How the Government’s Response to Freedom Convoy Differed From Its Approach With Other Protests in Canada
Just before COVID-19 became the major crisis of the past two years, Canada was in the midst of grappling with railroad blockades by opponents of a pipeline development project in B.C. in early 2020. The weeks-long blockades crippled freight and passenger rail traffic in most of Eastern Canada.
Early in 2022, Canada saw another series of protests, this time in opposition to COVID-19 mandates, with participants setting up camp in downtown Ottawa and others blocking Canada-U.S. border crossings.
But there was a vast difference between how the government dealt with the anti-mandate protest and how it responded to the anti-pipeline protest as well as other protests in recent years.
Here's a look at some of the issues that arose around the various protests and the often conflicting response from authorities.
Dialogue With Protesters
In early 2020, besides the railroad blockades that caused significant harm to the Canadian economy, pipeline protesters blocked road traffic in different cities across Canada on several occasions as well.
The protests begun after the RCMP moved in to dismantle blockades and arrest demonstrators who were blocking access to a Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline worksite that crossed Wet'suwet'en territory in northern B.C.
The project has the
support of all 20 elected First Nation chiefs and band councils along its
route, but it's opposed by some Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and
environmental activists. The B.C. Supreme Court in April 2021 rejected
a legal challenge by the opponents of the project to halt the pipeline.
Police leave after speaking with protesters camped on GO Transit railroad tracks in Hamilton, Ont., as they demonstrate against the construction of a natural gas pipeline in northern B.C., on Feb. 25, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn)
At the height of the protests in February 2020, demonstrators physically blocked Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland from entering Halifax City Hall.
In B.C., protesters blocked entrances to the provincial legislature in Victoria and set up a ceremonial fire on the legislature grounds. The RCMP reported that several of their vehicles were damaged by metal spikes near Smithers in northern B.C.
Global News reported in February 2020 that behind many of the activities and blockades was a small group of activists, and that one of the key organizers was not from Canada. The organizers said they had been involved in many social justice and "anti-capitalism" activities.
"A significant number of us have been involved in organizing around anti-capitalism, migrant justice, indigenous sovereignty, low-income housing, homelessness, and the Downtown Eastside," an organizer told the Vancouver Sun in February 2020. "A second layer is youth who have been activated through climate justice stuff in the past year."
In November 2021, protesters who had set up a blockade at the pipeline site near Houston, B.C., were arrested. The RCMP said "significant efforts to facilitate meaningful dialogue" had failed, and enforced a court order to clear the protests. Police said that as a result of being hemmed in by protesters, pipeline workers' and some Wet'suwet'en band members' "provisions were at critical levels." The arrested protesters were released within days with conditions.
The issue significantly escalated in February 2022 after several individuals, some wielding axes, stormed a pipeline site in northern B.C., attacking security guards, smashing vehicles, and damaging buildings.
Throughout the protests against the Coastal GasLink pipeline in early 2020, the federal and provincial governments pushed for dialogue, but said the other side wasn't receptive.
"Every attempt at dialogue has been made but discussions have not been productive. We cannot have dialogue when only one party is coming to the table," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in February 2020.
But when it came to the Freedom Convoy protests, Trudeau refused to meet with the protesters or send a representative to hear their grievances-despite the protest organizers requesting dialogue multiple times.
Trudeau and some of his cabinet ministers famously "took a knee" during a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest on Parliament Hill on June 5, 2020. This was at the same time that hundreds of ongoing BLM protests in U.S. cities involved riots, violence, and arson causing millions of dollars in damage. Acts of violence also occurred in Canada, including in Montreal where protesters destroyed property and threw projectiles at police in May 2020.
A protester puts a flare through a window in Montreal during a demonstration of the death of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, on May 31, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes)
When asked why he wouldn't meet with the convoy protesters but had met with other protest groups on Parliament Hill such as BLM, Trudeau said it was because he "agreed with the goals" of Black Lives Matter, without condemning any of the violence or communist symbolism displayed during the protests.
Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013 by self-described Marxist activists who were angered by the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Trudeau gave his reason for not meeting with the convoy protesters as his choice "to not go anywhere near protests that have expressed hateful rhetoric, violence towards fellow citizens, and a disrespect, not just of science, but of the front-line health workers."
