Politics

What They Won in Ottawa

The occupation of my hometown bore striking similarities to what I saw in Charlottesville in 2017—with a few key differences.

Police, standing in a snowy street in Ottawa, Ontario, look on after removing demonstrators on February 19, 2022.
Police look on after removing demonstrators on Saturday in Ottawa, Ontario. Andrej Ivanov/Getty Images

Last weekend, my 16-year-old son went driving for maybe the third time in his life since he got his learner’s permit. I was white-knuckling it on the passenger side, as one does, jamming my right foot down on the floor. At one point, he briefly lurched at the sidewalk, terrifying a guy who was walking his dog.

My son, crestfallen, wondered aloud why the only instrument on his dashboard was a horn. “I wish there were a sorry button. Why is there a horn but not a sorry button?” he asked.

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I was thinking about the nonexistent sorry button when I traveled to Ottawa last week, the city of my birth, and the place my family has lived for three generations, to try to understand what the “Freedom Convoy”—a protest-slash-occupation that lasted for more than three weeks—was really all about.

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By the time I arrived, several thousand trucks had blocked major city streets and managed to close down the entire center of Canada’s capital city, shuttering businesses already hobbled by the pandemic and frightening residents in Ottawa’s downtown core.

I confess that I was less interested in probing whether this protest was “grassroots” or deep-pocketed; less interested in whether the protesters were actual truckers or fringe anti-vaxxers; and less interested in whether this was fundamentally an American import or a uniquely Canadian varietal, than I was in comprehending how something like this—a three-week occupation of a G-7 country—had happened in one of the sturdiest, conventional, and least dramatic cities I knew.

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I lived in Charlottesville when the Unite the Right rally happened in 2017, and some elements felt deeply familiar: the advance security warnings that were missed or downplayed; a collapse of the structures of city and law enforcement, which further eroded trust in those institutions from all sides; a sense that one’s own hometown was no longer recognizable; and a feeling that after all the TV cameras rolled out, nobody would fully comprehend what had just occurred.

But the occupation of Ottawa was different because it wasn’t in a Southern city in the United States, grappling with the enshrined symbolism of its brutal past. This all happened in Canada, where less than 20 percent of the population is unvaccinated and where a majority of citizens are in favor of imposing more restrictions on those who have not been vaccinated.

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Yes, there is deep and justifiable economic anxiety in Canada as there is elsewhere. And it’s a safe bet that the bulk of the protesters were fed up and pissed off and were delighted to find community and solidarity after two years of uncertainty and solitude. Community after two years of isolation is very nice.

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But of course this community was built in great delight atop another community that didn’t welcome the noise, the economic harms, or the personal attacks. And many of those in Ottawa shouldn’t have been protesting in Ottawa—for the occupation seemed to be there to defy lockdown orders—most of which were mandated by the U.S. government or provincial and municipal authorities, not the Canadian government.

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This made no sense of course, but then neither did the occupiers’ calls for an ouster of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or a toppling of his government. To make matters even less coherent, some of the organizers’ original “Memorandum of Understanding” was rescinded after it called for the “People of Canada” to usurp the sitting government and replace it with random convoy leaders, some senators, and the queen’s purely ceremonial representative in Canada, the governor general. Some organizers have connections to anti-Islam movements, to Canadian separatist and right-wing groups, but trust me, it’s hard to determine precisely who was an organizer—and which purported organizer claimed to have repudiated which beliefs.

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In essence, the occupation of Ottawa was a giant wall of sound. There were no sorry buttons in Charlottesville in 2017, none after Jan. 6, 2021, and none in Ottawa, either. The blaring horns were precisely the point.

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Now that the worst of it is over, debates about Trudeau’s invocation of the federal Emergencies Act last week and whether the emptying of the streets was overreach will have a long political tail. But those seeking to paint a picture of a brutal police crackdown didn’t watch the near-surgical law enforcement response that played out all weekend, with almost no incidents reported. Credit where it’s due: It took three weeks to get there, but that three-day action that has now resulted in 196 arrests—it took place without a shot fired.

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Maybe none of that matters anyhow. By and large, the lessons of both Charlottesville and Jan. 6 hold true: Polling shows that the protest was hugely unpopular and also that the catastrophic failures of government and policing have decreased trust in democratic institutions.

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To the extent that this destabilizing of government was the point, score that a win for the “Freedom Convoy.”

And the residents of downtown Ottawa were successfully terrorized. I found it close to impossible to get anyone to speak on the record this past week. A few people told me that a benign Instagram or Facebook post had resulted in threats from people who weren’t even Canadian. Honking horns, pumping music, the threatening of local businesses—with protesters often singling out Asians, women, and other visible minorities for targeted abuse around the wearing of masks—the threats, gas fumes, public intoxication and urination drove many residents into their apartments.

