Explainer: Ottawa protests: What you need to know about the anti-vaccine convoys

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Feb 10 (Reuters) - Horn-blaring demonstrations demanding an end to Canadian COVID-19 vaccine mandates have caused gridlock in the capital Ottawa since late January. The protests by truckers and others are now spilling to key Canada-United States border crossings and disrupting trade.

The mayor of Windsor, Ontario, where protesters have closed the Ambassador Bridge border crossing to the United States, choking trade, said police were preparing to physically remove protesters if necessary.

<b>HOW DID THE PROTESTS START?</b>

The "Freedom Convoy" driving across Canada toward Ottawa in late January ostensibly opposed vaccinate-or-quarantine mandates for cross-border truckers. But most truckers do not support the convoy.

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The Canadian Trucking Alliance, an industry group, said it opposes protests on public roadways and the vast majority of Canadian truckers are vaccinated.

The protests have broadened to oppose a range of provincial and federal COVID-19 measures.

<b>WHAT ARE THE AUTHORITIES DOING?</b>

Canadian authorities are scrambling to end the Ottawa occupation, hoping a combination of criminal charges, traffic tickets and the prospect of losing access to fuel will end the blockades. read more

A court granted an interim injunction this week, preventing people from sounding horns in downtown Ottawa.

Protesters say they are peaceful but some waved Confederate flags and swastikas in the occupation's early days. Some Ottawa residents say they were harassed.

Police in Ottawa have made about two dozen arrests while issuing more than 1,300 tickets for noise and other violations.

Ottawa Police lost their enforcement opportunity when the convoy first rolled into town at the end of January, said Carleton University criminologist Jeffrey Monaghan.

“There were just massive mistakes from the start – the permissiveness, the cultivation of a never-ending frat party. … We knew coming in that there were far-right folks itching for confrontation but because of an unwillingness to address that more freely, the police took a hands-off approach and allowed the whole neighbourhood to be held hostage.”

<b>WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS FOR POLICE?</b>

Canada has laws and bylaws against blocking traffic, excessive noise, harassment and dangerous operations of motor vehicles, among other things. But police forces have been largely unable or unwilling to crack down on occupiers, with enforcement complicated by factors such as the blockade's urban setting and the presence of children with many of the protesters. Police have said they feared violence if they were too aggressive.

Commercial vehicle licenses could provide authorities with another avenue of enforcement – but they first must issue a charge or ticket.

A person can have their commercial vehicle registration suspended or cancelled if they rack up enough infractions.

<b>WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES FOR ENFORCEMENT?</b>

Ottawa police say they need 1,800 people – officers and civilian staff – to beef up their response. Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Thursday the federal government, which has provided 275 Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers to Ottawa, will send more to Ottawa and to Windsor, Ontario, and Coutts, Alberta, where protesters are blocking border crossings. The Ontario provincial government has also said it is considering upping its support.

Protesters are also getting outside legal help. Right-wing organization Rebel News has said it would cover protesters' legal fees. Ottawa lawyer David Anber said he plans to file complaints about police conduct in some cases, particularly where people were taken into custody and released without being charged.

Some criminal charges may not stick in the context of people exercising their right to protest, he said.

"Any protest, there's a certain amount of ordinary laws that get broken."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ruled out using the military to clear the Ottawa protest.

Police now have no good options, Monaghan said. They could go in aggressively and risk a violent confrontation or they could tighten the screws - a longer-term approach that will likely anger residents, he said.

"At this point they’ve lost control. And getting back that control is very difficult."

<b>WHAT IMPACT ARE THE PROTESTS HAVING?</b>

Three border blockades are disrupting hundreds of millions of dollars in Canada-U.S. trade. read more

Copycat protests have also sprung up in Australia, New Zealand and France, while truckers in the United States have said they are planning similar demonstrations.

The protests may have contributed to the opposition Conservative Party's ousting of leader Erin O'Toole, who angered some Conservative legislators for initially distancing himself from the protests.

Some provinces, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec, have eased COVID-19 measures since the start of the protests, but denied a connection.

<b>WHAT DO CANADIANS THINK ABOUT THE PROTESTS?</b>

A recent poll found 62% of Canadians surveyed oppose the "Freedom Convoy." Canadians have largely followed government health measures and nearly 79% of the eligible population has taken two doses of the vaccine.

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Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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