Ottawa might’ve had a different mayor if not for the convoy. Here’s how the protest changed the political landscape

One year after a convoy of truckers seized downtown streets, one year after the horns and hot tubs and mayhem, there’s little physical evidence of the protest that roiled the city.

With the exception of Wellington Street, which remains closed to through traffic and all but deserted, the City of Ottawa has reclaimed its roads and its equanimity. The city has returned to one governed mostly by civility and by a shared sense that for all of its weather trials and LRT tribulations, it’s still a great place to live.

But make no mistake: The 500 big rigs that occupied downtown – and the tens of thousands of protesters who came with them – have left an indelible mark.

“I think it definitely is a marker, a milestone event, in the evolution of the capital of Canada,” Ottawa-Centre MP Yasir Naqvi said in an interview.

For downtown residents, the occupation inflicted emotional trauma that can now be triggered by the blare of air horns or the sight of rippling flags. It brought the kind of anarchy that has many questioning the reliability of their police and government.

The convoy also altered the course of Ottawa history.

It unceremoniously ended the career of Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly, a progressive, reform-minded police leader, and dramatically reshaped the city’s mayoralty race, opening a winning path for broadcaster Mark Sutcliffe.

The convoy protest contributed to decisions by council veterans Mathieu Fleury and Diane Deans to end their fledgling mayoralty campaigns – decisions that set the stage for Sutcliffe’s eleventh-hour bid.

A political novice, Sutcliffe waited until late June—less than four months before Election Day— to announce he would challenge Catherine McKenney, the presumptive frontrunner for the city’s top job, and one of the few politicians to emerge from the convoy protest as a civic hero.

Sutcliffe, though, would not have entered the race had Fleury pursued his campaign, according to sources close to the mayor.

A popular, three-term councillor with Liberal roots, Fleury announced May 10 he would not run for re-election. He had, by then, already put a mayoral campaign team in place.

In an interview, Fleury said several factors went into his decision to suspend his mayoral campaign. One of them was the convoy protest.

“It was certainly a factor,” said Fleury, whose social media feed during the occupation – he used it to communicate with constituents – became toxic. “That (the abuse) was something else.”

Other things contributed to his decision to end his campaign, Fleury said, including the fact his wife was pregnant with their second child and the likelihood he would have another chance at the mayoralty given his age.

“I’m good to be on the sidelines for now,” the 37-year-old Fleury said. “One day I’ll be back, but for now it’s the right thing for me to do.”

As bad as the convoy protest was for the people of downtown Ottawa, it was likely worse for Ottawa’s civic leaders, who faced unprecedented levels of hate and harassment from convoy supporters in addition to intense pressure from local residents to end the occupation.

But politicians could only do so much: The truckers had to be evicted by a police operation, the planning and timing of which were out of their hands. (Governments make laws and police boards set objectives, but all day-to-day operational decisions about enforcement are made by police officers.)

During the first week of the crisis, Ottawa police arrested and charged one man with uttering threats against then-Mayor Jim Watson, according to documents entered at the Emergencies Act inquiry. Security measures for the mayor were tightened. Meanwhile, Coun. McKenney and partner sent their daughter to stay with friends after receiving a threat that identified their home.

As chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, Diane Deans was also on the political hotseat. At the time, Deans was planning a bid for the mayoralty, but that changed after the convoy protest.

“I’m still damaged by the convoy, I have to tell you,” Deans said in a recent interview. “I kind of decided not to run for mayor over that. If I’m being really honest about it, after that, I just kind of lost my heart for it, I think…

“There’s so much animosity towards elected officials and I got that in spades during the Freedom Convoy.”

One of her staff members was so disturbed by the hateful messages flooding into the office and through social media that she had to take time off work.

Deans was also dismayed by the treatment of the police services board. She was removed as board chair by a vote of city council on Feb. 16 after the board decided to hire an interim chief to replace Sloly. The service was then down to two command officers. Three board members resigned their seats to protest Deans’ treatment.

“Using the police board as a scapegoat, the board did not deserve that in any way, shape or form,” Deans said. “The board was doing everything within its power, and to this day, I can’t think of a single thing we did wrong.”

The Emergencies Act inquiry has revealed Ottawa police expected the truckers to go home on Jan. 31, following the first weekend of demonstrations. The service did not have a plan in place to manage a scenario in which protesters and their rigs remained parked on city streets.

Days later, on Feb. 2, Sloly told a news conference he did not see how the protest could be brought to an end with police resources alone. “The longer this goes on, the more I am convinced there may not be a police solution to this demonstration,” he said.

It was the beginning of the end of Sloly’s policing career. The announcement stunned many in the city and caused politicians to lose faith in Sloly’s ability to lead Ottawa out of its crisis. He would resign less than two weeks later.