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As I walked through the nearly empty streets of the recently cleared out downtown on Sunday evening, locals were shoveling snow, restocking groceries, and trying not to make eye contact. That exact fear—of making eye contact—is an old symptom I recognize from the days after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Symbols that used to be benign, including maple leaf flags that elsewhere waved proudly in the stands at the Olympics, suddenly seemed menacing. A friend told me his daughters had wrapped their masked faces in scarves on the downtown streets in recent weeks to avoid the ire of unmasked protesters.

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Stories of vandalism, of a fire set in a nearby apartment building as doors were taped shut, are still circulating. Residents and local business owners are expressing relief, yes, but some said they no longer felt they could count on anyone to keep them really safe. A local business owner told me he had never felt more despondent—throughout COVID—than he did being trapped in his own town by people who had kept his store closed for three weeks.

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One of the most chilling sights, as police arrests continued over the weekend, was the split-screen reality that polarized media has become. As television reporters covered the scene on the streets, protesters livestreamed themselves in broadcasts that went out to the like-minded. Those protesters who refused police warnings and remained to “hold the line” believed magical conspiracy-fueled things right to the bitter end—that the police were on their side and would march with them in solidarity (certainly the early police response gave them reason to believe that) or that the Trudeau government was poised to fall. They seemed to get all this news from one another, rejecting any and all journalism that didn’t align with what they wanted to hear.

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But the most striking aspects of the protests to me were the tone-deaf constructs of belonging—the at-homeness that was created and inhabited by angry strangers in an occupied city. Even Occupy Wall Street, with its homegrown newspapers and food tents, seemed less committed to the principle that even if you had traveled from Calgary or Vancouver, downtown Manhattan was now your “home,” and that if the locals failed to appreciate you, they were simply misguided.

For those willing to concede that the policing of indigenous and minority protests has been vastly different than the policing of the mostly white “Freedom Convoy,” there is something exquisitely painful about a protest in which barbecues and hot tubs and saunas and pig roasts are signifiers of the fact that wherever you go, so long as you are white, you are at home.

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For the protesters who likened the event to a camping trip, there seemed to be no recognition of the fact that the campground here was someone else’s front yard. The vibe throughout the protest was that if you weren’t having fun being occupied, you were doing it wrong.

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And so I keep returning to the horns, in part because those who were blaring them continued to insist that they were simply cheerful, festive, and joyous, even as they persisted all night long until enjoined by a court order. They continued even after that.

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Even as stories emerged of locals who were unable to work, unable to sleep, of children traumatized by the noise, the protesters continued to insist that they should be welcomed as liberators, that the “freedoms” they were there to demand—the repeal of COVID restrictions—would benefit everyone in Canada, simply because the word freedom was affixed to their cause.

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Ultimately, it seems to me that the height of privilege lies in the belief that the thing you are demanding is what’s best for everyone, simply because you want it. It’s hard for me to recall another protest at which the protesters have clung so steadfastly to their belief that if they are unwelcomed by those they have disrupted, the remedy is to honk louder, turn up the music, and attack yet more mask wearers, all in the absolute conviction that they will come around to the belief that this is all a street festival, that it’s “fun” because you say so.

To be sure, some of this is simply the privilege of being white, and some of it is the privilege that allows you to move through the world without fear, and the privilege that comes with being forever unconcerned about those you choose not to see. Some of it comes with the certainty—ubiquitous at the Freedom Convoy—that God himself demands the end of COVID restrictions and the attendant belief that you know what’s best for everyone because your religion is just best of all. Some of this is also an echo of what I heard in Charlottesville in 2017, when white supremacists who had flown into Virginia from California and Oregon insisted that the streets they walked belonged to them by virtue of some unified theory of aggrievement.

Many observers have noted that weaponizing trucks as machines of occupation was what was radically new about the Freedom Convoy, and that is partly true. Trucks are not just a signifier of economic realities, but also mobile units in which one can live and move, almost wholly oblivious to the world around you, if you so choose. You can build your own ecosystem, communicate solely with like-minded souls, broadcast your own reality, and emerge only to demand unmasked service in local restaurants and shops.

The enduring lesson of the Ottawa occupation was that such arrangements not only shelter individuals from the genuine suffering that happens all around but can also lead them to an information deficit that confirms any belief. The real concern here, then, isn’t just that a small minority of protesters brought a quiet seat of democratic government to a standstill.

It’s that they came and left, still wholly unaffected by and unaware of the harm they left behind.

As the trucks rolled out of Ottawa this weekend, the horns were still blaring, as horns are meant to do. There’s no room for a sorry button in this culture. Just horns, enduring symbols that your noise matters above all things, and that you are physically guaranteed to hear nothing but yourself.

For more legal analysis and commentary from Dahlia Lithwick, listen to the latest episode of the Amicus podcast.

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