Canada protesters dig in with military-style proficiency

OTTAWA, Canada (AFP) — With support from ex-police and military intelligence officers, American funding, and stockpiles of food and fuel, “Freedom Convoy” protesters are hunkered down for a long stay in the Canadian capital.

Their numbers have fallen from a peak of almost 15,000 when the truckers first rolled into the capital two weeks ago. At first the goal was to protest COVID-19 restrictions although this has morphed into a broader outcry against the Government.

The protesters remain firmly entrenched, despite growing calls for them to end what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday was an “unlawful” demonstration and threats of jail and steep fines after a local state of emergency was declared.

Also on Friday, truckers snarling a key bridge between Canada and the United States were ordered by a judge to leave Friday night, setting up a potential showdown two weeks into the snowballing protest movement.

The days-long blockade of the Ambassador Bridge that connects Windsor, Ontario, and the US city of Detroit, has paralysed a key North American trade route, piling pressure on Trudeau to resolve the crisis.

Outside Parliament, supporters serve up coffee, eggs and sausages to bleary-eyed truckers, while others provided them with beds to sleep in, hot showers and even laundry services. Nearby, kids played while their parents huddled by campfires to stay warm.

“Every day I come here to get my coffee, to get my emotional support, my spiritual support,” said protester George Dick.

“These guys are awesome! I couldn’t do it without them,” he says of the volunteers.

Elian Renaud, an 18-year-old mechanic, has been manning a grill since 4:00 am (0900 GMT), saying the truckers are very happy “to be eating a good dinner, not just small snacks”.

Nearby a plastic table is close to buckling under the weight of water bottles and soda cans, while protesters continue to ferry fuel in wagons to keep the big rigs roaring — despite efforts by police to cut off the convoy’s diesel supplies.

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly has said this is “an entirely sophisticated level of demonstrators”.

“They have the capability to run strong organisation here provincially and nationally, and we’re seeing that play out in real-time,” he told a briefing.

A few kilometres away, an encampment at a baseball stadium is being used as a staging area. An AFP journalist saw barbecues, saunas and stockpiles of food and fuel, as well as rows of portable toilets.

Daniel Gagnon, sporting a goatee and small round glasses, set up a booth to sell signs for Can$20 (US$16) to raise funds for the truckers.

“If a truck driver needs something, no problem, we find it,” he says. “Everywhere, there is food. It’s free. If anything is missing, people can call, we’ll help them out.”

Canadian authorities’ freezing of millions of dollars raised online for the protesters seems to have had little impact as donations of goods pour in.

Started at the end of January, they had raised more than Can$10 million on GoFundMe, before the donation page was removed for violating the crowdsourced fund-raising site’s terms of service that “prohibit user content that reflects or promotes behaviour in support of violence”.

A subsequent campaign launched on the Christian site GiveSendGo raised several million dollars, before it too was frozen by the Superior Court of Ontario.