February 27, 2022 — ‘Convoyage’: Ottawa Made Boring Again
When our spirit has been broken / When you’ve cut us to the bone/ When you’ve pushed us down as deep as we can go /Can you leave us alone — James Gordon, “Leave Us Alone” (2005).
Right up front, it feels a bit wrong to try to summarize the ignominious end of the anti-vaccine mandate Freedom Convoy when, half a world away in Ukraine, ordinary people are being forced by unimaginable circumstances to become real freedom fighters, having vowed to fight to the end against invading columns of Russian tanks and troops. Yet given that — for my city, and for Canada as a whole — the Ottawa occupation was an unprecedented and seismic event, one that will have ongoing implications for years to come, I feel the urge to chronicle how it was brought to a head and a close (the disruptive protest stage at least, or at least for now).
A lot happened over the last half of what ultimately ended up being a 23-day lawless occupation of downtown Ottawa — a “carnival of intimidation,” as author Andrew Cohen termed it, which by its third weekend had devolved, for two ‘protesters,’ into a much-photographed soak in a hot tub in front of Parliament which made an utter mockery of the city having declared a state of emergency. As did the bouncy castles, barbecues, and street hockey games going on amidst the hundreds of big rigs which remained parked and loudly idling, emitting diesel fuel but somehow never running out of gas. (As noted in the previous post, this was because the city had helpfully provided the occupiers with access to a baseball stadium parking lot, which they astutely converted into a well-stocked logistics and resupply hub. The gas deliveries continued until the very end.) On that third Saturday night of the event, the evening dance party led to much sarcastic commentary about Wellington Street being the hottest nightclub in the city.
Perhaps it was the brazenness of the spectacle which attracted global attention, including enthusiastic expressions of support from Donald Trump (“we want those great Canadian truckers to know that we are with them all the way” against “left-wing fascists”) and the organization of copycat events as far away as New Zealand, where a throng “inspired by Canada’s trucker protests” gathered outside the national parliament. In response, kiwi government officials brilliantly attempted to clear the crowd by broadcasting “irritating music,” including the pre-school earworm “Baby Shark,” the Frozen anthem “Let It Go,” and “Macarena” — an unorthodox strategy which proved exactly as successful as the hands-off approach taken by the Ottawa police. Even the addition of a certain Canadian artist to the just-go-away playlist failed, rather surprisingly, to dislodge the determined protesters: “The [New Zealand] efforts did not appear successful, as the people protesting pandemic measures were heard singing along to a cringe-inducing recorder cover of “My Heart Will Go On,” and standing their ground amid cries of “freedom!”
Back in Ottawa, the siege dragged on. Our illustrious mayor, Jim Watson, ineffectively fumed and fulminated, then doused himself in glory by trying to negotiate with the hostage-takers of the downtown neighbourhood — “a fruitless exercise in appeasement” suggested Cohen and many thousands of others, given the occupiers’ demonstrated disdain for not only masks and vaccines, but also, as noted by Andrew Coyne, “to science, authority, expertise of all kinds: in a word, knowledge.” The mayor followed up on his misguided negotiation gambit by orchestrating the ousting of a political rival, Councillor Diane Deans, as chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board during an online meeting that degenerated into a watched-by-thousands gong show; taking in the unfortunate spectacle, TV Ontario correspondent Matt Gurney concluded that “Ottawa city council is beclowning itself.”
(I don’t mind admitting that I had to look up the word “beclown,” as I’d never seen it before. According to the helpfully specific Urban Dictionary definition, it means: “to make a complete idiot of oneself in public. To behave or speak in such a way, or to make a comment or express an opinion that is so profoundly witless, senseless and obtuse, that you have forever after defined yourself as a person of comical value only. Never to be taken seriously again.” What an amazing definition, and what a versatile word — so appropriate for our times! This enrichment of my word power really cheered me up on a grey day.)
Overall, it was the combination of the unbridgeable divergence of the occupiers’ lunatic fringe views from those of the great majority of Canadians (the latter of whom are respectful of science and, well, reality-based); the paralysis demonstrated by all levels of government in their failure to respond (“condemnation married to inaction” is how Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson described the federal government’s reaction); and the absolute ineptitude of the Ottawa Police that, taken together, made the whole situation so wide open to criticism and mockery. But the abandoned residents of downtown Ottawa found little in the crisis to laugh about, given that their lives were turned upside down by street and business closures, air pollution, constant noise (a week after the event, CBC reported that some residents were being haunted by sleep disruptions and “phantom honking” — described by Ottawa clinical psychologist Dr. Peter Liu as a form of embedded “mild trauma”), and the verbal abuse and intimidation of hooligans who threatened them for simply having the audacity to follow public health guidelines when venturing outdoors.
Finally, the federal government stepped in, invoking the Emergencies Act for the first time ever and using a massive police presence to arrest or evict the raucous crowd (and remove the hundreds of parked trucks) over the course of a dramatic weekend. The authorities’ actions kept my brother-in-law, who was in town visiting, and I and many thousands of others across the country glued to our laptops, and the reaction from the traumatized neighbourhood was overwhelmingly one of relief and gratitude. Indeed, the trending tagline “MAKE OTTAWA BORING AGAIN” struck such a chord that an enterprising Centretown resident had it printed on t-shirts (bilingual, of course — “OTTAWA S’ENNUIE D’ÊTRE ENNUYANT” — literally, “Ottawa Misses Being Boring”) as a fund-raiser for three local non-profit organizations which had been affected by the shutdown: Cornerstone Housing for Women, Minwaashin Lodge (which provides programs and services to Indigenous women and children who have experienced domestic or and other forms of violence), and the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
As of 27 February, the two highest profile leaders of the occupation remain in custody, their bail applications having been denied. A class-action lawsuit regarding the income lost by the downtown businesses which were forcibly shuttered has been initiated, with the damages being sought exceeding $300 million. It will take a lot of time, but it does seem probable that these individuals and others will eventually experience real consequences for their roles in what Ontario folk singer and community activist James Gordon memorably termed, in a song which quickly went viral, the “Crybabies Caravan.” (Gordon’s lyrics don’t pull any punches: “You want the freedom to act with impunity / To ignore the needs of community / I want a vaccine for immunity / From your dumbed down stupidity”).
There have already also been political and reputational consequences: for those such as former Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly, whose leadership throughout the occupation was deemed sorely lacking; for those — such as Mayor Jim Watson, and including Doug Ford, the missing-in-action Ontario premier — who allowed the charade to become entrenched; and for those (Conservative politicians — particularly Pierre Poilievre and Candice Bergen) who enthusiastically cheered them on for cravenly partisan purposes.
Yet shockingly quickly, the episode has been put into the past tense, and starkly into perspective. That loaded word — consequences — immediately fast forwards my thoughts to the current and infinitely graver crisis in Europe, and the ominous warning issued by shameless thug Vladimir Putin, at whose feet the responsibility for this horrific situation begins and ends: that those that might dare to intervene in opposition to Russia’s unprovoked dismembering of Ukraine would face an “immediate response with consequences never seen in history”.
Everything is political, and the consequences for innocent people — over 400,000 of whom have been displaced, only four days after the Russian invasion — are life-threatening.
Post-script: by March 6, only seven days later, over 1.5 million people had fled Putin’s assault on Ukraine.