The following is a personal essay by John R. Kennedy.
I spent eight days in Ottawa covering the 2022 occupation and dutifully kept my personal opinions out of my reporting. (I was on assignment for the Daily Mail.) In private conversations, though, I made my opinions well known.
Now, eight months after the trucks rolled out of the capital’s downtown core, there are forces still trying to portray the occupation as “a peaceful protest.” There are people – most of whom were not there – on social media trying to counter testimony at hearings into the use of the Emergencies Act with a false narrative.
I’m not going to weigh in on whether the Emergencies Act should have been used – that’s for someone else to determine. But, I am going to share a bit of what I experienced over eight days on the frozen streets of downtown Ottawa.
Let me be clear: There is no question that the occupiers had to be cleared out. It absolutely had to be done and should have been done much, much sooner.
Oh, and this was absolutely an occupation, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the act or process of taking possession of a place or area.” I’d go further and call it domestic terrorism, which the FBI defines as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”
“A PEACEFUL PROTEST”
Despite what occupiers and their supporters want you to believe, this was not a “peaceful protest.” Inflating bouncy castles, doing your own snow clearing and having a no-killing-anyone policy doesn’t make your protest peaceful.
It’s like saying you perpetrated a “peaceful home invasion” because you didn’t tie anyone up and you brought your own food.
The occupation of Ottawa was much more than an inconvenience or a nuisance for the people who live and work in the impacted neighbourhoods. It was traumatizing.
Horns sounded throughout the night. Music and shouting didn’t stop. The hum of dozens of truck engines and generators – and the stench of diesel fuel – was incessant.
Think about how annoyed you get when a car alarm goes off on the street outside your house or your neighbour’s music is playing with a little too much bass. Now imagine that all day, all night for nearly three weeks.
Imagine having to navigate around concrete barricades to get to your home or business. Imagine being shouted at or followed down your street and threatened by people with opposing views. Imagine being a student with a retail job at the Rideau Centre who can’t go to work because the mall had to be shut down.
And let’s not forget that, at any time – let alone during a pandemic – having someone get in your face and scream at you is a form of assault. (It’s especially troubling in February when you can literally see their breath.)
No, this was never a “peaceful protest” by people singled out for oppression or discrimination. These people faced nothing more than other Canadians faced. They made personal choices, largely based on their religious beliefs, that impacted their freedom to dine in restaurants, go to the cinema or get on an airplane – none of which are guaranteed (or mentioned) in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Comparing their “plight” to those of Indigenous, Black or LGBTQ+ communities – as some have done – is ignorant and repugnant.
Like the vast majority of Canadians, I was happy to do my part to protect myself and others from COVID-19 by getting vaccinated. It felt like the smart, safe and patriotic thing to do. I was grateful to live in a country where I had the choice and it was free and readily available. If the government had told me that it was obligatory to get vaccinated, I would probably have joined a protest.
None of this really matters, though, because the occupation of Ottawa was not really about public health measures. Not only were vaccinations always a choice, the vaccination programs were administered by provincial governments, not Justin Trudeau’s government. Mask mandates were implemented and enforced by provincial and municipal governments, not Justin Trudeau’s government. And, even if Justin Trudeau himself had stepped outside and declared an end to federal travel restrictions, nothing would have changed for unvaccinated truckers because the U.S. had its own border policy at the time.
No, the occupation, with its signs, banners and chants of “Fuck Trudeau,” was a display of the anger of a relatively small number of Canadians – mostly rural and religious – who felt ignored and dismissed. It was the culmination of months of stewing and feeling wronged while soaking up misinformation and wild conspiracy theories on social media.
You may have noticed I’ve used the word “religious” here twice already. This is important because, although it’s not politically correct to point out, the occupation of Ottawa was fuelled by religious fundamentalism. The names God and Jesus figured prominently on signs and banners and were ubiquitous in rants. There were daily prayer circles.
As I reported here for the Daily Mail, Merle Doherty of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada was part of a team that traveled to Ottawa to support the occupiers. “We walk up and down the street and pray with people,” he told me. “There are many, many Christians here and it’s wonderful to meet them, pray with them.”
