The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beleaguered Ottawans losing faith in leaders, want ‘siege’ to end

Furious residents of Canada’s capital say they feel abandoned by public institutions

A child watches trucks pass during a protest of pandemic health rules and the Trudeau government in Ottawa on Feb. 14. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

OTTAWA — Lindy Williams has had enough.

For several weeks, she has watched aghast as demonstrators protesting vaccine mandates and the Trudeau government have rolled their vehicles into the normally quiet Canadian capital and stayed put, creating gridlock on downtown thoroughfares and unnerving locals — all with apparent impunity.

So on a frigid Sunday, Williams, 73, and hundreds of other Ottawans set out to do something about what their police chief has called the “siege” of their city, taking to a major intersection to put their bodies in front of dozens of vehicles seeking to join the self-styled “Freedom Convoy” downtown.

“I came out because I object to my city being occupied,” the retired teacher told The Washington Post.

As the demonstrations here grind into a third week, locals say they feel abandoned and helpless. They are also furious about the disruption and what they describe as an insufficient response by police and government officials. On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the country’s Emergencies Act. The law, approved in 1988 but never before used, allows the Canadian federal government to prohibit public assemblies and remove people and property from prohibited spaces.

These Ottawans are taking matters into their own hands — developing buddy systems so no one has to be alone when running errands, seeking injunctions to silence the near-constant drone of air horns and staging protests to counter the convoy.

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“The past couple of weeks have been really intense,” Brian Latour, 34, said at the counterprotest on Sunday. “But … seeing all of these people out, seeing my community out, I feel much more inspired than I did two weeks ago.”

Analysts say the counterprotests are an indication of eroding faith in public institutions.

Regina Bateson, an assistant professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said that authorities and officials at all levels of government have shown a “real lack of leadership” and that trust has evaporated.

“I think there was a serious erosion of trust over the first week when the police insisted for days that this was a peaceful protest happening downtown,” she said. “[Trust] is already so far gone. … Can you go below zero? Can you go into the negative?”

The convoy began as a protest of U.S. and Canadian rules requiring cross-border truckers to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. It has since snowballed into a movement against all pandemic-related public health restrictions, which are imposed mostly by the provinces, and Trudeau.

Virtually unchallenged, the demonstrators have transformed Wellington Street — a main road in front of Parliament and the prime minister’s office — setting up tents, grills, bonfires, bounce castles and an inflatable hot tub. A makeshift stage was upgraded to a professional stage. There are lines of jerrycans.

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The vehicles belch noxious fumes into the air, setting off carbon monoxide alarms in nearby apartment buildings. Police are investigating hundreds of reports of hate crimes and the desecration of monuments. They say residents have faced intimidation and harassment.

Several businesses have been closed over safety concerns.

In one hotel this weekend, a woman entered with a red jerrycan, dismissing the pleas of a hotel employee who told her it was prohibited. “It’s empty,” the woman replied, as the elevator door closed. The next morning, a guest who was a transplant patient pleaded with staff to do more to enforce the province’s mask mandate.

“They say they speak for freedom, but apparently only freedom for themselves,” consultant Caroline Vanneste, 54, told The Post at the counterprotest, as Rage Against the Machine’s “Take the Power Back” boomed. “Not freedom for the residents who live here and are not only being inconvenienced, but harassed and bullied.”

Law enforcement and officials have described the crisis in Ottawa as a siege and an “occupation.” But critics say their response has been woefully inadequate and slow.

“On day 16, no one wants to hear excuses from politicians,” Catherine McKenna, a former cabinet minister in Trudeau’s government who quit politics last year, tweeted last week. “Why it’s hard. Or how it’s someone else’s jurisdiction. Just get your act together. Now.”

More than a week after the convoy rolled into Ottawa, the Trudeau government set up a “trilateral table” to address the crisis, inviting officials from the local, provincial and federal levels. But it became more of a bilateral table. The province did not dispatch representatives.

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly, who has faced intense criticism for his handling of the crisis, has appealed repeatedly for more resources, saying his officers are badly outnumbered and exhausted.

Hundreds of additional officers have been sent to Ottawa, but not as many as requested. Trudeau said last week that he didn’t “accept the contention that the city of Ottawa has exhausted its tools and resources.”

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Diane Deans, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, took umbrage with the charge, calling Trudeau’s comments “a little unfair” and arguing that “there’s a lot of people that think the federal government has been late to recognizing this is a national crisis.”

That didn’t quiet the criticism from the federal government. When Bill Blair, Canada’s minister of emergency preparedness and a former Toronto police chief, made the rounds on the talk shows on Sunday, he characterized the Ottawa police response as “inexplicable.”

“I could not think of a more horrendous way to undermine the faith and trust in our public institutions, in our law enforcement institutions,” Christian Leuprecht, a political scientist at the Royal Military College of Canada, said of Blair’s comments.

The fury is pervasive.

Carol McQueen, a former ambassador to Tunisia and Burkina Faso, said in a tweet that she has “lived in many fragile states in which public institutions have no real power or authority” and never thought it would be true of Canada.

“I think the police have really failed here,” Latour, the counterprotester, said. “I think it’s obvious to anyone that if these people were Black Lives Matter or Indigenous protesters, the response would have been different.”

Sunday’s counterprotest was a rare instance of public pushback over the convoy. Residents blocked dozens of convoy vehicles for much of the day. Counterprotesters held signs with pointed messages, including “Go home,” “Truck off” and “Leave our city, squatters.”

There were chants of “Go home” and “Whose streets? Our streets.” Vehicles passing by beeped their horns in support.

“Hanging the Canadian flag upside-down? That’s not very patriotic,” one counterprotester said through a bullhorn.

“Shame! Shame!” the rest of the crowd yelled in response.

Isla Holmes, a 10th-grader, said the convoy has split her high school, with some students walking out to show support for it. She said she was motivated to counterprotest “to take back our freedom.”

“They say they’re bringing us freedom when they’re actually taking it,” Isla said.

Colleen McMahon, a registered nurse, said she never expected the demonstration to last this long and has grown frustrated by what she characterized as a lax police response.

“It’s okay to protest. No one is having a problem with all of that at all,” the 67-year-old said. “We’ve all protested at one time or another. But the fact is that they have taken over our city, and there is no recourse.”

Sarah MacLeod, 47, a former lieutenant-commander in the Royal Canadian Navy, said her family in Nova Scotia is “sickened” by what is happening and “physically repulsed” watching the news.

“As an ex-military person, what really hurts me the most is that it feels like there has been a loss of trust between the people and the police,” MacLeod said. “It’s been oppressive to have this constant threat of violence in the air and not have the police do anything about it.”

The consequences, she said, will be long-lasting.

“When an organization like the police breaks the bond of trust that it has with the public,” MacLeod said, “it’s going to take generations to get that trust back.”

Miriam Berger contributed to this report.

Read more:

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