OTTAWA — When Ottawa police let hundreds of protest vehicles drive into the downtown core of the nation's capital, they did so under the seemingly reasonable assumption that there was no way the demonstrators could stick around in the streets of a city where temperatures regularly dip below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
The police were wrong. Backed by donations of cash and supplies, the anti–vaccine mandate protesters have created an off-book supply chain to keep hundreds or thousands of people clothed and fed indefinitely.
They do this with the help of a separate site — a parking lot full of vehicles and tents — that serves as a sort of supply depot and logistics center. Staged next to a baseball park on Coventry Road, a few miles east of downtown, it is essentially sanctioned by the city. Police have abandoned hopes of removing protesters for now and are adopting a strategy of containing and keeping watch.
That is not to say that police have left it entirely alone. Earlier this month, dozens of armed officers executed a nighttime raid on the site, seizing a cache of fuel.
While the vibe downtown feels akin to a Canada Day festival, the Coventry Road site has more of a quasi-military feel. Journalists are, generally, not welcome. There have been no reports of violence, but intense-looking guys staring down reporters sends the message.
“I got the distinct impression that it would be way, way better for me to be somewhere else. I left,” Matt Gurney wrote in the Line.
One of the first things photographer David Kawai and I saw on Saturday afternoon when we arrived at the site was a white van with “FREDOM” taped on the side. It wasn’t a typo. The owner of the van said he just ran out of tape.
When I approached the registration tent — there is a registration tent — a man who lived nearby said his 16-year-old son wanted to come and volunteer. “He’s a strong boy, he can lift stuff for you,” the man said. “The only thing is, he can’t drive.”
I identified myself as a reporter with BuzzFeed News. This kicked off a tense and confused few minutes where several people surrounded me, saying they needed to determine if I was good media or bad media. One woman demanded I prove I was who I said I was. It wasn’t clear who was actually making the final call, but eventually one man stood up for us. We were allowed to enter.
The first tent we went into felt like an administrative area, complete with tables, chairs, supplies, and whiteboards listing names and numbers of key contacts. Another whiteboard listed French and English directions ranging from handling fuel to dealing with police (“Stay calm/Restez calme,” “Right to remain silent/Vous avez le droit de garder le silence”). Signs with slogans like “Natural immunity is God’s science” sat in the corner.
After a bit more haggling over access, we were allowed to enter the main tent. It felt like entering a small supermarket. Tables overflowed with supplies. Fresh produce, canned goods, soap, winter clothing, you name it, it was on offer. Dozens of people were buzzing about. Some were working, some were sitting and enjoying a meal.
“This is just a place for people to come and warm up, eat,” said Carlo, an organizer from Montreal who didn't want to give his last name. “It’s very heartwarming. It’s shocking, actually, to see the amount of support that we get.”
Carlo said all of the supplies were donated. Volunteers transport them downtown as needed, or protesters can come out to Coventry Road for a meal.
Taped to the exit of the main tent is a photo of a young girl holding a sign saying “The truckers are coming to save us.” One of our guides paused to point it out, saying, “This Is What We Do It All For.”
The operation feels both surprisingly organized and ad hoc. At a couple of points, a man walked up to us to ask what we were doing and who authorized us to be there. My answer didn’t seem particularly convincing. I said I had been told to call a man named David, who after some discussion gave me permission over the phone to walk around. But no one seemed to know what the proper protocol for handling media was, if one even existed, and no one kicked us out. The longer we hung around, the more the organizers warmed up to us.
Carlo took us to an unexpected feature of the camp: two fully functional saunas. He said a guy came and dropped them off out of the blue, telling organizers to use them as long as they want and to give him a call when they’re done with them. Same story for the mobile bathroom unit.
“Companies are just pouring in and installing stuff for us, whether it’s mobile bathrooms, kitchen equipment, tents. Everything you see here was donated,” he said.
There was no visible sign of police. Carlo said it’s clear the police don’t want the camp there and they’ve come a couple of times — most notably during the fuel raid — but for the most part have left the camp alone. The people there are, understandably, proud of how much support they’ve received. Through these donations, they’ve created a supply chain that has kept the downtown protests going strong for over two weeks now.
“We’re here for as long as it takes,” Carlo said. “We came here already equipped — and with the support we’ve been getting, I think we’re more than equipped right now to be here for the long term.”
The Coventry Road supply center is not, however, the movement’s headquarters, and protesters spend most of their time downtown. Top organizers are also elsewhere so that, according to one volunteer, police can’t move in and round them up.
The supply chain manifests in soup kitchens and hot dog stands on street corners downtown, with volunteers doling out free food and drinks to anyone who wants some. The size of the demonstrations notably spikes on weekends, when people drive in from hours away to take part. During the week, people sleep in their cars and trucks.
One question multiple people have asked is: Where do they go to the bathroom?
There are some lines of porta-potties set up throughout the downtown core, but not nearly enough. I asked Greg, a protester who has been living out of a van on Kent Street for over two weeks, where he relieves himself. He said a lot of the local restaurants, cafés, and hotels have let protesters come in and use their bathrooms.
This is a bit of a sore spot for residents. Last month, one Ottawa resident compiled a crowdsourced, unverified list of businesses “supporting” the convoy, which spread around Instagram and Twitter. People and businesses strenuously denied the list was accurate. Convoy supporters picked up on the witch hunt vibe of the list and spread it as evidence of the intolerance from the left.
My impression from talking to bar and restaurant workers is that they are having a very trying few weeks. Some definitely are letting protesters use their bathrooms, but not as some sign of tacit support for the cause. I’ve heard that businesses don’t want to anger the protesters and become a target for retaliation. There’s also just a humanitarian element; most Canadians aren’t going to feel good about saying no to someone who badly needs to go to the bathroom.
As for showers, Greg said many residents in the Ottawa area have extended offers for protesters to come to their homes and wash up.
Then there’s the issue of the millions of dollars’ worth of donations. Organizers initially raised around $10 million through GoFundMe before the company shut the page down and returned the donations. The crowdfunding campaign then moved to the Christian website GiveSendGo and raised around $9 million more. The provincial government successfully petitioned the Superior Court of Ontario to freeze those funds. What happens to the money will be an issue for the court to decide.
GoFundMe did pass on about $1 million to protest organizers before the campaign was shut down. It’s not clear where that money has gone.