At the base camp on Coventry Road, volunteer Angel Godsoe confirmed to my colleague and I that “there are churches who are also getting involved” by donating food, supplies and housing.
When one man I interviewed defended his anti-vaccine views with “it’s my body, my choice,” I couldn’t resist asking if that also applies, in general, to women. He processed the question for a few beats. “Are you trying to compare getting the jab with killing a fetus? God doesn’t want us to do either.”
ON THE GROUND
In the eight months since the occupation of Ottawa ended, I have heard a lot of people weighing in. Most were not there. They knew only what they saw in news coverage and on social media.
I was one of those people until Friday, Feb. 11, when I was asked to cover the occupation for the Daily Mail.
My assignment meant I had to return – in February! – to the city where I was born and raised and to the typically pristine and sleepy area around Parliament Hill that I knew so well.
I arrived in Ottawa early in the evening and, after I checked into my hotel in the heart of the occupied zone, I took a walk around to see things for myself. The crisp winter air was heavy with the stench of diesel fuel, the smell of marijuana and the sound of truck horns, music and chants of “freedom!” (or, more accurately, “freeeeeeeedommm!”).
I saw no swastikas (these had been spotted on the first weekend of the occupation) but I saw a lot of Canadian flags (including many that had been altered or defaced by the protesting “patriots”) and a surprising number of Quebec flags. There were many anti-Trudeau messages and a few denouncing Quebec premier François Legault (who works 450 km northeast of Ottawa).
Overall, the atmosphere was festive, for lack of a better word. Hundreds of people were dancing to music on Wellington in the shadow of the Peace Tower and in the intersection of Sussex and Rideau. There were groups of people huddled around fires for warmth. Others were grilling meat on barbecues.
If I’m being honest, I was initially impressed. I lived in Ottawa for the first 26 years of my life and never saw so many people in the downtown core in February.
It was almost as though it was a “peaceful protest.”
It wasn’t. As the night went on, the vitriol came out. Anyone who wasn’t a supporter was a “fag” or a “liberal pussy.” Sleeping was almost impossible because of the constant noise. And everywhere I went in the days that followed I saw shuttered businesses. As I was picking up prepared meals and snacks at a nearby Farm Boy, an argument broke out at the entrance between security guards and occupiers who wanted to enter without masks. The store announced it was closing early.
Of course, my assignment was to report on the occupation and to tell the stories of the people responsible. How I felt personally about these people and what they were doing had to be put aside.
What struck me was that the occupation was not as big as it may have seemed from the mainstream news coverage. Most of the huge crowds we saw on our screens were people who joined the protest/party at night and on weekends and then went home. (My hotel was full of such people.) Many of those in the crowd were simply curious. I also met a number of homeless men who said they were camping out simply because there was food, drink, fires and people to talk to.
The frosty weekday sunshine exposed a core group of occupiers – maybe a couple of hundred people. Although I did not do a census, it was clear that very few were, in fact, truckers from Western Canada. (This was part of the narrative of a “convoy” of working people crucial to the supply chain who were standing up for all of us.)
In fact, most of the vehicles parked in what was referred to as “the red zone” had license plates from Ontario and Quebec and were owned by companies or drivers from these provinces. (A surprising number of the drivers I spoke to admitted they didn’t actually work in the winter anyway because they haul crops.)
The mantra was “peaceful protest.” Virtually everyone I spoke to uttered the phrase at some point. Organizers went to great lengths to get everyone to promote the “peaceful protest” narrative. (The irony of being told to toe the line while protesting government mandates was perhaps lost on them.)
So, what was the occupation about? It seemed like an easy question but getting clear answers was challenging.
First, I had to convince people I approached that I was not “one of them” – presumably one of those lyin’ liberal mainstream media types. (It’s important to note that in the minds of these people, only left-leaning journalists have agendas.)
I was frequently schooled by protesters that “the networks” are all paid off by the Trudeau government (in fact, neither Global or CTV got a penny from the fund – and the CBC, as the public broadcaster, has always received public money).
According to some of the protesters, the Trudeau government gave $6 billion to the media, (in fact, it’s $600 million over five years). None seemed to know that the fund is, in fact, an extension of one introduced by Stephen Harper’s government and that it is largely helping publications in the small communities that many of protesters come from.
