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Ontario premier calls on COVID restriction protesters to end their 'occupation'

Demonstrators rally against provincial and federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates and in support of Ottawa protestors on Friday outside the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg.
John Woods/The Canadian Press
via AP
Demonstrators rally against provincial and federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates and in support of Ottawa protestors on Friday outside the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg.

Updated February 4, 2022 at 8:42 PM ET

Ontario's Conservative premier called Friday for demonstrators to end the "occupation" of Ottawa, while the crowdfunding site GoFundMe said it would refund or redirect to charities the vast majority of millions raised by demonstrators protesting COVID-19 measures in the Canadian capital.

Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly moved 150 officers to the parts of the capital most affected but he gave no indication when the days-old protest would end, saying police expected it to ramp up again this weekend, when protests are also planned in Toronto and Quebec City.

"It's not a protest anymore. It's become an occupation," Ontario Premier Doug Ford said. "It's time for this to come to an end."

Ford said the province is very close to getting back to normal in the pandemic and protests are a constitutional right, but he said an occupation is unacceptable.

GoFundMe said it cut off funding for the organizers, because it had determined the effort violated the site's terms of service due to unlawful activity. It had already suspended the fundraising effort, which had raised about 10 million Canadian (US$7.8 million).

"We now have evidence from law enforcement that the previously peaceful demonstration has become an occupation, with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity," GoFundMe said in a statement.

"No further funds will be directly distributed."

Ottawa police thanked them for listening to the concerns and called "on all crowdfunding sites to follow."

The protest organizers are also facing a class action lawsuit over the continuous horn noise, filed on behalf of residents.

Sloly acknowledged "trust has been impacted" as Ottawa residents are furious with the blaring horns, traffic gridlock and harassment they have faced. Many complain police have done little and they call it an occupation.

"If we knew that it was going to seep into the neighborhoods we would have deployed more resources into those neighborhoods," deputy police chief Steve Bell said. "We've listened to our community. They are upset, they are fearful."

Thousands of protesters railing against vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions descended on the capital last weekend, deliberately blocking traffic around Parliament Hill. Police estimate about 250 remained, but Bell said they expected 300 to 400 more trucks this weekend and more than 1,000 protesters on foot. He said up to 1,000 counter-protesters were expected as well.

The "freedom truck convoy" has attracted support from former U.S. President Donald Trump and the opposition federal Conservative party in Canada, but two federal Conservative party lawmakers broke with the party and said the protest needed to end.

"I spent the week undergoing the Siege of Ottawa," Conservative lawmaker Pierre Paul-Hus tweeted. "I ask that we clear the streets and that we stop this occupation controlled by radicals and anarchist groups."

Sen. Dennis Patterson quit the Conservative caucus.

"I wholeheartedly and unreservedly deplore and denounce what is happening in Ottawa with the so-called Freedom Convoy right now. Let me be clear: If you wrap yourself in or go about waving a Nazi or Confederate flag, you are declaring yourself a person who embraces hate, bigotry, and racism," Patterson said in a statement.

The Conservative party ousted its moderate party leader this week and the interim leader has voiced support for the protesters.

Many Canadians were outraged after some protesters urinated and parked on the National War Memorial. One danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A number carried signs and flags with swastikas.

Protesters have said they won't leave until all mandates and COVID-19 restrictions are gone. They are also calling for the removal of Trudeau's government, though it is responsible for few of the measures, most of which were put in place by provincial governments.

Late Thursday, federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had approved the mayor's request for the national police force to support city police.

Organizers, including ones who have espoused racist and white supremacist views, had raised millions for the cross-country "freedom truck convoy" against vaccine mandates and other restrictions. Protests are planned for Toronto and Quebec City as well. Toronto police closed a street south of the provincial legislature where major five hospitals are located. A convoy of semi-tractor trucks set up north of the legislature and blared horns Friday evening.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance, a federation representing truckers across the country, has estimated that 85% of truckers in Canada are vaccinated. It opposes the protest.

Some of the demonstrators are protesting a rule that took effect Jan. 15 requiring truckers entering Canada to be fully immunized against the coronavirus. The U.S. has the same rule for truckers entering the U.S. So if the Canadian government removed it, it would make no difference.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press is an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting.