ONE YEAR AGO: Freedom Convoy shook the nation
There was a noticeable increase in vehicles sporting Canadian flags in downtown Ottawa and it was not Canada’s birthday. Snow was piled high on the sidewalks and it was -8 C. Government employees were told to keep an eye out for strangers who might enter a federal building. There was also a conspicuous increase in police officers downtown and fewer parked cars. The city restricted parking for three days over seven blocks in front of Parliament Hill and five blocks south from Wellington Street to Laurier Avenue. The subliminal message was clear: Be nervous.
It was the first anniversary of what was arguably the most effective peaceful grassroots demonstration that Canada had ever seen. The inspiring movement saw grown men reduced to tears as Albertans hugged Quebecers and transformed the Canadian flag into an icon of patriotism and love of freedom. This is not the officially-revised government version of events. This is mine and it’s a lot closer to the truth. I was there everyday and spoke with dozens of people, including truckers, farmers, supporters, detractors and police.
In memory of this century’s most uplifting winter event, that sparked international protests and attention, Ottawa stepped up. Police chief Eric Stubbs told reporters that police will not tolerate vehicle-based protests in the downtown core. For the Jan. 27-29 anniversary weekend, “People want lawful, peaceful and safe protests on Parliament Hill,” the chief said. “If it’s not lawful, peaceful and safe, that’s when we have to be more assertive.”
Lawful, peaceful and safe protests did not stop them from becoming more assertive last year. The glorious freedom movement was taken down by its own and grown men wept when they saw the horror. Police with weapons beat up protestors, tearing apart the good name of law enforcement and bludgeoning Canada’s reputation as an oasis of fair play. Police pounded peaceful protestors with fists and the back-end of rifles. Freezing bank accounts sounded alarm bells all the way to Washington.
But it all began so well. Police negotiated the Freedom Convoy trucks to their protest positions on Wellington Street — leaving a lane open for emergency vehicles — and the surrounding area, so you can’t point fingers at the illegal parking. The police themselves said the protest was peaceful and safe. Police, not truckers, unnecessarily blocked off Laurier Avenue to prevent vehicles from getting across town. The Freedom Convoy protest with about 300 vehicles and thousands of supporters, was a better party than Winterlude, the annual Ottawa winter festival. On weekends, there were parties at four different intersections. There were bbqs, pigs on a spit, bouncy castles, popcorn and burgers, bible studies, prayer meetings and fire pits to warm the hands.
The federal government encouraged an anti-freedom convoy hearing in which only protestors against the protest were allowed to speak. The Ottawa People’s Commission was a rant-filled encounter of rage that contorted the freedom convoy into an imaginary monster. The honking was wildly exaggerated and the legacy news media swallowed and perpetuated all of it. All we really learned is that only ineffective protests are allowed. The official hearing skewed the focus away from the real issue: did the government have a legitimate reason to unleash the Emergencies Act?
Of course it didn’t. All the noise after the Freedom Convoy protest has been about damage control and changing the narrative. But the fabrications don’t explain the outpouring of gifts and hugs and song over three weeks. They don’t explain the endless envelopes of cash pressed into hands of truckers and farmers and the ubiquitous greeting of “God bless you.” They don’t explain the families with young children who loved it. Then the police turned ugly. On the last day, as police moved in wearing riot gear, you cannot explain away the self-restraint of the unarmed. Lines of protestors locked arms and struggled to “hold the line” as police yanked them out of the crowd. But not one person was arrested for throwing a punch. As the day wore on, a few blocks away, a lone woman sang Amazing Grace in front of a line of police officers as the crowd began to swell into the hundreds. Another stood facing the officers and prayed for each one while holding a three-foot crucifix. There was a wave of calm and I was close enough to see that police officers were visibly moved.
The Freedom Convoy protestors and all of their faithful supporters hauling in gas cans and firewood, muffins, coffee and cash, changed more than the flag. They got rid of a weak Conservative leader in Erin O’Toole. They forced the end to pandemic restrictions.
The Freedom Convoy protestors are the heroes of February. Their protest was peaceful and effective. Their love of freedom pierced through the calumnies. They stood for those who had been psychologically beaten up for two years and who lost their jobs and were told they were bad people. A young man from Seaforth drove to the capital to see it for himself and his voice filled with emotion when he said, “I haven’t felt this good in years.”
They achieved more than most politicians in their lifetimes. They emboldened people who thought they had no power outside the ballot box and now see that love of freedom seeks and finds novel ways to stop injustice. They made the people feel proud of their country again.