One city, two worlds: the Diocese of Ottawa and the Freedom Convoy

Freedom Convoy protesters on Rideau Street near the Chateau Laurier hotel, about two blocks east of the Parliament buildings. Photo: Markgo/Shutterstock
By on April 12, 2022
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On Thursday Feb. 17, Shane Parker, bishop of the diocese of Ottawa, took a walk through the area shut down by the Freedom Convoy protests around Parliament Hill. It would turn out to be the last visit he made before police moved in and began clearing out the vehicles and protesters beginning the next day.

What he saw there, he says, were two different worlds in the space of two city blocks. In one of those worlds, police had gathered by a barricade they were setting up to block off access to Wellington Street, which runs in front of the Parliament buildings, in preparation for the next day’s action. In the other, a group of protesters had set up a patio tent and was having a barbecue, apparently unconcerned about the impending police intervention. When he approached the police officers and identified himself, they joked with him and told him they loved hearing the bell from nearby Christ Church Cathedral. The protesters, he says, were more wary of his presence, so he didn’t press the issue.

Parker remembers a “juxtaposition,” he says, of “very vigilant police officers waiting for a complex police action and protesters—there was a child in their midst—who I don’t know if they actually understood the gravity of the situation.”

By the time police broke up the convoy protest in Ottawa’s downtown core, it had disrupted life in the city for three weeks, cutting off access to the Parliament buildings from Wellington Street and filling the surrounding area with a gridlock of trucks, cars and at times strident home-made signs. Some Anglican ministry leaders say during that time, the protests also caused ongoing disruptions in their work and left church leaders, ministry operators and Ottawa’s vulnerable populations with one overriding question: When would it end?

Protest participants, however—including one who spoke to the Journal—seemed to take a very different view.

Throughout the month of February, Parker says he took several walks through the protest area, which at one point reached all the way to the diocesan office near Christ Church Cathedral, just a few blocks from the Parliament buildings.

“It became very apparent, just in walking through, that there were diverse factions here,” he says. “At the epicentre would be individuals associated with vaccine mandates, the Freedom Convoy and [anti-mandate group] Canada Unity. But as you spread out, there were opportunistic factions participating in this.”

There was also, he says, “a menacing feel to the whole area if you were not inside the protest.”

A typical walk down one of the streets nearer the edge of the protest would turn up signs bearing obscenity-laden statements like “F*** SHEEP,” he says, presumably referring to people who believed what protestors saw as government lies about the pandemic. While his impression was that the most aggressive rhetoric came from the “opportunistic factions” that had attached themselves to the main protest, he says they, combined with “this gauntlet of ambivalent people and noise, and smell of diesel fumes” made for “a confusing situation to encounter and a horrifying situation to live in. And particularly intimidating for anyone who is vulnerable, especially those who are street involved, experiencing poverty [or] homelessness.”

Still, Parker says, it doesn’t help to treat everyone who showed up to the protest as if they were at fault for the behaviour of its fringe elements. “I think the demonizing and accentuation of polarities, focusing on the most egregious behaviours and labelling the entire group as that [egregious] is never a useful thing to do,” he says. “Some politicians chose to demonize the entire operation from the outset, which created a rather facile polarization about it … And I think was perhaps an attempt to gain support for stonewalling them.”

Several times throughout the protest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited “hateful rhetoric and violence toward their fellow citizens” among some protesters as a reason he would avoid going “anywhere near” the protest. At one point, he accused Conservative MPs who expressed support for removing vaccine mandates of “stand[ing] with people who wave swastikas.”

For himself, Parker says that although it’s important not to help widen the divide between political sides, it’s also important to call out behaviour that’s “unambiguously hateful, aggressive and intimidating … and also to stand up for those who are being victimized.”

A Convoy Truck parked on Sparks Street outside of Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa. Photo provided
A Freedom Convoy truck parked on Sparks Street outside Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa. Photo: Contributed

Cornerstone Housing for Women, a ministry of the diocese of Ottawa,  is located just a block away from Wellington Street, where the protest was centred. Sarah Davis, the shelter’s executive director, says that aside from making it difficult for staff and participants to get to the building, the convoy significantly raised the charity’s operating costs and, most concerningly, re-opened psychological wounds that many of the women have been struggling to heal from.

