Police in Newfoundland and Labrador say they will pursue criminal charges against protestors who allegedly struck police horses during a chaotic demonstration at the provincial parliament on Wednesday.

In a statement released to media after protest at the steps of the legislature calmed down, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary said two horses in its mounted unit “were struck by demonstrators which forced the Mounted Unit to retreat.”

Police and protestors clashed during an hours-long protest in St. John’s on Wednesday, where tensions sometimes ran high. The provincial government delayed its planned release of its annual budget, citing safety concerns.

Police used their mounted unit’s horses to try to push and move demonstrators outside an entrance at provincial legislature — at one point, attempting to back a horse into a crowd of people. The force faced criticism inside and outside the protest for their tactics, but said in a statement that their response “was not unlike other demonstrations.”

“There is specific Criminal Code violations for injuries against a law enforcement animal which will be pursued,” Const. James Cadigan, a spokesperson for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, said in a statement.

Another police officer was brought to the hospital after suffering injuries in what police called a rush. Protestors said one fish harvester suffered a broken hip during the morning’s demonstrations.

Later in the day, the government said it had obtained a court order preventing anyone from blocking access to the building, with Premier Andrew Furey saying the budget will be presented once it's safe for staff to enter, adding that he hoped that would be Thursday.

Public servants felt intimidated and threatened by the protesters, Furey told reporters, adding that he was disturbed to see video of people in the crowd "punching horses and assaulting individuals."

“Let me say first and foremost that this is unacceptable . … I’m profoundly disappointed that the behaviour of a few could take over and jeopardize a budget that is for the entire province,” he said.

Fish harvesters have been protesting for days at various government offices in St. John’s, but Wednesday's demonstration was the largest and loudest.

They are pushing for changes in how the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador is regulated: Some harvesters liken the market in the province to a cartel, where catch can only be sold to certain buyers, at prices that are sometimes set by a government-appointed tribunal.

Finance Minister Siobhan Coady had been scheduled to release her 2024-25 budget on Wednesday with an expectation that the books would be balanced. However, the scene in front of the Confederation Building became confused and disorderly when two constabulary officers rode their horses into the crowd as police tried to disperse the fishers. Protesters yelled, some fell over and there were shouts that people were being injured.

The mounted officers engaged with the crowd for about 20 minutes, as protesters formed a line to push back the horses. The police on horseback eventually pulled back, as protesters cheered. An ambulance came to the scene to assist an injured protester, who was screaming in pain, and drove the person away.

Furey said that while he realizes emotions about the fishery run high, and there’s a right to peaceful process, “what is unacceptable is violent protests. Some of the behaviour will not be tolerated by me and my government.”

Justice Minister John Hogan told reporters he expected the police to take steps to allow the budget to proceed.

Earlier in the day, Jason Sullivan, a fisher from Bay Bulls, N.L., blamed the tensions on government, saying fishers feel "backed into a corner."

"We're trying to go fishing but there's only four or five buyers and now they're acting like a cartel and we're not getting good prices."

John Efford

In the parking lot outside the legislature, fisherman John Efford grabbed a microphone after the confrontation had died down, threw his fist in the air and yelled, “What do we want?”

“Free enterprise!” the crowd roared back. Efford said the fishers won’t stop protesting until they achieve their goals.

Jason Spingle, secretary treasurer of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, said Efford, not the union, has been leading the current movement.

In an interview after his speech, Efford said he wants more processing companies operating in the province. Smaller, independent processors are often hit with caps on how much product they can prepare and, as a consequence, purchase from fishers. Those caps, he added, sometimes force fishers to bring their catch to the larger processors, who don’t have these limits.

Efford said fishers also want to be allowed to sell their catch to buyers outside the province. "The first thing we need is more competition. So, we need more plants here," he said.

Elvis Loveless, provincial minister of fisheries, said during the news conference that the province had started seeking applications for more buyers. As well, he said the government will increase processing capacity in the snow crab industry prior to the start of the 2024 season.

"We've had very good discussions. We've met, I'd say, all of their (the union's) requests," he said.

Doug Trainor, a fisher from Fermeuse, N.L., was covered in dirt after the scuffle with officers. He said a horse stepped on his foot but didn't seriously injure him.

“I felt afraid. I got down on the ground and I couldn’t get up,” said Trainor, who fishes for crab, capelin and cod from the small town 90 kilometres south of St. John’s.

He said he’s protesting because he feels overly restricted in whom he can sell his catch to. “The cartels own us. I’m supposed to be an independent fisherman. That’s what I tried to do all my life, and now I’m not anymore.”

Fisheries are a crucial sector of Newfoundland and Labrador's economy, with the province estimating there are 17,000 seafood workers and 400 communities that rely on the fishery for their livelihood.

With files from The Canadian Press