February 6–8, 2022 — “There May Not Be a Policing Solution to this Demonstration”
To say that things have gotten weird in my city is a massive understatement.
It’s hard to know where to begin on this — day 10 of the massive anti-vaxx…event. “They are terrorizing our residents, torturing them with incessant honking, threatening them and preventing them from leading their lives” summarized Ottawa Councillor Diane Deans this past weekend, at an emergency meeting of the Ottawa Police Services Board. “People cannot go to work or open their businesses. They cannot sleep, walk, shop, go to medical appointments or enjoy their neighbourhood.” A local resident, quoted in a Globe and Mail report, described the experience of living through the past week as “an ever present imminent, physical and mental community threat.”
Suffice it to say that a counter-protester with a homemade “Make Ottawa Boring Again” sign was recently trending on local social media.
At what points did this bizarre honking incident cross the lines from protest to well-ensconced occupation (a colleague who checked out the scene on Saturday evening described it as “a tailgate party at the wrong time of year, with stockpiles of hot dog buns taller than me”) to political insurrection to siege? It’s a question to which there are multiple correct answers.
Already, we are closing in on a week past Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly’s much-quoted and rather unfortunate suggestion that “there may not be a policing solution to this demonstration” — a remarkable statement which may have directly compelled Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason to write a column entitled “Ottawa police deliver a masterclass in how not to handle a protest.” More and more, it would seem that the funky local Afrobeat band Souljazz Orchestra hit the nail on the head on their 2019 album Chaos Theories, by asserting that “we got to police the police.” Though in this case, the required scrutiny is needed to ensure a minimum level of competence, rather than to protect from abuse of power.
Mason’s column came a day after the federal Conservatives resoundingly turfed their party leader, Erin O’Toole, who only 18 months earlier had received more votes than Justin Trudeau (just not distributed in a manner which would have resulted in the Conservatives forming government). O’Toole’s interim replacement, Candice Bergen, has previously been photographed in a Make America Great Again ball cap; she was quick to post photos of herself with the crowd which had turned downtown Ottawa into horn-filled gridlock — or, as Bergen described them, “passionate, patriotic and peaceful” [individuals who] “deserve to be heard and they deserve respect.” She made this statement after the much-circulated images of Confederate and Nazi flag-wavers amongst the crowd (but before the arrival of a protester on horseback with a Trump 2024 flag).
This social media posturing quickly led to a game of Conservative selfie one-upmanship. Only hours after O’Toole’s unceremonious ouster, a photo of a group of Saskatchewan Conservative members of parliament — including former party leader Andrew Scheer — with a street-blocking trucker was posted by parliamentarian Kevin Waugh, an act which provided him with more attention than anything else he has done in his invisible parliamentary career. “It’s great to see Canadians championing freedom on Parliament Hill,” gushed Waugh.
Many others were far less impressed, and were quick to point out that what had originally been described as a vaccine mandate protest by unvaxxed truckers has morphed into an “occupying force” raging against every sort of pandemic-related restriction (regardless of whether those measures are within the federal sphere of responsibility) and led by, as Les Whittington of The Hill Times termed them, “right-wing extremists of the most troubling, ugly variety… organized by white nationalists and rabble-rousers steeped in paranoid racist conspiracy theories and talk of government overthrow.” This basket of deplorables, to resurrect Hillary Clinton’s memorable phrase, have dug in to “inject their violence-tinged, hate-filled, white supremacy messaging into the public arena.”
The links to extremism have been very widely reported — if nothing else, the Saskatchewan photo shoot served to magnify this media coverage, with multiple accounts documenting the views of those providing the protesters with funding and logistical support (not to mention profane and racist flags). Writing in The Globe and Mail, for example, columnist Andrew Coyne unequivocally criticized the Conservatives’ judgment in so unquestioningly supporting an event “organized and led by documented racists and QAnon-style nutters, unrepresentative of the vast majority of truckers and indeed having little to do with truckers or even vaccine mandates” as ”not just a moral disgrace, but [a position which] will do lasting damage to the party.”
(It’s worth noting that a small number of Conservative politicians have firmly denounced the spectacle. They include Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson, who quit the Conservative caucus in response to its support for what he described as “the continued lawless occupation [and] hostage-taking of the downtown core,” and Shelby Kramp-Neuman, member of parliament for the Eastern Ontario riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington, who criticized the protest for having become “two-bit hooliganism hiding behind a façade of veiled legitimacy.”)
