The Ottawa Freedom Convoy Occupation

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While there was a great deal of media coverage of the recent Freedom Convoy protest in Ottawa, Canada, there was very little useful information published about the perspectives of residents on the ground during the event—let alone interviews with local left-wing activists who might have a thing or two to say about its tactics and strategy. So I tracked down the Punch Up Collective, an Ottawa-based anarchist group, and asked them to comment on their experience with the occupation of their city by a very different assortment of militants.

In the lead-up to the Ottawa Freedom Convoy protest, did you realize how much of a cause célèbre it was going to become?

No, we definitely underestimated what the Convoy would become and what kind of action they were planning to take. There have been fascist, far-right mobilizations in recent years in Ottawa, including an attempt at a similar convoy-style action in 2019, but they’ve been pretty small and mostly confined to protests on Parliament Hill that wrap-up and leave after a few hours. For one thing, we were probably mistakenly thinking of it as just another protest, instead of what it actually was: a deliberate occupation of the city. As a community, we didn’t grasp the scale of what was about to happen, and so we weren’t prepared to respond and confront the convoy in any significant way as it arrived.

Would you describe the protest as right wing or hard right wing overall or more of an ideological mishmash? Was it really led by actual truckers? Were the protestors mainly truckers, white, male, Evangelical, etc.?

Most of the key organizers and public figures associated with the convoy occupation are involved with a variety of far-right movements, including white supremacist organizations, but the majority of participants probably wouldn’t describe themselves as white supremacists or racists. While there were definitely some isolated displays of hate symbols, like confederate flags, swastikas, and transphobic signs, that wasn’t the overt public image of the majority of the occupation. On the other hand, the Ottawa Police Service received nearly 500 hate crime reports during the occupation, and there were many instances of people being targeted due to their perceived race, or gender, or sexuality by individuals involved in the convoy. What’s concerning is the way far-right organizers used the convoy and occupation as a way to normalize their politics and pull in people in to their networks, and that these acts of violence and hate weren’t rejected by the vast majority of participants.

They were ideologically diverse in some ways, but the main currents were right wing, nationalist, and authoritarian. On the surface, the convoy occupation tried hard to make it about vaccine mandates and an undefined call to protect “freedom.” But even a brief stroll through the occupation would expose you to just about any conspiracy theory you can think of, from QAnon, to 5G, to calls for the government to be overthrown by the Queen, and so on.

Certainly there were truckers participating in the convoy and subsequent occupation (hard to miss the big rigs blocking the streets), but none of the self-described leaders were truckers, and many participants had no connection to the trucking industry whatsoever. Most of the participants were white men, though definitely a strong contingent of white women, and a lot of folks brought their children with them. There were maybe 400 vehicles in total occupying the downtown core at the height of the occupation. The vast majority of these were smaller personal vehicles, like pickup trucks and cars.

Co-opting the label of truckers is particularly frustrating given that actual truckers, especially those who don’t own their own rigs, have spoken out against poor working conditions and safety concerns within the industry. For a lot of truckers, the vaccine mandate is not a big concern, but we’re focused on that instead of other important issues they are facing.

Describe what the protest was like on the ground once it was established. How did the protesters treat Ottawa residents day-to-day? Did they treat different kinds of residents differently?

Calling it a protest doesn’t accurately capture the degree to which these folks set up shop. In addition to the main encampment downtown, which fully blocked a number of major streets, the convoy set up at least three logistics depots outside of the downtown core, and another one just outside the city limits. These depots served as collecting and distribution points for supplies like food and fuel, which would then be shipped downtown in smaller vehicles. The occupation was logistically impressive: people had access to warm food, shelter, programming for their kids, organized activities, internal security, and fuel for their vehicles. They set up saunas, a hot tub, even a big screen TV and sound system for dance parties.

For the residents of Ottawa, the experience of the occupation was pretty awful. The occupiers took over streets and neighbourhoods, terrorized people, and made it impossible for residents to live their lives. The occupation was incredibly loud, with consistent horn honking throughout the day and night, at decibel levels high enough to cause permanent hearing loss. Streets were full of diesel fumes that spewed from trucks and other vehicles idling all day. Fireworks were set off regularly in densely populated areas, there was an attempted arson of an apartment building, and another group of protesters handcuffed the front doors of an apartment building in what may have been an aborted second attempted arson. There was verbal harassment, threats of violence, and physical assaults, with much of it directed at racialized people or individuals wearing masks. The situation was particularly difficult for disabled residents.