The first Black police chief in Ottawa history, Sloly arrived in October 2019 with a five-year mandate to change police culture and repair damaged relationships with the city’s racialized communities in the aftermath of the death of Abdirahman Abdi. The 37-year-old Abdi died during a violent arrest in July 2016.

Sloly acknowledged systemic racism in the police service, but his reform agenda faced criticism from some inside the force and from community activists unhappy with the pace of change.

Robin Browne, co-lead of the activist group 613-819 Black Hub, said Sloly’s ouster – he believes Sloly was undermined from within – demonstrated the inability of the police service to reform itself. “If you can’t make real change with a police chief like Peter Sloly – and we were critical of him – when is it going to happen?” he asked.

Sloly was replaced as chief just before the municipal election by a career RCMP officer, Eric Stubbs, whom Brown describes as a more traditional police leader. “I think it’s now going to be much harder to reimagine public safety in Ottawa,” Browne said.

At its peak, the convoy protest blocked 10 city streets, and inspired copycat protests that shut down border crossings in Windsor, Coutts, Alta., Emerson, Man., and the Pacific Highway in Surrey, B.C.

In downtown Ottawa, the spiritual heart of the movement, there were bouncy castles, hot tubs, fireworks and a sound stage. Truck drivers walked downtown with jerry cans of fuel in defiance of a police crackdown, built canteens in local parks and draped themselves and their paraphernalia on national monuments.

In Ottawa, a place where bylaws have been enforced on Shakespearean actors, lemonade vendors and bagpipers, the scenes were utterly discordant.

Zexi Li, a public servant and downtown resident who became lead plaintiff in a civil suit against the protest organizers, told the Emergencies Act inquiry of the lawlessness she witnessed – protesters starting bonfires in the street, defecating in parking lots, blaring horns through the night.

“It was such a surreal sight, it almost felt like you were in something like The Purge,” Li said, referencing the horror movie in which a family fends off thugs during a night when all crime is temporarily legal. “Though I didn’t often see direct acts of violence, there was a certain chaos on the streets.”

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Li’s lawyer Paul Champ, who’s leading the class action lawsuit against the Freedom Convoy, said it was confusing and frightening for people to see police just watch as the law was ignored.

“I think the scars from that are going to stay with us for quite some time,” he said.

While the psychological harm inflicted on the city is hard to quantify, it’s easy to see the physical legacy of the convoy protest: the cement barriers that block commuter traffic on Wellington Street.

Wellington Street is owned and policed by the city, but leads to the country’s most powerful institutions: the Parliament of Canada, the Supreme Court of Canada, the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council. Its fate remains the subject of intense debate.

In December, a Parliamentary committee recommended the federal government assume responsibility for Wellington and Sparks streets as part of an expanded Parliamentary Precinct. It said Wellington should remain closed from the National War Memorial to Kent Street.

Sen. Vern White, a former Ottawa police chief, warned the committee the government precinct would be susceptible to a car bomb if Wellington re-opened. In 1995, he noted, a domestic terrorist used a fertilizer bomb, concealed inside a Ryder truck, to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

Yasir Naqvi said Wellington Street’s fate should be decoupled from the convoy protest since it was a security and planning issue long before the truckers occupied it. Among the ideas on the table for Wellington is a 2.7-kilometre streetcar loop connecting the downtowns of Ottawa and Gatineau – a plan Naqvi favours.

“I don’t think those barricades should stay because of the occupation,” Naqvi said. “My argument is that this is an opportunity for us to reimagine Wellington Street and our public spaces: We can make Wellington part of a public square where the protests and the celebrations coexist peacefully.”

Wellington Street has been the site of thousands of protests, but never one quite like this convoy –in which truckers weaponized their rigs to hold the city hostage until their demands were met.

In Ottawa and elsewhere, the convoy protest hardened existing divisions on lockdowns, mask and vaccine mandates while demonstrating the political power of belligerence. The convoy attracted worldwide attention, hastened the fall of Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, and contributed to government decisions that softened the country’s pandemic posture. In many ways, it succeeded.

Is it any wonder then that the Ottawa public school board and police services board have seen their meetings disrupted by rancorous protests this year?

Ultimately, though, the convoy protest may redefine the limits of acceptable protest. It could prove its most enduring legacy.

That issue is at the heart of the class action lawsuit launched by Zexi Li and other downtown residents, who contend convoy participants knowingly inflicted harm on residents as part of a strategy to dial up political pressure.

Paul Champ intends to argue the convoy protest went far beyond the “normal disruptions” that can be justified by people exercising their constitutional right to assemble and protest.

Champ contends the truckers crossed a line; he’s hoping the civil case will clearly define it. “I think this case really does have the possibility of setting the contours of acceptable activities when exercising the right to protest in Canada.”




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