side like sardines on the already jammed streets, further complicating efforts to remove them. On other roads, vehicles clog every lane of traffic for several blocks.
Authorities have said they need more resources and are worried about the potential for violence.
Underscoring their concerns, authorities on Monday announced the arrest of 11 people and the seizure of guns, body armor and a “large quantity of ammunition” in Coutts, Alberta, near one of several border crossings that has been partially blockaded.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Alberta said the group had “a willingness to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade.” Officers seized 13 long guns, handguns, a machete and high-capacity magazines, police said. On Sunday night, police said, a large farm tractor and a semi truck attempted to ram a police car.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Monday that the province would suspend its vaccine passport on March 1 and accelerate its reopening plans by easing capacity limits for some indoor public settings. Masking requirements were to remain in place.
Trudeau met with his cabinet on Sunday night. On Monday, he met with the rest of the Liberal caucus and the provincial premiers. The premiers do not have a veto over the emergency declaration, but several voiced opposition, saying they don’t think it’s necessary and don’t want it imposed on their provinces.
Quebec Premier François Legault told reporters that invoking the act risks throwing “oil on the fire.”
Canada’s Emergencies Act replaced the War Measures Act, legislation that was controversially invoked by Trudeau’s father, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, during a crisis with Quebec separatists in 1970.
Freeland said financial institutions such as banks will have the authority to freeze or suspend the accounts of people believed to be involved with the blockades without a court order and to temporarily cease providing financial services to them.
The country’s money-laundering and terrorism financing rules will also be widened to cover crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe and GiveSendGo and payment service providers that have been used to funnel funds, including cryptocurrencies, to the protesters. The owners of trucks being used in the blockades could also have their insurance suspended and their corporate accounts frozen.
“This is about following the money,” Freeland said.
Officials here have said that a “significant element” in the United States has been involved in funding and organizing the convoy. Trudeau said last week that on some sites, almost half of the donations came from Americans. He said Monday that Canadian border authorities are turning back non-Canadians trying to enter the country to participate.
Bryan Pietsch in Seoul and Rick Noack in Paris contributed to this report.