For two weeks now, Freedom Convoy protesters in Canada have managed to frustrate both law enforcement and political leaders with their unyielding protests against Covid-19 restrictions. Police forces across the country have expressed their reluctance to move in swiftly, saying they prefer to avoid confrontation.
The ‘Freedom Convoy’ started as a truckers’ protest by drivers who were fighting vaccine mandates in both Canada and the US. But during the convoy’s cross-country journey, it attracted support from many Canadians who say they are fed up with all Covid-19 health restrictions.
By the time the convoy arrived in Ottawa, hundreds of drivers and their rigs joined thousands of other protesters in cars and on foot to demand changes to the way the government was handling Covid-19.
And protesters’ demands have escalated, not just insisting that vaccine mandates be lifted for everyone, but calling for an opening to all businesses including restaurants and gyms, dropping capacity limits at large events and eliminating mask mandates – especially in schools.
As the protests have dragged on, officials at every level of government say they now pose a threat to public security and the economy. Many leaders have demanded the protests cease, but few of those words have been met with concrete action.
Here are some political and legal scenarios that could play out:
Give peace a chance – convince protesters to leave voluntarily
This is the preferred choice for law enforcement officials who say they recognize Canadians’ right to protest. Police in Windsor, Ottawa, and Alberta have stated that they have tried to keep lines of communication open to protest organizers and individual activists, trying to convince them to leave voluntarily.
This has had limited success, with protesters bolstered by both messages of support online and material support on the ground with money and supplies. On Thursday, Ottawa police reported that nearly two dozen trucks had been voluntarily removed from two different protest sites. But hundreds remain, still blocking city streets.
And negotiations at border protests have had very limited success, especially in Alberta, where communication efforts seem to have hardened the position of protesters.
CNN has spoken to some truckers who say they might consider leaving if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would only speak to them directly about their concerns.
“These gentlemen, these guys over in that building and they can just come out and show some respect and you know, at least talk to us,” said a driver who identified himself as Doran, parked in front of Canada’s parliament.
Even Ottawa’s police chief, Peter Sloly, indicated in the early days of protests that he did not think police were best suited to resolve the situation and that a political solution might be the only effective way to end the protests.
Governments give in to protesters’ demands
This is perhaps the least likely of all scenarios. Police and political leaders say it would set a dangerous precedent to give in to “angry crowds,” in the words of the prime minister. Several provinces, including Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario, have announced in recent days that they will drop some restrictions.
Saskatchewan is making changes the most dramatically and quickly, by eliminating its vaccine passport system, dropping mask mandates and reporting Covid-19 cases weekly instead of daily. Alberta is also dropping its mask mandate for children and getting rid of its vaccine passport program.
Ontario recently opened restaurant dining rooms and has restored most sporting activities for children and adults.
These decisions, however, are unconnected to the protests given that those governments have consistently said that their goal is to lift Covid-19 restrictions as soon as cases and hospitalizations drop.
Protesters in Ottawa have also indicated to CNN that they will not be affected by a piecemeal approach to lifting restrictions. They are demanding a nationwide rollback of all Covid-19 health measures.
Authorities remove trucks and cars from protest sites
Ottawa officials have been pursuing vehicle-removal options for days, but they have towed very few cars, let alone trucks. They say their efforts are frustrated by tow truck drivers and companies who fear damage to their businesses or worse, a violent confrontation.
Ottawa police say they are actively investigating reports that tow truck operators have been threatened and intimidated. Police say they do have some towing capacity but not enough to move a substantial amount of trucks from protest sites without help from private tow truck companies. Ottawa police say they have issued more than 1,700 tickets, and fines for city infractions have in some cases been doubled or tripled.
City and provincial officials, responsible for insurance and licensing, also say they are looking to step up enforcement with infractions for parking, insurance and license violations, but this too could take weeks to have any effect.
Police forcibly remove protesters
Law enforcement and politicians have been trying to avoid this scenario, fearing both protesters and officers could get hurt. Not only does this risk escalating tensions further and potentially inciting more angry protesters to hit the streets in other parts of the country, but it would require many more officers than are currently available.
Ottawa’s mayor, Jim Watson, sent a letter to the prime minister and premier of Ontario asking for reinforcements of 1,800 officers, including administration staff.
In a letter provided to the media, Watson writes, “We must do everything in our power to take back the streets of Ottawa.”
The Trudeau government says it continues to dispatch more officers with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to several protest sites, but Ottawa’s request for 1,800 extra officers are unlikely to materialize soon, if ever.
Ottawa police say they have made 25 arrests to date. Arresting and forcibly removing protesters, however, may be an option that police consider.
“There will be accountability for any unlawful criminal activities that occur in this city in relation to this demonstration,” said Sloly, Ottawa’s police chief, during a Thursday press conference.
However, political leaders are aware of the risks of this strategy.
“I know many are just saying have the police go in there and move everyone out and restore law and order. And that’s sensibly what we all want to see happen,” Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens told CNN in an interview Wednesday. “The problem is you have a number of folks who are looking for confrontation. You have people who have expressed themselves in the media saying that they believe this is a cause that they are willing to die for.”
Use the military to restore order
This is not only the least preferred option but highly unlikely.
Last week, after Sloly suggested it might take the military to resolve protests, he was met with stiff resistance from the federal government. Through a spokesman, Defense Minister Anita Anand told CNN that Canada’s armed forces are not a police force and that they “are not involved in law enforcement in this situation.”
Trudeau elaborated further last week, saying, “One has to be very, very cautious before deploying military forces in situations engaging Canadians. It is not something that anyone should enter in lightly.”
Under Canada’s Defense Act, a province may request that, “where a riot or disturbance occurs or is considered as likely to occur,” the attorney general of the province can request the services of the military “to be called out on service in aid of the civil power.”
However, this is for the province to request and the federal government determines whether to grant the request.