When I challenged people on their claim that the media was paid to look the other way, they would say “Google it. Trudeau admitted it.” So I did. On May 4, 2019, Trudeau said: “You sometimes hear about liberal bias in the media these days, how they’re constantly letting our government off the hook for no good reason. Frankly, I think that’s insulting. It’s clear that they let us off the hook for a very good reason: Because we pay them $600 million. You don’t get stellar headlines like these without greasing the wheels a bit.”
Never mind that Trudeau was making a joke at the annual Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner, where politicians traditionally give funny, satirical speeches to a room full of journalists. Never mind that the punchline to his joke was a montage of negative headlines about him. For the protesters – who love to accuse the media of taking their words out of context – the context of Trudeau’s remarks was irrelevant.
The very same people who were complaining that their version of events wasn’t being told by the mainstream media were surprisingly reluctant to tell their version of events. They heckled and threatened TV reporters and shouted slurs and expletives into live mics. They refused to answer questions because it was easier to call the reporter a “liar” and hold up a “Fuck Trudeau” sign.
Several times during the week I was mistaken for CTV News reporter Glen McGregor and shouted down. (I can’t speak for him but I’m flattered that we’re evidently doppelgängers.)
While interviewing one trucker from Western Ontario, his wife stood beside him furiously scrolling on her phone. She suddenly interrupted our chat and held up a photo of me and Justin Trudeau that she found on my website. “Stop talking to him!” she told her husband. “He’s one of them.”
I pointed out that on the very same webpage where she found the photo of me and Trudeau she would find photos of me with Brian Mulroney, Conrad Black and famously conservative celebrities like Dean Cain and Jon Voight. I explained that I’m open to meeting people of all political beliefs, whether I agree with them or not. (She evidently didn’t feel the same and shut down the interview.)
After some negotiations, my colleague and I were granted access to the base camp that had taken over part of a municipal parking lot on Coventry Road. I was told I could take photos except in one of the tents marked “office” and in the area behind the tents (where it appeared jerry cans were being filled with fuel for distribution).
You can see these exclusive photos here. They show just how organized this occupation was and how much support it had from people, businesses and church groups.
CAN WE TALK?
It wasn’t all vitriolic spittle and pointed fingers. A number of the occupiers agreed to talk to me and, to be fair, some were very friendly. (One invited me into his cab to see where he slept, to which I quipped: “Shouldn’t you buy me a drink first?” Crickets.)
When I asked the occupiers and their supporters what they were protesting, the answer was usually “the mandates” – and, when pressed, they’d specify rules about masking in public and vaccine passports.
I was genuinely curious about the ubiquitous chants of “Freedom!” Were these people shouting the word because they were demanding some freedom they believed they lost or because they knew how lucky they were to have the freedom to occupy streets in the national capital?
When I asked why they were shouting the word, the answers were the same: “Because our freedoms are being taken away” or “we need to get our freedom back.” When I asked what freedoms they felt they were losing or had lost, I never got a clear answer. I wasn’t being facetious. I was honestly curious.
People walked away or insulted me. One said I was a “fucking idiot” if I didn’t know. A few handed me a photocopy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms without offering to point out the specific rights and freedoms at issue.
Over the next eight days, I tried to find someone who could calmly and rationally tell me what constitutional freedoms they had lost. They deflected. They insulted.
Several people simply muttered something about “the forced jabs.” I asked one woman who “forced” her to get the vaccine. She replied “Trudeau!” and stormed off. A man, after asking if I was “one of those pansy-ass libtards,” explained that he was being “forced” to get the “jab” by his employer.
As I reported here, one man told me: “If the government can tell you that you’re forced to take a shot, why can’t they tell you that you’re forced to give a kidney? … If you don’t want to get vaccinated you shouldn’t be forced into it by anybody.”
Forced? Again, vaccines were always optional. And the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not say we have a constitutional right to eat in a restaurant, fly in a plane or cross an international border.