The occupiers also launched some deliberate attacks on the residents of Ottawa. They deliberately overloaded the local 911 emergency line by spamming it with calls. They forced the two downtown grocery stores to close for a day by storming them without wearing masks and refusing to leave. There were several instances of convoy occupiers driving past schools and yelling at children about masks and vaccines.

Were the protesters’ demands consistent throughout their occupation or did they change over time?

In many ways their demands were inconsistent from the start. The “anti-vaccine mandate” and “anti-lockdown” demands were largely a cover used to further anti-government, right-wing ideologies of personal liberty and privilege at the expense of collective care and well-being. As the occupation went on, discourse shifted more to critique of the government’s covid response as a whole, and more explicit calls for the removal of the government. What started as supposedly a protest against vaccine mandates for truckers quickly shifted to a protest against any and all pandemic restrictions and health measures, to calling for the removal of the current federal government.

Was the treatment of the protest by the police, military, intelligence services, and government officials at various levels different than the way than similar left-wing and BIPOC protests have been treated by those same forces—like the pipeline and railway protests in the Canadian context or the Black Lives Matter and Occupy protests in the US and internationally (including in Ottawa). If so, how?

In so many ways, yes. It’s difficult to overstate the difference in how the police responded to this protest and occupation compared to other protests and direct actions from the left. Allowing them to set up shop in the first place, not issuing any tickets/by-law infractions in the first three weeks, offering them a city-owned parking lot to use as a staging ground and supply depot, allowing protestors to construct wooden structures, allowing them to store large amounts of fuel and continually bring in new fuel supplies, taking selfies with protestors, waiting 22 days before making any attempts to shut them down, the list goes on and on.

There were hundreds of instances of harassment, threats of violence, physical assaults, an attempted arson – and yet police were unwilling to intervene. We’re not arguing for police intervention, but their hands-off approach says a lot.

Compared to other actions that were much smaller for a much shorter period of time, that have been met with considerably more force and violence. For example, back in Nov of 2020, a small group of largely BIPOC protesters blocked a downtown intersection to protest the acquittal of a white cop who killed a Black man, Abdirahman Abdi. They were initially promised a meeting with the Ottawa Police Services Board. Instead, the police raided the blockade, arresting 12 people. At a large march in support of Wet’suwet’en land defenders a couple years back police snipers were seen on the roofs of government buildings.

Do you agree with the Trudeau government’s use of the Emergencies Act to shut down the protest? Please provide any context in your answer that you think Americans need to understand (like Trudeau’s daddy’s use of the War Measures Act on left-wing Québécois revolutionaries during the October Crisis of 1970).

No, we don’t agree at all with the use of the Emergencies Act. Nothing good comes from increasing the power and authority of the cops and the state.

The Emergencies Act was created in the late 80s to replace the War Measures Act. Both Acts are designed to give extraordinary powers to the federal government to respond to a national crisis situation. This is the first time the Emergencies Act has been used, and was ostensibly implemented in response to not just the convoy occupation in Ottawa but also to several Canada-US border crossing blockades with similar aims to the occupation in Ottawa.

We can’t speak for other regions that saw similar protests but, here in Ottawa, the city and the cops did absolutely nothing for more than 20 days to try and stop the protest and occupation. Their inaction helped create the crisis. Nothing they’ve done since the implementation of the Emergencies Act couldn’t have been done earlier.

To the degree the protestors had clear goals, do you feel they achieved any of those goals?

Their main tactical goal was to create a logistics nightmare for downtown Ottawa—in that sense they were successful. If we focus on the vaccine mandates and pandemic health measures, no we don’t think they achieved their goals. The vaccine mandate for federally regulated industries (which includes trucking) is still in effect, and most provincial governments were already planning to ease most other public health measures in the coming weeks and months.

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of the alternative newsweekly DigBoston and executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He can be reached at jason@digboston.com.

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