OTTAWA — The anti-mandate protest here entered its third week Saturday with a late-night concert in front of the Canadian Parliament, complete with a stage, sound system, light show, and porta-potties. In the morning, people lounged in a hot tub. Children played on inflatable slides as volunteers handed out hamburgers and hot chocolate.
They’ve built a village within a city. Who’s going to stop them? Even if you wanted to — and many do — at this point, how can you?
It’s a new frontier of the COVID culture war, and it may be coming soon to a city near you. The movement, started by a group of truckers opposed to a cross-border vaccine mandate, has spread to Europe, where lockdown opponents are trying a similar occupation in Paris. Copycat “Freedom Convoy” protests have risen up in New Zealand and Australia. A California–to–Washington, DC, convoy may be next.
The protesters in the Canadian capital are laying out the blueprint for how to occupy a city. Police can’t kettle you if you’ve parked hundreds of trucks and cars to block them. They won’t risk SWAT-like tactics when you’ve brought families and small children. If police try to starve you of fuel? Flood the streets with people carrying jerricans, some empty and some full, making enforcement a game of whack-a-mole.
No one knows how this will end. Police are badly outnumbered. By standing back and doing little, authorities have kept the peace. But at some point, everyone expects, they will try to move in and forcibly remove the crowd. That’s when the potential for a violent standoff will spike. Police seem to be waiting for the convoy to dwindle to a more manageable size, but that could be days, weeks, or even months away.
The province of Ontario declared a state of emergency Friday and threatened penalties of up to $100,000 or a year in prison for noncompliance. But those powers have so far been wielded only to shut down a sister protest blocking a crucial border crossing between Windsor and Detroit. Police successfully finished clearing out that blockade Sunday morning. But in Ottawa, where the crowd is larger and has been dug in for longer, police have made no such attempt yet.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” one protester asked Saturday, gazing at several downtown blocks full of vehicles covered in anti-mandate slogans and people celebrating.
And the answer is no. When angry crowds descend on a city, it usually ends in violent clashes with police, or the crowd having their moment in the spotlight and then going home. Not in Ottawa. The protesters simply arrived, parked their vehicles across a broad swath of the city encompassing most of downtown, set up camp, and started to party. It’s been 15 days and they haven’t stopped.
“It’s fantastic. I can’t get enough of it. The vibe’s fabulous, everybody’s friendly,” said Barbara, a protester from Hamilton, about five hours away.
It’s Mad Max meets Tim Hortons.
Ottawa’s normal downtown life has completely given way to the convoy. Thousands of people walk the streets draped in Canadian flags and yelling, “Freedom!” There is a lot of honking. It has a distinctly Canadian flavor. People play with hockey sticks in the street. A large chunk of the crowd speaks French. At night you’ll see people drinking Labatt Blue. It’s utterly lawless, but not chaotic. It’s Mad Max meets Tim Hortons. People yield to traffic and say “Sorry” if they bump into you. Police managed to convince the DJ of an after-midnight street party to turn off the music. "We kind've got to meet them halfway, right?" the DJ told the disappointed crowd.
A funny thing happens when you’ve been protesting for a couple of weeks: You start to get pretty brazen about setting up infrastructure. There are barbecue stands and soup kitchens. A bandstand. People paint addresses on their parked vehicles as if they're permanent homes. Some even have mailboxes. Mundane municipal services, like shoveling snow and salting sidewalks, are mixed with revolutionary fervor.
“Personally, I’m prepared to stay here indefinitely,” said Greg, who has been at the protests since day one. He and his wife, Darlean, drove three days from Newfoundland and Labrador, the easternmost province in Canada, and sleep in their van with their two German shepherds. He said he’s not going anywhere until the Canadian government repeals all vaccine mandates. “They cannot tow their way out of this situation. More will come.”
Canada has been one of the more successful countries in the world at blunting the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The per capita death rate in the US is three times higher than the death rate in Canada. About 80% of eligible Canadians are fully vaccinated. Today, there is a system of vaccine mandates for certain workers, such as healthcare workers, and vaccine passports required for nonessential services like restaurants and gyms.
But it was one mandate in particular — requiring truckers to be vaccinated for cross-border travel with the US — that kicked off a protest convoy in the western provinces that snowballed into the situation in Ottawa today. It has morphed into a catch-all anti-government movement.
Ottawa residents are, broadly, at their wits’ end, and wondering where the hell the police are. Over 1,500 retail employees are temporarily out of work. Downtown shops shut down, and an entire mall was shuttered after protesters poured in without masks, in defiance of local mandates. Some daycares are closed, driving parents to exasperation.
If you walk around maskless, you will receive smiles and a warm welcome. But the city is buzzing with stories of residents who wore masks outside and received harassment. One employee of a downtown restaurant that requires proof of vaccination for entry said she was brought to tears last Saturday by the vitriol directed at her from protesters. She said one woman called her a communist whore. When she asked a child of about 10 years old to put his mask on, he told her to go fuck herself.
This is the dual life that Ottawa now lives. Protesters see their demonstration as peaceful, joyous, and even law-abiding. They point to the lack of violence and negotiations with police to clear certain traffic routes. Exasperated residents say it’s outrageous to occupy a downtown core and expect gratitude when you let pedestrians travel through their own city. Thousands of them gathered for a counterprotest Saturday telling the trucker convoy to go home.
Many in Ottawa, a largely liberal city, see the protesters as white supremacists and fascists, which the protesters adamantly deny. It is clear the crowd is mostly white, though not entirely so. People of all ages are taking part. During the day on Saturday, a huge number of children were present. At night that number goes down, but clearly a significant number of children are sleeping in the backs of trucks with their parents.
Some locals are supportive. They donate food and supplies or even their own labor. An “adopt a trucker” program connects protesters to local homes where they can sleep or shower.
Several protesters told BuzzFeed News that they did feel bad for the local residents, but it was a necessary sacrifice. “I’m sure the residents get annoyed with the noise and the people, but it’s something we’ve got to do,” said Barbara. “We’ve been waiting around for two years sitting silently, and it’s time.”
Harassment of reporters is frequent. But enemy number one is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “Fuck Trudeau” flags and signs are ubiquitous. The group Canada Unity put out an incoherent memorandum of understanding demanding that the Canadian Senate and governor general work together to overrule vaccine mandates. After it was ridiculed, the document was withdrawn.
So where are the police? They’re there, constantly patrolling in groups, but rarely getting involved directly. Sometimes police will move in and take down a structure — when protesters built a plywood shack, police had it towed away — or successfully clear a street for traffic.
But their approach is one of harm mitigation rather than trying to exert any real authority. In one sense, they’ve been successful. There has been no wave of violent conflict. (Physically, that is. There are many allegations of verbal abuse, and a judge issued an injunction against incessant honking after the noise got so bad that Mayor Jim Watson called it “tantamount to psychological warfare.”) But the sense that protesters have more or less impunity to do what they want, as police look on powerlessly, is inescapable.
It’s likely too late for local police to flex their muscle. They let the trucks and cars into their downtown core, wrongly believing the protest would last only a weekend. Now the protest has dug in. People on both sides, residents and protesters, expect a full-scale eviction push eventually. Rumors of that day being imminent swell, then pass with inaction. Whenever it does happen, few expect it to go well. Downtown Ottawa feels like “a tinderbox,” said resident Brian Platt.
Until then, there’s no end in sight. The protests will continue daily, dipping midweek and surging on the weekends when people drive in to take part.
“It will dissipate at some point. But this is what it needed to take to get the message out,” said Serge, a trucker from Montreal. “I just hope it doesn’t get into a complicated mess where violence erupts.”