His stance was later called out by dissenting Liberal MP Joël Lightbound, who said on Feb. 8 that legitimate concerns about pandemic policies shouldn't be dismissed, and that governments shouldn't "demonize those who voiced them." Liberal MP Yves Robillard said a day later that Lightbound had said "exactly what a lot of us think."
The Freedom Convoy movement arose in January when the federal government removed an exemption for truck drivers crossing the Canada-U.S. border from being vaccinated against COVID-19. The move came despite warnings by trucking associations that 26,000 of the 160,000 drivers making the cross-border trip would be sidelined as a result of the mandate. It also came at a time when it was already known that those who are vaccinated can still contract and transmit the virus, and less than two months before many provinces dropped their vaccine mandates.
As the truckers organized convoys to drive to Ottawa to protest the vaccine mandate, many others from across Canada joined the movement to call for an end in general to the COVID mandates and restrictions that they said infringed on their personal liberties and health choices. Included in the protests were many who lost their jobs because they chose not to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
The convoy protesters parked their rigs and vehicles on downtown Ottawa streets, with many saying they would stay put until COVID-19 mandates were lifted. Initially the drivers honked their horns continuously throughout the day, but that stopped after some local residents got a court injunction.
Similar movements were inspired across the country, with convoys of trucks and vehicles blocking some border crossings, including the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor to Detroit, which accounts for hundreds of millions of dollars in trade a day.
During the initial days of the protest in Ottawa, staff at a homeless shelter said they had been harassed by protesters demanding food.
Freedom Convoy organizers said they were peaceful and wouldn't resort to any violence.
Trucks are parked on Wellington Street near the Parliament Buildings as truckers and supporters protest against COVID-19 mandates in Ottawa on Jan. 29, 2022. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)
Throughout the protest, Epoch Times reporters saw no acts of violence or vandalism and generally observed protesters being friendly and well-behaved, while those working in the Parliament Buildings and other nearby places weren't blocked from getting to their workplaces.
In one case witnessed by The Epoch Times on Feb. 13, a large crowd of residents opposed to the protest surrounded and blocked vehicles driven by convoy supporters on a street while shouting profanities and insults. The convoy protesters remained calm and stayed inside their vehicles, avoiding a confrontation with the counter-protesters.
Meanwhile, throughout the weeks of the protest, the prime minister continually linked the Freedom Convoy with racism and Nazism, while denying the organizers' requests for dialogue.
The federal government proceeded to use the heaviest tool in its legal toolbox, invoking the Emergencies Act for the first time since its creation in 1988. The use of the act gave the government and police sweeping powers, including the ability to freeze protesters' financial assets without a court order.
The protesters, many of whom remained in Ottawa for some three weeks-roughly the same length of time that railroads were blocked during the pipeline protests-were met with police wielding batons and pepper spray. At one stage, mounted police charged into the crowd and knocked people down, including a woman who was injured as a result and ended up in hospital.
Close to 200 protesters were arrested in Ottawa. Some were denied bail, including lead organizer Tamara Lich. Lich spent 19 days behind bars before an Ontario Superior Court judge overturned a previous ruling by a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice who had denied her bail. The Superior Court judge said the lower-court judge had made "errors in law," as the charges against Lich are at a "lower scale" than those of other offenders who were granted bail.
Disinformation and misinformation are terms frequently cited by the Liberal government as important problems facing society in the digital age.
Trudeau repeated these terms most recently when justifying the use of the Emergencies Act to deal with the convoy protest. He also alleged that foreign funding for the protest was a major source of concern.
During a press conference on Feb. 23, while talking about the inquiry that would be launched into the use of the Emergencies Act, Trudeau said the inquiry "could also examine the funding influence and disinformation that supported the illegal blockades and occupations, both foreign and domestic."
He made similar comments on other occasions.
"The concerns expressed by a few people gathered in Ottawa right now are not new, not surprising, are heard, but are a continuation of what we've unfortunately seen in disinformation and misinformation online, and God knows what else that go with the tinfoil hats," he said at a press conference on Jan. 31.
"These illegal blockades are being heavily supported by individuals in the United States and from elsewhere around the world. We see that roughly half of the funding that is flowing to the barricaders here is coming from the United States," he said in the House of Commons on Feb. 17.