Even Jim Watson, Ottawa’s bland, mild-mannered and conflict-averse mayor, had, after 5 or 6 days of incessant horn honking, read the prevailing winds of public opinion sufficiently to know that it was time for him to come out and say that enough was enough. The suddenly-feisty mayor ripped into the Conservatives’ photo session and overall cheerleading for the “illegal action” as an “absolute disgrace.” But it’s still fill-out-a-form-and-consult-and-fill-out-more-forms Ottawa — lest anyone mistakenly assume that strong words would lead to immediate action, it took another 3 days of honking and general mayhem for Watson to declare a state of emergency.
For those following the lengthy timeline, this not-quite-timely City of Ottawa proclamation came late in the second weekend of protests, earlier in which it was revealed that the demonstrators had been inadvertently allowed to set up “a semi-permanent camp” in the city-owned baseball stadium parking lot, east of downtown, as a command centre and distribution point for providing protesters with food, propane canisters, tents, wood, myriad other supplies and amenities (nighttime bonfires, pizza ovens, “three working saunas”…). With these rather embarrassing revelations, the Ottawa Police saw fit to announce that deliveries of gas and propane, food and other “material supports” to the protesters would no longer be allowed, and that bylaw infractions would, henceforth, be more routinely ticketed. On day 10. In the same city where two little girls had their lemonade stand near the Rideau Canal shut down in less than half a day in 2016 for not following “proper internal process” and obtaining a permit. In the same city where, in spring 2021, a family was fined $880 by bylaw officers for violating pandemic restrictions by allowing their masked 14-year-old son to skateboard by himself in a park on his birthday.
“What is to be done?” asked the famous political pamphlet in which Lenin advocated for the formation of a dedicated political vanguard (any similarities between the Bolsheviks and the current FREEDOM-loving, bouncy castle-enjoying libertarian revolutionaries is purely coincidental). But surely the more pressing question, on the minds of deafened downtown residents, is when will this end? The inevitable analysis of the situation, this morning on CBC radio, focused in part on the difficult logistical puzzle of actually extracting the parked vehicles from downtown. This given the expected lack of cooperation from the narcissistic individuals who drove the trucks there in the first place and subsequently engaged in actions ranging from mischief and excessive noise (including fireworks) to harassment and intimidation to property damage, including hate crimes and the caught-on-camera attempted arson of an apartment building by setting fire to its lobby.
To date, Chief Sloly has remained stoically unwilling to speculate on when life in the city might return to normal. Asked, for example, at the emergency Police Services Board meeting when the occupation might end, Sloly unexpectedly turned philosophical. “People would like to know when there will be an end to COVID,” he responded.
On February 7 — occupation day 11 — a temporary court injunction prohibiting the usage of vehicle horns in the downtown area was granted in response to a legal request heroically brought forward by 21-year-old city resident Zexi Li — “just barely an adult,” in her own words, and yet seemingly the only truly courageous and effective adult in the room — and her lawyer, Paul Champ — with no involvement by the City of Ottawa or the Ottawa police. The honking, for now, has been silenced. Three hundred additional police officers have been brought in. Mayor Watson has forwarded, to both the prime minister and the Ontario premier, the city police chief’s request for an additional 1,800 officers and civilian reinforcements — the number of personnel deemed necessary to “quell the insurrection that the Ottawa Police Service is not able to contain”. Hundreds of protesters and their vehicles remain very much in place.
In the latest plot twist, tow truck operators on contract to the city are, according to CBC reporting on February 8, taking “a hard pass” on requests to remove the over 400 vehicles that remain illegally parked, reportedly out of concerns that becoming involved will result in backlash from the trucking industry. These fears appear to be quite justified: the Ottawa tow truck operator who removed an unauthorized shack from a downtown park after being requested to do so by organizers of the occupation received “hundreds of calls, including death threats” from protest supporters who mistakenly assumed he was acting in response to a police order.
“This group is a threat to our democracy” is how Councillor Deans characterized the situation, not to put too fine a point on it. “What we’re seeing is bigger than just a city of Ottawa problem. This is a nationwide insurrection. This is madness.”