OTTAWA: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday (Feb 14) invoked rarely-used emergency powers to bring an end to trucker-led protests against COVID-19 health rules, after police arrested 11 people with a "cache of firearms" blocking a border crossing with the United States.
It marked only the second time in Canadian history such powers have been invoked in peacetime, and came as hundreds of big rigs still clogged the streets of the capital Ottawa, as well as two border crossings.
"The federal government has invoked the Emergencies Act to supplement provincial and territorial capacity to address the blockades and occupations," Trudeau told a news conference.
Trudeau said the military would not be deployed at this stage, but that authorities would be granted more powers to arrest protesters and seize their trucks in order to clear blockades, as well as ban funding of the protests.
He added that the measures would be "geographically specific and targeted only to where they are needed". They will also be "time limited", he said.
As the threat of violence lingered, federal police said they arrested 11 protesters with rifles, handguns, body armor and ammunition at the border between Coutts, Alberta and Sweet Grass, Montana, just a day after another key US-Canada border crossing was cleared in Ontario.
"The group was said to have a willingness to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade," the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in a statement.
The protests by Canadian truckers and their supporters - opposed to mandatory vaccines and pushing a wider anti-establishment agenda - have triggered copycat movements from France to New Zealand, with US truckers mulling similar rallies.
Under pressure to act, Trudeau on Sunday convened a special federal response group on efforts to end the occupation of Ottawa and the remaining, economically-damaging, blockades of border crossings in Alberta and Manitoba.
The 1988 Emergencies Act allows the federal government to override the provinces and authorise special temporary measures to ensure security during national emergencies. The law has only been used once before in peacetime, in 1970, by Trudeau's father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
During the October Crisis of 1970, troops were sent to Quebec to restore order after the kidnappings by militant separatists of a British trade attache and a Quebec minister, Pierre Laporte, who was found strangled to death in the trunk of a car.
Canada's so-called "Freedom Convoy" started with truckers protesting against mandatory vaccines to cross the border with the United States.
But its demands now include an end to all COVID-19 health measures and, for many of the protesters, for the toppling of Trudeau's Liberal government - only five months after he won re-election.
The truckers have found support among conservatives and vaccine mandate opponents across the globe, even as COVID-19 measures are being rolled back in many places.
In Paris on the weekend, police fired tear gas and issued hundreds of fines in an effort to break up convoys coming from across France.
The Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria have also seen copycat movements, and Belgian authorities said Monday they had intercepted 30 vehicles as police scrambled to stop a convoy of trucks.
TRUCKERS DIG IN
Canadian police over the weekend cleared a blockade on the Ambassador Bridge, which handles an estimated 25 per cent of trade with the United States, and had disrupted business in the world's largest economy.
Other protesters have shut down smaller border crossings in Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia.
But Monday morning in Ottawa, as a deep freeze rolled in, protesters remained defiant despite threats of jail and fines of up to C$100,000 (US$80,000).
Leaving "is not in my plans," Phil Rioux, behind the wheel of a large truck, told AFP before Trudeau's announcement.
"It's by maintaining the pressure that we have a better chance of achieving our goal," 29-year-old explained.
"There are other customs checkpoints that are blocked, more will be blocked elsewhere," he added.
Earlier Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the lifting of vaccine passport requirements by Mar 1 in the province - following in Alberta and Saskatchewan's footsteps.
Ontario, Canada's most populous province, had reimposed at the end of December among the most restrictive health measures in the world.
Residents of the capital, meanwhile, have grown increasingly frustrated, saying the protest has made them prisoners in their own homes.
Most businesses downtown are also closed or have had almost no customers after officials warned residents to stay clear.
"It's a little quieter now, there are less honking but it's annoying ... (because) there's no other way to get to work than by walking" past the demonstrations, said Haley, a young woman on her way to work who declined to give her last name.
Like thousands of counter-protesters who blocked more trucks from entering the downtown this weekend, she said it was up to the prime minister to end the crisis.