Downtown Ottawa in late January and much of February 2022 was either a peace-fuelled hug fest so beautiful to behold that it still induces tears, or a dangerous cauldron of hate and aggression that made life hell for the 18,000 or so people who call the city centre home. It truly was a matter of perspective.
These days, that great divide is never more apparent than in front of Library and Archives Canada on Wellington Street, where one woman stands on the sidewalk and insults the convoy leaders by name as they emerge from the building’s front door to stand around in tight groups, talking and smoking.
She calls them “terrorists.” They call themselves “freedom fighters,” and they mostly ignore her.
This is the setting for the Public Order Emergency Commission, which just concluded its third full week of testimony, and where the gulf in memory and experience between those who came to Ottawa to protest, and those who live here, has at times appeared just as wide.
Few criminal charges
Early in the proceedings, Zexi Li, the federal public servant who came to embody the fear and frustration felt by many downtown dwellers when she agreed to lend her name to the successful injunction that banned horn-honking north of the Queensway, likened the scene outside her apartment building to the dystopian horror film series The Purge.
Brendan Miller, a lawyer for the convoy organizers, has consistently challenged that casting of events, insisting on a narrow legal definition of terms such as “assault” and “violence.” Having strangers shout at you on the street to take off your mask may or may not fit into one of those categories, depending on your perspective.
Miller has grilled several witnesses on the number of criminal charges laid during the three-plus weeks that the protesters were in town. He seems to be driving at the point that, because there were relatively few charges, things couldn’t have been that bad.
But the commission has also heard from senior police officials who testified that the situation downtown was at times so volatile that they wouldn’t risk their officers’ safety by sending them into the crowd to clamp down on unsafe or illegal activity. That only added to the fear and abandonment many residents were feeling, according to earlier testimony.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s not how the convoy organizers, who testified this week, remembered it at all.
According to Benjamin Dichter, the Ontario trucker and podcast producer who steered communications for the group, the movement’s central tenets were “peace, love, unity and freedom.” He compared the vibe in downtown Ottawa to Grateful Dead concerts he’s attended. Another witness likened it to Canada’s Woodstock.
Dichter, who spent much of his time in Ottawa in hotel rooms due to a broken ankle, described Ottawa’s downtown as “eerily silent” on one of the nights he did venture out.
“If I’m staying in downtown Ottawa right in the core of all of it and I’m not hearing honking, I don’t know where the honking’s coming from,” he testified Thursday under cross-examination by Christine Johnson, co-counsel for a coalition of Ottawa residents and businesses.
“But you’re aware that many residents were expressing concern that they were hearing frequent, loud honking and they were disturbed by that honking?” Johnson asked.
“I don’t want to project motives onto people. I would just say that I disagree, and perhaps there’s other motives for it. I don’t know,” Dichter replied.
Johnson then reminded Dichter the title of his forthcoming book about the protest is Honking for Freedom.
At times, it seemed protest leaders were either unaware, unconcerned or unwilling to acknowledge that downtown Ottawa residents had also suffered under pandemic restrictions.
Presented with a video in which he appears to be laughing at residents who hadn’t slept in days because of the honking, prominent protest participant Pat King doubled down.
“We’d been locked down for two years and people are complaining that they heard horns for 10 days. Did they remember what we went through for the last two years? What’s a little bit of horns for 10 days?” he testified Wednesday.
Asked earlier that day whether he was aware of threats made against residents and public officials, as well as the incessant blaring of high-decibel truck and even train horns, lawyer Keith Wilson, who represented convoy organizers including Tamara Lich and Chris Barber during the protest, replied that he was “aware of the allegations.”
“I’m also aware of what I experienced, which was Canadians, particularly immigrants of all ethnic backgrounds, coming together in a very peaceful, respectful way with deep concern about what the federal government and governments were doing to their rights and freedoms,” he added.
‘Families torn apart’
Lich, whose highly anticipated testimony wrapped up Friday morning, told the commission she never intended to break the law or inflict harm on Ottawa residents. Her sole motivation, she testified, was the desperate suffering of ordinary Canadians under the federal government’s unreasonable COVID mandates.
“I was seeing families torn apart. The suicides in my hometown were so numerous that they stopped reporting them. Elderly people were dying by themselves in long-term care facilities and saying goodbye over iPads,” Lich told the commission through tears.
In Ottawa, people from all walks of life shared similar stories, she testified later.
“I encountered hundreds and hundreds of Ottawa residents when I was here, thanking me, thanking us, saying that we gave them hope.”
Asked if she’d also witnessed acts of violence or harassment toward Ottawa residents, Lich said no.
Commission counsel John Mather pressed on. “When you hear the citizens of Ottawa — not all of them, I appreciate that — but when you hear some of the citizens of Ottawa say, ‘I felt harassed, I felt intimidated, I felt unsafe,’ do you believe them?”
“I believe that’s how they felt,” Lich replied. “Obviously, the last thing that we ever wanted to do when we came here was to make the citizens of Ottawa feel that way.”