“The worst part is asking, ‘How much worse is it going to get?’ And ‘How much more of this can we take?’” she said in an interview while the protest was still right outside Cornerstone’s door.

For the women at the shelter, Davis says, facing the protestors was in some ways like living through domestic abuse. Gridlocked streets interrupted their ability to move around the city, horns honking around the clock created psychological stress and physical fatigue as they prevented residents from sleeping. They constantly worried, she says, that the protestors’ rowdy behaviour would turn violent, or that protestors would attempt to get inside the shelter. The protests were not violent, as their organizers frequently pointed out, but Davis says their extended presence right outside the shelter’s doors left those inside the building feeling at the protestors’ mercy—a power imbalance and sense of being in another’s control that many had already experienced in abusive situations.

Among the women staying at the shelter are survivors of human trafficking, says Davis—and looking out the window and seeing groups of rowdy men and trucks like the ones some of them had been transported in retraumatized them with reminders of a terrifying time in their lives.

Meanwhile, online communities sympathetic to the truckers produced a flood of memes mocking anyone who claimed to be distressed by the early days of 24-hour honking for being weak, overreacting or faking outrage to make the protestors look malicious.

Asked about those memes, Davis responded, “You just summarized domestic violence in a really wonderful way.” Using intimidating behaviour while claiming that if anyone is intimidated, it’s their own problem, is common in abusive relationships, she says.

“Those who haven’t experienced it, they can’t fathom the impact this is having.”

Nor could those who use Cornerstone’s services simply stay away until the protests were over. “We don’t have the capacity to shut down as a 24/7 facility,” says Davis, adding that some women depend on the shelter for a safe place to stay or to get enough food. So, to stay open, the shelter hired security guards and provided Uber rides to help staff commute in to work while minimizing the time they had to spend outside. Staff also began to practice their lockdown procedure in case things got out of control when the police moved in. Davis says the added measures cost a total of $10,000 per week on top of Cornerstone’s regular operating costs.

While Cornerstone may have been the closest to the main protest, Rachel Robinson, the executive director of the diocese’s day programs in Ottawa says the convoy also affected its ministries in the surrounding neighbourhoods. Shutting down much of the downtown core interrupted people’s ability to get around the city, which meant that some people living in poverty couldn’t reach service centres like the Well, a women’s day program location that draws participants from across the city for things as basic as food aid.

Response to the protest among the people who rely on their day programs has been mixed, says Robinson. On the one hand, “many of our [service] participants don’t want to be vaccinated and they’re not vaccinated,” she says. “Just as in the general population, there will be some people who support them, and that’s fine. That’s their right to believe whatever.” The free food that protesters sometimes handed out, she says, was another incentive for Ottawa’s street-involved people to join in.

Like Davis, however, Robinson says the protest strained the mental health of others among Ottawa’s vulnerable residents, piling onto two years of pandemic stress. “Today at the Well, a woman was talking about wanting to kill herself because she couldn’t stand it anymore,” she said on Feb. 15, when the protest had been going on about 2 weeks. “The things that we’re all feeling, they’re exacerbated for people who have already got health problems, already don’t have the resources and the coping mechanisms that you and I do.”

By contrast, Kenneth Jones [not his real name] says he saw no sign of intimidation or hostility from the protesters. A retired driver with the entertainment industry in Toronto, Jones agreed to speak to the Journal on the condition that his real name not be used. He was concerned, he said, about reprisals from the government. He made two separate five-day trips to join the protesters in Ottawa, where he rallied with demonstrators on Wellington Street, just outside Parliament Hill to support the Freedom Convoy. Jones describes it as one of the most positive experiences of his life.

He recalls the throngs of maskless people that first weekend, and the feeling of warmth and community that seemed to pervade the gathering.

