Ottawa residents decry anti-vaccine trucker ‘occupation’

Ongoing protest led by some far-right activists brings intimidation, violence and fear to Canada’s capital, locals say.

Protesters walk along a blockade by anti-vaccine truckers in Ottawa, Canada
The protesters have called for an end to all coronavirus restrictions in Canada, and have pledged to stay in Ottawa until their demands are met [File: Blair Gable/Reuters]

Tim Abray says the past week in Canada’s capital has been unlike any in recent memory.

Residents of Ottawa have been harassed and spat on; businesses have had their windows smashed; staff and volunteers at a shelter have been intimidated and called racial slurs; and healthcare workers and patients have said they had trouble getting to and from hospitals.

Abray, a communications consultant who lives in a residential neighbourhood not far from Ottawa City Hall, says these incidents and more have made the city of about 1 million people feel like “an occupation zone”.

“The fact that people don’t feel safe in the streets, the fact that we can’t walk freely in our own parks in broad daylight, when we’re not even saying or doing anything to anyone, has absolutely contributed to the feeling that we are occupied.”

Last week, thousands of anti-vaccine truckers and their supporters converged on Ottawa, a usually sleepy capital filled with bureaucrats and government offices. The so-called “Freedom Convoy” protesters were demanding the federal government lift an order requiring truckers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to cross the land border between Canada and the United States.

A protester in Ottawa holds a sign that reads, 'Castreau has got to go'
A protester stands in front of Canada’s parliament buildings in Ottawa on January 29 [Patrick Doyle/Reuters]

But even before the convoy arrived, the protest leaders – some of whom are well-known, far-right activists – said their movement went beyond the vaccine mandate alone.

They have decried Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and demanded an end to all coronavirus restrictions in Canada. While many protesters left Ottawa last weekend, others have pledged to stay until their demands are met – and more demonstrators are expected to arrive this weekend to bolster their effort. Similar rallies also are expected in Toronto and Quebec City.

“This weekend is going to be worse than last weekend simply because they are still there, they are entrenched, and there will be people simply itching for a confrontation who will come to town,” says Abray. “I think we’re on our own. We need to help keep each other safe.”

‘People are afraid’

That feeling of being abandoned is one shared by many Ottawa residents, including Omar Burgan, who lives about 20 minutes by foot from the main protest site, where exhaust fumes and the incessant honking of truck horns have filled the air over the past days.

While he cannot hear the honking from his home, Burgan told Al Jazeera a sense of fear permeates the entire city – largely due to the reports of harassment and intimidation, the involvement of far-right activists in the convoy, and a string of hateful symbols that were seen during last weekend’s rally. Protesters waved swastika and Confederate flags at the protest, while a flag of the Three Percenter far-right militia, which Canada designated as a “terrorist” organisation last year, was seen draped to the hood of a truck parked near Parliament Hill.

“People are afraid of physical violence and I think also they do not trust the police to keep them safe if they were assaulted or threatened with violence,” Burgan said. “That’s the kind of climate going on right now; everyone is just angry and confused … We just feel like we’ve truly been abandoned – especially by city hall and by the police, who claim to be there for our safety and protection but have not been able to guarantee that.”

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has urged the protesters to go home, and denounced recent incidents of harassment. He also slammed Conservative legislators who posed for photographs with some of the convoy participants, saying on Twitter that it was “an absolute disgrace” that they “would come out & praise this illegal action that has caused stress and hardship to residents”.

A person carries a Confederate battle flag in front of the Canadian parliament
Residents say the presence of hateful symbols, such as the Confederate flag, during the protest has raised fears of potential violence [File: Patrick Doyle/Reuters]

But the response of Ottawa police has drawn considerable condemnation, with many questioning what purpose the police serve if not to protect residents who have been subjected to acts of hate, vandalism and threats. Observers also have highlighted what they say is a double standard, as police have taken a hands-off approach to the convoy, yet in the past quickly cracked down on Indigenous land defenders, Black Lives Matter activists and others.

The Ottawa Police Service (OPS) said last Sunday that while the cost of policing the convoy was estimated at more than $800,000 Canadian ($628,000) per day, “police have avoided ticketing and towing vehicle[s] so as not to instigate confrontations with demonstrators”. Peter Sloly, the city’s police chief, also told reporters this week that “there may not be a police solution to this demonstration” and suggested the Canadian military could be sent in – an idea Trudeau quickly rejected.

Late on Thursday, Canada’s minister of public safety said the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) would be “ready to assist”. Ottawa police then said on Friday morning they were implementing a “surge and contain” strategy in the downtown area, including the deployment of 150 additional officers and the creation of “no-access roadways” through the downtown core.

Eric Kennedy, an assistant professor of emergency management at York University in Toronto, said the past week has laid bare three things: that policing is uneven, that officers cannot do what they claim, and that policing cannot solve fundamental problems, such as extremism and polarisation. “We need to reimagine public safety, profoundly,” he wrote on Twitter.

Vulnerable ‘forgotten’

Meanwhile, organisations working in downtown Ottawa say the area’s most vulnerable people have been severely affected by the protest.

The Shepherds of Good Hope homeless shelter said its soup kitchen staff and volunteers were harassed and pressured to provide meals to protesters, while a member of its community was assaulted. A security guard who went to that person’s aid was intimidated and called racial slurs.

Tungasuvvingat Inuit, which provides services to Inuit in Ottawa, said the protest has created “a high-level anxiety and increased fear for the vulnerable Indigenous communities in the area” and impeded the group’s ability to provide services. “The protest was positioned as a peaceful [sic] but has turned into large intimidating crowds threatening the safety of vulnerable individuals,” it said.

Cornerstone Housing for Women, a group that runs an emergency shelter about 700 metres from Parliament Hill in downtown Ottawa, also said its clients and staff – especially those who are racialised – have expressed fear and said they do not feel safe.

“The noise is incessant. Last night at 11:30 there was fireworks set off in downtown Ottawa, which for some that are already on edge can sound like gunshots, can be quite startling,” said Sarah Davis, Cornerstone’s executive director. “For the women, it’s created a sense of fear … We’ve even had a woman take herself to hospital because of her inability to manage with the anxiety.”

She said the emergency shelter has traditionally been a space of healing where women can access community support and a range of nearby services, but since the protest began, that has been shattered. “Our city has been taken over and we all feel imprisoned,” Davis told Al Jazeera.

“This is our home, this is a space for community, this is a space for healing, and the vulnerable folks here in Ottawa have been forgotten through all of this.”

Source: Al Jazeera