By Nicolay Hristozov
I had just recovered from COVID-19 when the Freedom Convoy rolled into Ottawa. After 10 days of fatigue and isolation, I felt unusually eager to see our new guests. As a firm believer in public health measures, I was opposed to the goals of the convoy from the beginning, but I was also intensely curious. Like most of us, I had seen the images of Confederate and Nazi flags in the media, so I expected to see a protest of fury and hate that I could easily demonize and dismiss. The reality was far more nuanced, and I still find myself puzzling over the convoy’s many contradictions.
I should emphasize that these are my personal impressions as a sturdily built white male. I could blend in with the protesters and was unlikely to present an easy target to anyone looking to cause trouble. My experiences might have been very different were this not the case.
I walked up Bank Street on the convoy’s first Saturday with my mind set on objectively assessing the protest. On my way downtown, hundreds of honking pickup trucks adorned with Canadian flags assaulted my senses. Mostly shiny new crew-cab models, these trucks (rather than the larger semi-trailers) became the convoy’s most ubiquitous symbol. When I reached Wellington, I walked into an enormous street party. I saw 10,000 people in delirious revelry, drinking, chanting, setting off fireworks and producing a deafening cacophony of horns. I saw none of the hateful symbols that I anticipated. Instead, I saw positive messages of peace, love and freedom. And while the faces in the crowd were overwhelmingly white, I was still a bit surprised by the diversity on display.
As I waded toward the centre of the demonstration, I could feel myself melting into the crowd. In a hint of the communal ecstasy that draws people to mass gatherings the world over, I felt my anger and apprehension dissolve. I still viewed myself as a sceptical observer, but I was beginning to feel some sympathy for the protestors. These seemed to be ordinary people shaking off two years of uncertainty, isolation and frustration. If this was only a joyful mass catharsis, what was the harm?
Unsatisfied with just a single visit, I returned on Monday evening.
The crowds were gone, leaving a hard core of several hundred protestors to hold down the fort. The backbone of this group was the archetypal roughneck: white, male, relatively young and likely engaged in some type of physical labour. Many of them looked less than friendly and seemed to eye me with suspicion. I read the messages on their vehicles and on the signs decorating the fence around Parliament. An alarming number were explicitly anti-vaccine. Quite a few promoted absurd conspiracy theories from the QAnon dreamscape. And many, many of the messages that I saw expressed a particular hatred for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was variously described as a tyrant, a traitor, a Communist or the biological son of Fidel Castro. The core identity of the protest came through, and it was rather uglier than my first impression.
In the following days, accounts of harassment and assault by protestors started trickling in. At the same time, we learned more about the convoy organizers and their far-right beliefs. A climate of fear settled on downtown as it became clear that police could not, or would not, enforce basic laws. I continued to observe and document the protest while the so-called Red Zone felt more and more like a foreign country. As the days turned into weeks and the protest turned into an occupation, I grew increasingly furious with the protestors, the police and the multiple levels of government that had failed us. I’m sure many of the protestors were decent people who just wanted a return to “normal.” I’m sure many had no idea who Pat King or Tamara Lich were. But their presence still played into the hands of the far right and eroded our ability to meaningfully confront COVID-19. I began to see their weekend parties as an insult to my city. I soon found myself in the front ranks of every counter-protest.
After three weeks of government paralysis, a combined police force reclaimed Parliament Hill with overwhelming numbers but with modest use of force. Protestors started leaving as soon as police reclaimed the first intersection. I was reminded of the end of a music festival: people hugging, shaking hands and signing each other’s vehicles. They had come together from across Canada and lived side-by-side, recreating a sense of community they had lost during the pandemic. They will no doubt remember those three weeks fondly and will deny that they ever caused more than a minor inconvenience to residents. They failed to understand how much their conception of freedom cost the surrounding community.
Nicolay Hristozov is a biologist and federal public servant from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. He has lived in Ottawa for the last seven years.