“It was like you were running into old best friends,” he says. “People would see me picking up garbage, they’d ask if I had more bags. They wanted to help … We’re on the verge of a unity and togetherness that we’ve been long overdue, but it’s in our grasp.”

Jones met the driver of the most prominent truck displaying “F— Trudeau” signs, he emphasized that he didn’t believe that trucker or anyone else at the protest had the kind of anti-government sentiments or desire to intimidate Ottawa citizens which he says the media have tried to portray.

“Right from the very beginning, their message was very clear and the name states it: ‘Freedom Convoy,’” he says. “At no point has there been a thought or plan to overthrow the government—about the masks, about the pro- or anti-vaccine. It’s purely about our God-given freedoms.  Some people don’t seem to grasp but some of these little steps and mandates and restrictions are little nit-bits taking away our freedoms.”

Jones said he had not heard about the pre-convoy Facebook Live videos which would later appear as evidence in the bail hearing of Canada Unity organizer Pat King. In them, King warned Justin Trudeau, “Someone’s going to make you catch a bullet one day,” and told his viewers, with respect to pandemic restrictions, “the only way this is going to be solved is with bullets.”

King’s lawyer, W. Calvin Rosemond, has described these statements as “forecasting,” not expressions of intent.

“I’ll guarantee you that this freedom movement which is alive and well and growing today may not have continued if that kind of statement had been made. No one’s going to support that,” says Jones. “I never heard it and it would have affected my personal feeling if I had.”

As for the “diverse factions” Parker says he saw at the fringes of the protest, Jones expressed some doubts about the sincerity of their involvement. One person he saw on Wellington Street waving a Confederate flag, for example, was the only person present who was wearing a full-face covering balaclava, he says. When other protesters questioned what the masked demonstrator meant by waving the flag, which is considered by some to be a symbol of racism and slavery, Jones says the demonstrator “ran away like a scared rabbit.”

Similarly, he says he’s skeptical of official accounts of the affiliated blockade of the Coutts, Alta. border crossing between the U.S. and Canada. The RCMP say they arrested 11 protesters and seized guns, ammunition and body armour among other equipment. But in Jones’ view, “There’s always going to be a bad apple in a crowd.

“Are they in jail? I think we’re going to find out it didn’t happen. And if it did happen, they were definitely not part of the movement. And if they were, and they thought ‘we’re part of this, but this is how we want to demonstrate,’ they would be shunned and never accepted,” he says. “If somebody did that, I hope they get the most jail time they ever could.”

Jones says he also saw, during the Ottawa protest, six or seven people who he describes as “antifa,” wearing ski masks and shouting obscenities at police officers. “When somebody’s all dressed in black and they’re the only ones wearing ski masks covering their entire face, they’re not part of that truckers’ movement,” he says. People who showed up to start conflict like that were a distraction from the real core of the movement, says Jones.

“There definitely were, for whatever reason, whether financial or their own agenda, attempts to tarnish this very positive, fun-loving movement by some. And I’d like to say that [they] failed.”

To Jones, the real face of the protest was shown by people like the veterans he says he saw take up shifts to guard the war memorial after allegations that someone had defecated on it during the early days of the protest, and the local women and children who brought the protesters cookies and drawings.

Jones says the Anglican ministries in Ottawa could very well have taken advantage of this groundswell of support if the people involved in them had been willing to join hands with the protesters. “That could have been spun right around into such a positive, positive movement for them,” says Jones. He says the truckers would have received the staff and women at Cornerstone with open arms if they had just opened up the doors and come out to meet them. “They felt for the people in that city. Don’t think for a moment there was any point where they went ‘sorry, Ottawa, but we’re on our own mission.’ They were there fighting equally as much for that women’s shelter, for the residents, for the business owners,” he says.

After his two five-day stays in Ottawa, Jones says he had been planning to go back once more. But in the end, he changed his mind when he saw on the news that police had begun to break the protest up. “I went ‘I’m into this movement, but I don’t see the point of getting beat on,’” he says. “It turned something so fun-loving and peaceful into such a mess.”’

Author

  • Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.