OTTAWA — Crowdfunding site GoFundMe will reimburse or redirect to charities the vast majority of the more than $10 million raised by demonstrators protesting COVID-19 measures in Ottawa, saying the event has become an occupation.
The move could deny participants a vital source of money as Ottawa braces for a new wave of protesters slated to arrive in the national capital this weekend.
GoFundMe said late Friday it supports peaceful protest and that it believes this was the initial intention of the Ottawa event.
The crowdfunding site said it now has evidence from law enforcement that the demonstration "has become an occupation, with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity."
GoFundMe said the fundraiser has been removed from its platform because it violates the site's terms of service, which prohibit the promotion of violence and harassment.
An initial $1 million was released to organizers earlier this week but, given how things have evolved, GoFundMe will issue refunds to donors and work with organizers to send remaining funds to "credible and established charities."
The Ottawa Police Service thanked GoFundMe for its decision.
"We want to thank @gofundme for listening to our concerns as a City and a police service," it said on Twitter. "The decision to withhold funding for these unlawful demonstrations is an important step and we call on all crowdfunding sites to follow."
Mayor Jim Watson also expressed his gratitude. Watson said in light of the unlawful behaviour that has transpired in the last few days, GoFundMe came to the right decision in support of the city and its residents.
"These protesters have been holding our city hostage for a week now, and I'm hopeful that limiting their access to funding and resources will restrict their ability to remain in Ottawa," Watson said on Twitter.
"I am imploring similar crowdfunding platforms to take the same position and not enable the group in its fundraising efforts, which would deal a blow to our efforts to put an end to this occupation."
Tamara Lich, one of the protest organizers, said in a video Friday that they have a new official donation site, the U.S.-based GiveSendGo, which calls itself a "Free Christian Crowdfunding" website.
The GiveSendGo website lists "Freedom Convoy 2022" as one of its trending campaigns.
Ottawa police are putting more officers on the street and trying to seal off the city's downtown core in anticipation of another influx of protesters this weekend.
Downtown residents have endured a week of blaring truck horns, blocked streets and racial taunts from aggressive participants. Many city-dwellers have expressed frustration with the fact little has changed days into the protest, branding it an occupation.
Ottawa lawyer Paul Champ has filed a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of residents seeking millions of dollars in damages and an injunction "prohibiting the continuation of the nuisance."
Court documents name Lich and other protest organizers as defendants and say the proposed members of the action are all people who reside in Ottawa from Bay Street to Elgin Street and Lisgar Street to Wellington Street.
"The incessant blaring of the high decibel air horns and train horns substantially interferes with the private use and enjoyment of the Class Members’ homes," reads the statement of claim. "The conduct is totally unreasonable and unjustified."
It says people have suffered injury and damages for emotional and mental distress; difficulty concentrating; interference with quiet enjoyment of home; headaches; and difficulty sleeping. It is seeking $100 per day for each person that has suffered from the protesters' horn tactics.
The statement of claim contains allegations that have not been proven in court.
Residents were bewildered Thursday that demonstrators had constructed a wood building and fuel storage pen in Confederation Park, just southeast of Parliament Hill.
The National Capital Commission, responsible for the park, is working with Ottawa police on "addressing the next steps on site," said commission spokeswoman Valérie Dufour, who could provide no details.
City solicitor David White said Ottawa had not filed for a court injunction to curb the actions of protesters. He added the city continues to work with other agencies "so that we are prepared and in a position to act quickly" in the event one is deemed necessary to support police plans.
Policy Chief Peter Sloly announced a "surge" of about 150 extra police officers to central areas of the city paralyzed by the protest that has been going on for a week.
Sloly said the patrolling officers will focus on mischief, hate, harassment, threats and other intimidating behaviour to send a clear message: "The lawlessness must end."
The protest against vaccine mandates and other pandemic measures, which has immobilized the city's downtown with scores of large trucks, is an "increasingly volatile and increasingly dangerous demonstration," Sloly told a news conference Friday.
"We're absolutely committed to bringing this demonstration to an end."
However, Sloly warned that demonstrators near Parliament Hill remain highly organized, well-funded and extremely committed to resisting attempts to end the demonstration safely.
Police plan to contain the demonstration in the area immediately south of the Hill through concrete barriers and large machinery to control roadways throughout the downtown core.
They are also looking at closing bridges and highway off-ramps, while incoming protest trucks will be directed to designated parking zones outside the core, Sloly said. Illegal parking by demonstrators could result in bylaw enforcement, removal and impound.
Fencing has been placed around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Hill. A woman was photographed jumping on the tomb last weekend, sparking a police probe.
Police expect as many as 400 more trucks and up to 2,000 people on foot will arrive this weekend for the protest. In addition, as many as 1,000 people could join counter-demonstrations downtown.
Plans for demonstrations to oppose the protesters were in flux Friday amid concerns such actions might not be safe.
Sloly had blunt words for anyone intent on causing trouble: "Do not bring weapons, do not bring firearms, do not come here to cause harm. Do not come here to break the law. You will be held to account."
A few dozen downtown residents gathered Friday for a community safety walk, a daily event co-ordinated by concerned city councillors.
"For the last week, we've been held hostage, we haven't felt safe," said resident Sarah Duff. "And there have been extremists that have been allowed to roam our streets. Enough is enough."
Sloly acknowledged residents' concerns but said police had done "absolutely the best we can to keep this city safe."
"We need to do better. We're committed to doing better. We now have more intelligence and allies to do better."
The Ottawa chief said his empathy for citizens was rooted in personal experience, noting police were investigating death threats that he and other city officials had received this week.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said late Thursday the RCMP had approved Watson's request for Mounties to support city police.
The minister made it clear Friday that Ottawa police remain the force of jurisdiction and called Sloly's new plan reassuring.
"No one is above the law," Mendicino said. "And I think that the many reports that we’re hearing in Ottawa from people who live here, who work here, who are trying to raise their families, who are trying to get around, is that they can’t enjoy those freedoms."
Sloly said local, provincial and national intelligence personnel were working together to analyze information.
"We have increased ability to identify and target protesters, and supporters of protesters, who were funding and enabling unlawful and harmful activity," he said.
Teams are gathering details including vehicle registration, driver identification, insurance status and other related evidence that will be used in prosecutions.
Every unlawful act, including traffic and insurance violations, "will be fully pursued," Sloly said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been harshly critical of the protesters, calling on them to leave town and allow residents to resume their daily lives.
Lich, a protest organizer, told a Thursday news conference the departure of the demonstrators would "be based on the prime minister doing what is right: ending all mandates and restrictions on our freedoms."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2022.
— With files from Laura Osman and Mia Rabson
Jim Bronskill and Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press