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Ottawa protesters defy growing calls to end occupation of capital

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Protesters against Covid vaccine mandates have defied government calls for them to end a 10-day occupation of Canada’s capital, a day after the city’s mayor declared a state of emergency and promised to “get the city back”.

Ottawa police have described the protest as a “siege” on the city, where hundreds of trucks and cars have blockaded the downtown areas. On Sunday, Mayor Jim Watson warned that officials were “losing this battle”, and a civil class-action lawsuit was filed against protesters over the incessant horn blasting and disruption to daily life.

But on Monday morning a 10am deadline outlined in the class action suit – which asked protesters to leave of their own volition or face damages of nearly C$10m (US$7.9m) – came and went with no sign that the protest would end soon. Even after an Ontario judge approved the class’s request for an injunction to end the honking, the protest continued on Monday afternoon.

Dozens of big-rig trucks, RVs and pickups remained parked in front of Parliament Hill and nearby streets, and protesters showed no signs of leaving. Free food and drink tables, a firewood distribution station and other infrastructure is helping them to stay put. Despite the cold, most of the protesters seemed to be in good spirits, and many of them professed to be there “out of love”.

Ron, a highway rescue worker from a small community in rural British Columbia, was taking shelter at a disused bus stop. (Services have been suspended because buses are unable to reach the city centre.)

“I came here for my grandbabies,” he said, arguing that Canadians had been robbed of making medical choices. “I don’t want them to live under the thumb of the government.”

Canada has one of the world’s highest rates of vaccination against Covid-19 (some 85% of the country’s truckers are vaccinated) and public health measures have been broadly supported.

But Ron teared up describing an elderly neighbour who died two days after being vaccinated. A doctor said she had died of a rapid onset of cancer, but Ron said that he didn’t believe him.

The “freedom convoy” began in the final week of January as a demonstration against vaccine mandates for truckers but has morphed into protest against broader public health measures – and as a rallying point for both conspiracy theorists and opponents of the government of Justin Trudeau.

A man holds a Canadian flag near Parliament Hill as demonstrators continue to protest the vaccine mandates implemented by the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, in Ottawa, on Monday. Photograph: Dave Chan/AFP/Getty Images

Swastikas, Confederate flags and QAnon symbols have all been seen at the protests. Hundreds of signs hung from the front gates of parliament, accusing the government of stripping away Canada’s freedoms and demanding that people “wake up”. With temperatures hovering below freezing, protesters warmed up around small fires.

One homemade sign on a protester’s car appeared to equate the vaccine mandate with the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

A red-haired man who did not give his name said he had travelled from Alberta – more than 3,000km away – to join the protest. He said that staying on might “financially break” him, but argued that a “slippery slope” of worse outcomes would await if vaccine mandates were allowed to remain in force.

“They’re calling us xenophobes but how could xenophobes be uniting the world?” he said.

The protests have drawn considerable support from US groups opposing Covid-19 restrictions and prominent Republican figures including Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump, who has called Trudeau a “far-left lunatic” who had “destroyed Canada with insane Covid mandates”.

Gerald Butts, a former senior adviser to Trudeau, tweeted: “For some senior American politicians, patriotism means renting a mob to put a G7 capital under siege.”

Many small businesses in the downtown core of the city remained shuttered on Monday, with owners preferring to shut down than risk altercations with the protesters – who often refuse to wear masks inside.

Trucker Covid protest paralyses Canadian capital – video

On Sunday night, police began removing gas and fuel supplies at a logistics base set up by protesters. “We are turning up the heat in every way we possibly can,” Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly told reporters.

But anger was growing among local residents at the failure of the police and city officials to disperse the protest, amid reports that truckers and their supporters had harassed or threatened locals.

Alexa Reedman, who was out walking her dog not far from the protest, had no patience with the protesters. “They should just leave. Now.”

She described an atmosphere of constant stress over the past week.

“You just don’t feel comfortable – you don’t feel 100% safe any more. It was initially called a protest, but when people use the word ‘occupation’ that really resonates – it does feel like an occupation. You just can’t live normally,” she said.

After residents of a nearby apartment block argued with truckers on Sunday night over the constant barrage of airhorns, two protesters allegedly started a fire in the building’s lobby and taped the doors shut. Ottawa police said on Monday that its arson unit was investigating.

But the convoy has also won supporters: thousands of people came to the protest site on Saturday. The convoy has also gained millions of dollars in crowdfunding support, now being gathered by a Christian crowdfunding site called GiveSendGo, after the original GoFundMe, which amassed more than $10m, was cancelled.

Last week, Ottawa police said the crowdfunding had attracted “significant” support from the US.

In the few days since the new crowdfunding page was launched, supporters have sent in nearly $5m.

On Monday, GiveSendGo tweeted “money for what you’re passionate about. We won’t stop you like others will!”

Directly in front of parliament, the driver of a semi-tractor parked in the road was sounding his horn and revving his engine, sending out plumes of black exhaust. Emblazoned on the side of the vehicle was the slogan: “God-given immUNITY works best.”

An elderly man in a face mask walked past, holding a sign saying: “Truckers go home.”

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