Le Pays De France - Canada protesters dig in with military-style proficiency

Paris -
Canada protesters dig in with military-style proficiency
Canada protesters dig in with military-style proficiency

Canada protesters dig in with military-style proficiency

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.

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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 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.

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 a.m. (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 organization here provincially and nationally, and we're seeing that play out in real-time," he told a briefing.

- Base camp -

A few kilometers 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 dollars (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 fundraising 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.

Scott Holt, 58, who's been sleeping in his truck since the protest began, shrugged it off.

"I'm getting financially supported... I need food, I've got that. I need fuel, the organization supplies the fuel. Somehow, someway they always get me fuel. What more do I need?" he said.

On Friday, Trudeau indicated that half of the donated funds supporting the trucker convoy has come from US sources.

From the start, the protestors received the backing of American conservatives, including former president Donald Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who called the protesters "heroes" and "patriots."

- Tripping up authorities -

Marcel Chartrand, a professor at the University of Ottawa, told AFP the protesters "appear to be getting some direction from groups in the United States."

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions, he said. "How's this organization being supported? How is it influenced? Who are the people behind it... and where is it going?"

Among the protestors are a number of retired cops and soldiers -- more than 150 with "boots on the ground," according to Police on Guard, a group opposed to Covid health restrictions. It also broadcasts videos of the demonstrations, according to its website.

Daniel "Danny" Bulford, a former Mountie on the prime minister's security detail, told a news conference he's been sharing his "extensive experience in protective operations for large scale events" in the capital including "tactical planning" with protest organizers, and helping to liaise with authorities.

He quit the RCMP last year over mandatory Covid vaccines, he said.

Chartrand noted that the protesters don't use "mainstream social media" and rely instead on walkie-talkie app Zello to evade police barricades, or secure messaging app Telegram to plan solidarity protests, for example, and they shun mainstream media.

"It makes it hard to follow them," he said, and has allowed the protesters to circumvent efforts by "intelligence agencies and police" who too often have been "finding out a bit too late to react and put a stop to, for example, the closing of the Ambassador Bridge," a key Canada-US trade corridor.