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‘A truck fortress with kids’: How dozens of children could make it harder to end Ottawa protest

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Officers criticized for being too cautious are likely concerned about the children and the risk of creating a violent backlash should any kids come to harm

A young child at the Freedom Convoy protest in Ottawa on Feb. 13. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

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With the federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act, authorities have broad new powers to try to dislodge the convoy protest that has paralyzed central Ottawa for weeks.

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But a surprising wildcard could complicate any move against the demonstration: the dozens of children camped out with them in the streets around Parliament Hill.

Those young people are part of what one observer calls a newly formed truck “fortress.” Not only would they add unusual challenges to an aggressive push by police, they likely have already influenced law enforcement’s non-confrontational approach, experts say.

Meanwhile, Ottawa’s Children’s Aid Society is monitoring whether the kids’ welfare is being harmed simply because they’re with their parents at the heart of an emotional occupation.

It absolutely really changes the dynamic for the police

“I think it presents a really unique situation,” said Jeffrey Monaghan, a Carleton University criminologist who studies the policing of protests. “It absolutely really changes the dynamic for the police.”

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Officers criticized for being too cautious in the face of the occupation are likely concerned both about the children themselves and the risk of creating a violent backlash should any kids come to harm, says Joao Velloso, a University of Ottawa law professor. Like Monaghan, he has been visiting and researching the protest sites regularly.

Authorities may even have half a mind turned to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the United States’ deadliest act of domestic terrorism, he said.

Timothy McVeigh, the bombing’s far-right, anti-government mastermind, indicated the attack was a response to the FBI raid on the heavily armed headquarters of the Branch Davidians cult in Waco Texas, where 25 children were among the 76 who perished. Investigators say cult members set fire to the buildings.

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“I have no doubt this is something the intelligence community, security community and high-ranking-police community have some sense of … what will happen next if a child dies,” said Velloso.

Bouncy castles were set up for children attending the Freedom Convoy protest in Ottawa. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

Ottawa Deputy Police Chief Steve Bell — now interim chief — revealed just over a week ago that about 25 per cent of the 400 or so vehicles ensconced on city streets are housing children. In a joint statement with the Ottawa police last Wednesday, the local Children’s Aid Society said there were “ongoing reports” of child-welfare concerns around the protest kids. The agency said it would assess matters that are within its mandate and help families create safety plans as needed.

The society said Wednesday it could not provide details about specific reports or investigations.

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Velloso said the protest children he’s seen appear happy and playful, but he noted that by Tuesday afternoon tensions had heightened, with more police in tactical gear, more RCMP officers and, now, the Emergencies Act in effect.

“I would not go there with my kid there because I know that something could go very bad, very quickly.”

But whether children’s aid actually intervenes to protect a child living out of one of the trucks would depend largely on the criteria set out in section 125 of Ontario’s Child Youth and Family Services Act, said Marianne Cuhaci, an independent child-welfare social worker.

I would not go there with my kid there because I know that something could go very bad, very quickly

The section outlines circumstances that require someone to alert child-welfare authorities, including signs a young person is suffering emotional harm due to the actions of their caregivers.

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But Cuhaci said agencies tend to remove children from their families only as a last-ditch measure, since putting the child in foster care or even with another family member can have its own risks.

“You don’t want to take them from the frying pan and put them in the fire,” she said.

Parents who brought their children to the protest have told media outlets that they are being well cared for.

While the children are likely a major complication for police planners, they could also help bring an end to the street-clogging protest, said Monaghan.

A young child looks at posters in support of the truckers in Ottawa on Feb. 9. A young child looks at posters in support of the truckers in Ottawa on Feb. 9. Photo by Lars Hagberg /Reuters

He suggested that police whittle away the number of protesters by turning up the heat in a non-violent fashion – by making life “uncomfortable” for those who currently seem to believe their actions are lawful. That could partly happen through warning parents, said Monaghan.

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“Police (should) very much communicate to people that … ‘Keeping your children in an illegal site where there’s been a dispersal order would have implications for children’s aid and your wardship over your children,’” said the Carleton professor. “‘Your kids are in a very dangerous spot and you’re putting them there.’”

Velloso, though, said he worries that the children simply add to what appears increasingly like an immovable force filling the streets surrounding the Parliament buildings.

In the last couple of days, vehicles have been repositioned so that rows of semi-trailers parked in parallel are essentially boxed in by trucks parked in front of them at right angles, he said.

“If there are kids there, you have kind of a fortress of trucks with kids,” he said. “Good luck for a police intervention without bad results, even if things go smoothly.”

Left, Pierre Trudeau announces that the federal government has proclaimed the War Measures Act on October 16, 1970. Right, Justin Trudeau announces that the federal government has invoked the Emergencies Act on February 14, 2022.

John Ivison: Lessons from his father — we need more than Trudeau’s word on Emergencies Act

Interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen speaks during question period in the House of Commons, February 15, 2022 in Ottawa.

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