In addition to all the would-be constitutional experts I spoke to, there were a lot of amateur lawyers. When a video clip started circulating on social media showing one of the organizers, Tamara Lich, being arrested, I hit the streets to get reactions. I was told the arrest was “bogus,” “invalid” and “unconstitutional” because, clearly, the arresting officer “did not read her Miranda rights.” (Miranda rights are an American thing.)
Throughout the week I heard all sorts of conspiracy theories (too many to list here) and mind-boggling nonsense about vaccines. People clutching their made-in-China iPhones loaded with data-collecting apps were only too happy to lecture me on how the pandemic was created by China and exploited by governments around the world to collect data.
Most frightening, several people told me COVID-19 was not real and the pandemic was, in fact, a plot by governments to bring down the economy to gain more control of the population. (No one could explain how every single government on the planet – including those of warring nations – agreed to this.)
For the sake of my mental health, I needed to find some fun in all the fury. Realizing that I was witnessing a sausage fest was my moment of zen.
Clearly lost on most of the protesters was just how homoerotic the occupation was, particularly on weekdays. Men dancing in the street together to George Michael’s “Freedom” and singing along to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going To Take It.” Men shouting “Fuck Trudeau” or holding signs with messages like “Lock Trudeau Up So He Can Have All The Man Dates He Wants.” Men huddled around a makeshift camp fire eating hot dogs. Men enjoying a hot tub together.
But, this was not a Pride fest. When protesters discovered or decided that someone was not a supporter, they resorted to homophobic taunts. “Fag,” “homo” and “cocksucker” were common slurs.
On the day the police moved in, a woman who had been shoved back came over to me and expressed her shock at being “assaulted” by police. Tired and bothered, I calmly said: “Then go home.”
This sparked an outburst of oddly homophobic and transphobic slurs that attracted a small mob of “peaceful protesters” around me. It was suggested that I “call Caitlyn Jenner” to see if I can acquire “her balls.” Remember, I simply suggested the woman “go home” if she didn’t want to be assaulted by police.
Ah yes, the police…
SERVE & PROTECT
The criticism of Ottawa Police and its handling of the occupation has been well documented and I won’t add anything here other than to say it is justified. They dropped the ball.
I will say that officers had an obligation to allow fuel to be brought to the occupied area. It was February in Ottawa and people could have froze to death inside those vehicles.
What stunned me was the reaction of protesters who remained even after being given advance notice that police were going to finally move in.
On the morning of Feb. 18, as police moved in, I heard shouts of “gestapo!” (a comparison that is as repugnant as it is inaccurate) and chants of statements like “What is this, China?” and “Welcome to Communist Canada.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if these people understood how foolish they sounded. Did they think China would have let them occupy the core of Beijing for nearly three weeks (or for three hours?) Did they think Russian police forces would have distributed leaflets to protesters giving them 48 hours notice to leave the area before they moved in? Did they think North Korea would have allowed them to hold a dance party in a major intersection?
How long would a “Fuck Putin” banner last in central Moscow?
(Quick, name one country that would let you or me bring containers of explosive liquid to the window of the leader’s office and keep them there for almost three weeks.)
When police finally moved in, I heard protesters shouting insults and slurs at the men and women who were carrying out their duties. I was right there in the thick of it and I saw officers who showed incredible restraint, patience and professionalism. These “peaceful” protesters wanted nothing more than for police to play into their hands and instigate violence.
The fact that the streets were cleared without anyone being injured or killed is something we should commend. Too bad it wasn’t done on Day 1.
To the people of Ottawa who are reliving the occupation via the hearings this month, I feel for you. I still have flashbacks to what I experienced – and I was merely a visitor who could easily have left at any moment.
What happened in Ottawa in February 2022 was a fire ignited by opportunists who recognized the anger of conservative Christians and right-wing bloggers, fuelled by misinformation and hate.
Ottawa residents were patient and surprisingly calm. One day, I spotted a young man standing in the heart of the occupied area holding a sign that read: “You’ve Made Your Point. Leave Our City Alone. We Aren’t All Lawmakers. This Is No Longer A Protest. This Is An Occupation.”
Freedom of speech and the freedom to protest peacefully are very important. The occupiers wanted to be heard and they were.
And now, eight months later, the citizens of Ottawa want to be heard.
We need to listen. And, we need to make sure something like this is never allowed to happen again.