Helluva Story27:00Convoy Anniversary
It’s been a year since trucks began rolling into the nation’s capital, blocking streets, spewing exhaust fumes and blaring horns. They would stay — along with thousands of protesters from across Canada – for over three weeks before being forced out by a major police action.
It was a tumultuous episode in Ottawa’s history and when the last truck was finally towed away, it left behind a changed city.
The clearest physical manifestations of that change are the chunky cement barricades that remain on Wellington Street, blocking traffic to one of this country’s most iconic thoroughfares. It’s the street where Canada’s Parliament sits, where tourists are drawn and Canada Day revelers congregate.
The barriers on Wellington Street are a tangible change to the city, but there are other less visible changes, too. The convoy also altered the social, political and even psychological landscapes of the city.
The self-described “Freedom Convoy” arrived in the capital the last weekend of January 2022, calling for an end to all vaccine mandates and COVID-19 restrictions. It was sparked by a new rule requiring truckers crossing the Canada-U.S. border to show proof of vaccination, but drew people with a range of complaints about the way politicians handled the pandemic.
Thousands joined the protest that clogged numerous downtown streets for over three weeks before the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time in Canada’s history.
Although out-of-towners got a lot of attention, Ottawans were also caught up in the convoy. During the frigid weeks of protest, many emerged from pandemic isolation and found solidarity on the streets of their city — both convoy supporters and opponents.
Of course the convoy had the greatest impact on downtown residents of the so-called “red zone,” some of whom reported being scared to leave their homes and unable to work or sleep due to the incessant noise. Many say they’re still dealing with the trauma.
It was a profound experience for Ottawans, and some citizens say they’re still processing it.
Helluva Story heard from four Ottawa residents who were caught up on different sides of the convoy protests to find out how the experience and its aftermath influenced their view of the city — and maybe even themselves.
Zachary Boissinot: ‘How could I not go?’
Back in 2020, long before vaccines were widely available, Ottawa gym owner Zachary Boissinot reopened and started training clients in defiance of provincial and municipal rules. Two years later, he is still facing legal problems associated with the fines he racked up.
“There was a point where I was being very much threatened with jail time if I kept my business open as if I was … some common criminal,” said Boissinot. “If something’s not right, then I think it is your duty as a citizen to stand up against that.”
During the first weekend of the convoy demonstration, he joined several thousand protesters around Parliament Hill. “It was an easy drive,” he said. “How could I not go?”
But a year later, he’s lost some hope and feels differently about his city. He saw the convoy protests as an opportunity to have a “conversation” about public health rules and believes that didn’t happen.
Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah: ‘I feel so much more connected’
“We never want to go through this ever again,” said Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah. She avoided downtown during last year’s protests, but the convoy’s staging ground took over a parking lot in her part of the city.
Owusu-Akyeeah is executive director of The Canadian Centre for Gender & Sexual Diversity, a non-profit. In recent months, she’s been working with the Ottawa People’s Commission, which was created by downtown residents looking for what they call “healing and justice” in the wake of the convoy occupation. The commission heard from dozens of residents during a series of public hearings last year – people who say they were upset and traumatized by the experience.
“It’s made me more attached to it because I feel so much more connected,” she said. “[The] community responded in ways I’ve never seen in my entire 12 years in the city.”
Christen Bennett: ‘It was hope in a dark time’
Christen Bennett is a mother of two who also feels more connected to her city a year after the convoy protests.
As someone who did not receive a COVID-19 vaccine, Bennett was excited and hopeful when she heard about the convoy coming to Ottawa. “It was hope in a dark time,” she said, as vaccine mandates blocked her and her family members from travel, bars, movies and restaurants. “Not that we’re big on those things anyways, but just to know that you can’t do them was a bit oppressive.”
Last November, she even joined a protest at a school board meeting where a motion to reinstate mask mandates was being debated. A vote on the motion had to be postponed after security removed some people for disruptive behaviour.
Sean Burges: ‘I’ve lost trust in the system’
Sean Burges is a Carleton professor who helped spark a counter-protest against the convoy demonstrations.
It took place on the third weekend of the convoy’s presence in Ottawa and tapped into the frustrations many residents were feeling about the lack of police action and the failure of multiple levels of government to curb the convoy’s impacts on the city.
“It was the people in the neighbourhood saying enough is enough — we’re going to have to do this ourselves,” said Burges. “The police had no moral authority anymore; bylaw had no moral authority.”
Burges said he feels different now, a year after the convoy protests caused so much disruption. “At a visceral level I think I’ve lost trust in the system,” he said. And yet, he’s encouraged to see his neighbours and fellow Ottawans getting more involved in their communities and more politically engaged.
“We need to get back to a sense of community and I think that’s kind of what we’ve lost… that active sense of Canadian-ness.”