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Protests over COVID mandates prompt Ottawa to declare a state of emergency

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The mayor of Canada's capital, Ottawa, says it is the most serious emergency the city has ever faced. Demonstrators in trucks have paralyzed the city center for more than a week, protesting loudly for hours at a stretch over vaccine and mask mandates. We reached Emma Jacobs in Montreal. She was reporting last week in Ottawa and is headed back today.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: So you've had hundreds of vehicles, big tractor trailers and cars blocking downtown streets and also making lots of noise. They call themselves the Freedom Convoy. But they're running their engines and honking horns day and night. This is the seat of government where Parliament meets and government offices are. But it's also a residential neighborhood full of apartments where people have been going about their lives in what the mayor called a living hell.

FADEL: So what is the local government doing about it?

JACOBS: Police have seemed unprepared to deal with this unusual protest. Authorities have hesitated to confront the protesters. The police chief has said that's because they don't want anyone to get hurt, and they do have these big vehicles. So the protesters have just continued to dig in. There have been a handful of arrests. But on Sunday, it did feel like there was a shift. The police went into the convoy staging areas and seized hundreds of gallons of fuel Sunday night that the protesters have been stockpiling and using to keep these vehicles running.

FADEL: Now, you've been - you were speaking with the protesters. What do they want?

JACOBS: There's a real range. A lot of these demonstrators say they're staying until all public health mandates are lifted. Some of them have called for more extreme outcomes, like the dissolution of the current government. It's a real range of people out there but with different priorities. But there are definitely some QAnon and folks with ties to the far right.

FADEL: So you were there last week, and you're headed back today. Can you tell us what it's been like to be at these protests?

JACOBS: It's been really loud. And especially after hours of it, you do get a sense of why this has been so hard on residents. They have also said they're dealing with a lot of harassment, being confronted by convoy supporters for wearing masks. And those convoy supporters - you know, they're very well supplied to dig in here with food, even firewood. Many members of the convoy and their supporters - they insist that the worst behavior and the right-wing views that have been expressed are really a tiny part of their movement. But at the same time, many protesters repeated misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines and COVID-19. In Canada, a number of provinces are the ones requiring vaccine passports to access many public spaces. And the federal government can't lift those mandates. So it becomes tough to see how this protest will end.

FADEL: Is this the first time protests like this over COVID restrictions have shut down a Canadian city?

JACOBS: It is. Now, over the weekend, there were protests that arrived in a number of other cities - Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, Quebec City. But those police there - because they'd seen the Ottawa example, they seemed better prepared to clear those people out by the end of the weekend.

FADEL: That's reporter Emma Jacobs. Thank you so much.

JACOBS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.