His cabinet ministers have also made scathing and incriminating remarks about the convoy protesters.
(L-R) Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti, and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair attend a press conference in Ottawa on Feb. 14, 2022. (Hailey Sani/Public Domain)
Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said on Feb. 16 that "we have seen strong evidence that it was the intention of those who blockaded our ports of entry in a largely foreign-funded, targeted, and coordinated attack."
While defending the use of the Emergencies Act, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino on Feb. 16 claimed that there are links between those arrested on serious criminal charges, including plotting murder, in Coutts, Alta., and the leaders of the protest in Ottawa.
"Several of the individuals at Coutts have strong ties to a far-right extreme organization with leaders who are in Ottawa," Mendicino said.
Public Safety Canada, which Mendicino is in charge of, oversees national law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). However, when asked about the source of his conclusions, Mendocino didn't cite information from these agencies but rather information from social media, which is notorious for disinformation.
"It's certainly, I think, the conclusion of many individuals and Canadians who are taking a look at social media, and it's extremely concerning," he said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, whose party joined forces with the Liberals in the House of Commons to approve the use of the Emergencies Act, also disparaged the convoy protest, saying that it was foreign-funded and its aim was to topple the government. On Feb. 17, he said in the House that the protest "is a movement funded by foreign influence" and that it "feeds on disinformation."
"Its goal is to disrupt our democracy," he said.
Expert testimony in parliamentary committees, however, contradicted the claims by the Liberal government and NDP leader. In addition, despite allegations of serious criminal activity such as overthrow of the government, by the time the Emergencies Act was revoked on Feb. 23, no charges more serious than mischief had been laid against any protester in Ottawa.
Barry MacKillop, deputy director of intelligence at the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC), told the House Finance Committee on Feb. 24 that the donations to the Freedom Convoy were from ordinary people who supported the cause.
GoFundMe, which hosted a fundraiser for the Freedom Convoy amounting to over $10 million before it was removed under pressure by Canadian officials, said at the Public Safety Committee hearing on March 3 that 88 percent of the funds originated in Canada and that 86 percent of the donors were from Canada.
The Oxford dictionary defines disinformation as "a form of propaganda involving the dissemination of false information with the deliberate intent to deceive or mislead."
It's not clear what definition government officials use for this term. While they continued to cite disinformation as a major source of concern, the allegations against the convoy protesters, including the prevalence of foreign funding and the intent to overthrow the government, were themselves information that was often contradicted or not backed up but was still cited as part of the justification for the use of legal tools.
There have been other examples of claims by federal officials and those from different levels of government about the protests or those opposing pandemic policies that weren't backed up or were later contradicted by what transpired.
Protesters demonstrate against COVID-19 mandates and restrictions in Ottawa on Feb. 9, 2022. (Jonathan Ren/The Epoch Times)
In an interview with a French-language TV program last September, Trudeau used derogatory language to describe people who don't want to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
"They are extremists who don't believe in science. They're often misogynists, also often racists. It's a small group that muscles in, and we have to make a choice in terms of leaders, in terms of the country. Do we tolerate these people?" Trudeau told La semaine des 4 Julie on Sept. 16, 2021.
However, just a month before that interview, in August 2021, Abacus Data president Bruce Anderson had said that based on its latest survey, the typical "vaccine hesitant" person is a 42-year-old Ontario woman who votes Liberal. It's hard to believe a woman can be a "misogynist," and it's doubtful Trudeau would consider those who vote for his party to be "racists."
Imposing vaccine mandates was one of the policies that the Liberals campaigned on in the September 2021 election.
During a Feb. 7 press conference, Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi, who represents Ottawa Centre, cited an alleged attempted arson incident in an Ottawa building and linked it to the convoy protest. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson also cited the alleged incident on the same day and called for the protesters to leave the city.
They made the claims despite the fact there was no evidence that protesters were involved in the alleged incident.
The alleged arson, which was reported by an account on Twitter, involved many peculiarities, including that police were not notified until the day after the incident, according to the original poster. More than a month later, no protester has been charged in relation to the incident.
