Of all the objects in the mirror that are closer than they appear, last year’s convoy occupation has an astonishing ability to avoid receding in time.
I can barely recall who was leader of the Tories between Stephen Harper and Pierre Poilievre, yet a quick glance over my memory’s shoulder and I can clearly see the “F— Trudeau’ flags (never mind the outlying Confederate and Trump and Nazi ones) as though they were staining our sense of decorum for the very first time. I can smell the diesel exhaust. I can hear the blaring train horn of one particularly annoying rig among many other annoying rigs. The echos of convoy participants telling me it was a peaceful ands love-filled demonstration are almost as loud and clear as they were a year ago, and still just as untrue. The sight of Canadian flags on pickup trucks still churns a revulsion.
The convoy’s continued pervasiveness in our psyche owes something to the fact that it simply doesn’t feel like it’s over. Just last month there was talk of an anniversary reunion on the streets of Ottawa, a plan eventually relocated to Winnipeg before being altogether cancelled, according to organizers. They weren’t welcome in Ottawa, they reasoned, although that hardly stopped them the first time, when they overstepped the bounds of generally accepted protest by laying siege to residents for more than three weeks. And it was worse than that timeline might indicate, as it had no known or foreseeable end at the time; the protestors were ready to dig in indefinitely, while authorities, notwithstanding Peter Sloly, Ottawa’s then-police chief, doing his best Liam Neeson tough-guy impression, appeared unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
The trauma that Ottawa residents felt — and still feel — is nowhere more evident than at the Ottawa People’s Commission, where approximately 300 people, some as recently as last month, shared their experiences during those weeks. Not all of them, it should be noted, opposed the convoy — two of the commission’s public hearings were devoted to convoy supporters, while overall, an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of those who testified backed the protest — but the majority who spoke up or wrote in described how the convoy negatively affected them. And while we would do well to remind ourselves that the right to protest is a fundamental one, the collateral damage caused by this particular one went beyond any justification.
“It was very clear within the community that people were very traumatized by what they’d been through, and that as the days and weeks went by after the convoy, it was also evident that that trauma was not going away,” said Alex Neve, a human rights lawyer and one of the OPC’s four commissioners, in a recent interview.
The People’s Commission, he said, allowed those most affected residents, particularly those in what became known as the Red Zone, an opportunity to be heard is a way that other bodies, such as the Public Order Emergency Commission, headed by Paul Rouleau, and the review, by the City of Ottawa’s auditor general, Nathalie Gougeon, of the city’s response, barely included.
“Overwhelmingly, that community perspective was being left out of all of those processes that were examining what happened,” said Neve.
The OPC will release its report in two parts. Part I, titled What we heard, will be made public on Jan. 30 and feature key findings and highlights of what people told the commission. Part II, with further analysis and recommendations for action, will be released in March.
“One of the obviously most powerful aspects to come through from all of what we’ve heard and read is that the harms and abuses and the sense of intimidation and terror that many people endured was far more pervasive than I think most members of the public understand,” said Neve. “And that it was deeply traumatizing and therefore, not surprisingly, hasn’t disappeared overnight.
“Especially when the community very rightly feels that there hasn’t been a meaningful effort on the part of officials and maybe even of society more widely to truly understand and appreciate what they went through and validate and legitimize it in some way. So here we are one year out, and yes, people are still traumatized.”
So deep was the damage to the community, Neve noted, that the idea of a Convoy 2.0 reunion one year later, which was still a possibility when the commission held its final public hearing in December, wasn’t simply a bone of contention. “People were referencing it with a sense of absolute terror and fear. So it is still raw. People are still carrying it.”
For many, a full healing is likely still a ways off. Getting through this anniversary without further incident will no doubt prove a salve to cool the scarring, while the OPC’s reports will help by acknowledging the harms done to Ottawans, and, hopefully, recommend the kind of transparency and accountability needed from responding organizations to prevent future protests from causing those wounds in the first place.