An Alberta government-commissioned inquiry into campaigns against the province's energy industry found that between 2003 and 2019, Canadian-based environmental initiatives received $1.28 billion in foreign funding, while noting that the estimate is likely understated. Of that amount, $54.1 million was used specifically for "anti-Alberta resource development activity."
The inquiry met with obstacles along its path, including court challenges by some groups aiming to halt it. But it eventually completed its probe and made its findings public in October 2021.
One of the inquiry's findings was that a U.S.-based organization working to end oilsands development, which receives funding from two major U.S.-based foundations, claimed that it "played a role in helping to unseat the Conservative Party in Alberta and nationally."
The federal government didn't voice concerns about these findings, yet it levelled unsubstantiated allegations of foreign money going to the convoy protests. In addition, multiple House of Commons committees have been held to probe issues related to Freedom Convoy, including sources of funding.
Statue Desecration and Arson
In the early days of the convoy protest, some protesters put a flag and a protest sign on the Terry Fox memorial statue in downtown Ottawa, which were removed quickly. The Ottawa Police Service launched investigations into various incidents including desecration of the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that lies in front of the memorial. And some protesters reportedly urinated on the memorial. In the following days, some protesters, including veterans, guarded the memorial to ensure no such incident recurred.
Veterans clear snow and ice off the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as protests against COVID-19 restrictions happen on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 12, 2022. (The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn)
Social media images showed Nazi or other hateful symbols being carried in the early days of the protest in a couple of instances. Videos on social media showed protesters telling those carrying hateful flags or signs to leave.
But Trudeau continually characterized the Freedom Convoy as a racist movement, saying the protesters carried "Nazi symbolism" and "racist imagery" and desecrated statues.
"We won't give in to those who fly racist flags. We won't cave to those who engage in vandalism or dishonour the memory of our veterans," he said on Jan. 31. He made the remarks while addressing the overall convoy protest, reiterating that he wouldn't be meeting with the protesters.
This reaction was in sharp contrast to Trudeau's response to the many acts of arson of churches across Canada following the discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of some Indian residential schools in 2021.
In his response to the incidents, Trudeau condemned the specific acts of violence but acknowledged how the arsonists must feel.
"It is unacceptable and wrong that acts of vandalism and arson are being seen across the country, including against Catholic churches," he said on July 2, 2021.
"I understand the anger that's out there against the federal government, against institutions like the Catholic Church. It is real and it's fully understandable, given the shameful history that we are all becoming more and more aware of and engaging ourselves to do better as Canadians."
In recent years many incidents of vandalism or destruction of statues have occurred as well, including the toppling of the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Montreal in 2020 and in Hamilton in 2021, but these acts didn't prompt government condemnation of the broader movement.
The statue of Sir John A. MacDonald lies headless on the grass after it was torn down following a demonstration in Montreal on Aug. 29, 2020. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
In the summer of 2020, when Rebel News went to Nathan Phillips Square in downtown Toronto to interview protesters with the Afro-Indigenous Rising Collective who had set up camp with tents on the square for a couple of weeks, some of the protesters physically hit the reporters or tried to slap their recording equipment out of their hands.
Law enforcement's response was to expel the Rebel News reporters from the public property.
"This isn't probably the best time to be coming here and doing this," an onsite police officer told a Rebel News reporter in a video shot by the outlet. "I understand what you're trying to do. It's not the best time. So, like I said, so for today, City Hall security, and their staff, they're trespassing you, so we're going to have to escort you off the property."
In contrast, in April 2021, a Peel Regional Police officer was suspended for telling a Global News reporter to leave a group of protesters alone who had gathered outside a gym closed due to COVID-19 policies and who wanted the gym to reopen.
After a video of the incident was posted online, police issued a statement saying the officer had been suspended, and the reporter said he received a written apology from a senior official with the police service.
During the convoy protest in Ottawa, many protesters said they didn't want to talk to reporters because they believed the media wouldn't portray them fairly. However, unlike Rebel News's experience in Toronto, where protesters didn't want to talk to its reporters and where police said its reporters were trespassing, officials often voiced support for reporters in Ottawa. Mendicino said during a Public Safety Committee meeting on Feb. 25 that he personally reached out to some journalists "and urged them to be very careful."
Noé Chartier, Zachary Stieber, Richard Moore, and The Canadian Press contributed to this report.
From Epoch Times/March 10, 2022