Canada·Analysis

Anti-mandate groups return to Ottawa, but future of movement uncertain amid arrests and divisions

Nearly five months after they were forced out of Ottawa, anti-mandate groups are returning to the capital this weekend, where along with a more determined police presence they will face questions about where the movement is headed.

The movement will try to portray a moderate face this weekend, but concerns remain about uncivil protest

Police in Ottawa.
A police presence has increased around Parliament Hill ahead of Canada Day celebration activities and anti-mandate protests in Ottawa. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Nearly five months after they were forced out of Ottawa, Freedom Convoy protesters are returning to the capital this weekend, where along with a more determined police presence they will confront questions about where the movement is headed.

With many of the leaders who emerged during the winter occupation either in jail, or restricted by bail conditions, the movement's current direction is unclear. 

The issue that unified the disparate groups in the first place — opposition to vaccine mandates — has lost its appeal since the federal and provincial governments have lifted most public health measures. 

In the absence of clear leadership, groups have resorted to pushing their various pet causes, everything from independence for Alberta to fabricated legal concepts such as constitutional sheriffs.

Around them, meanwhile, a large cast of characters vies for influence on the various social media channels popular within the movement.

A protester and trucks.
With many of the leaders who emerged during the winter occupation either in jail, or restricted by bail conditions, the Freedom Convoy's movement's current direction is unclear. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

In videos posted on Facebook, TikTok and other platforms, figures with large followings have been exchanging accusations of bilking supporters, fleeing Ottawa before the arrests or being government agents.

Conspiracy theories, radical anti-government rhetoric and homophobic and transphobic slurs remain common in convoy discussion forums online, limiting the movement's mainstream appeal.

The Canada Day weekend protests in Ottawa, along with smaller gatherings planned in Mirror, Alta., Salmo, B.C., and Winnipeg, come, therefore, at a critical moment for the movement. Several groups see it as a chance to project a more unified, moderate image.

"Let's show Ottawa that we are respectful Canadians," Amanda Haveman, an organizer with Freedom Central Canada, one of the largest convoy groups on Facebook, said in a video message earlier this week. 

"We just want our voices heard and we want Canada to go back to the way it was."

As part of the rebranding effort, Haveman instructed her group's more than 100,000 Facebook followers to avoid hoisting the Maple Leaf upside down and to avoid waving F--k Trudeau flags, two symbols that were prominent at previous convoy protests.

Conservative leader OK with MPs attending freedom events

The convoy events planned this weekend include a march to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Thursday, a march to Parliament Hill on Friday, and a pancake breakfast on Saturday — each hosted by a different group.

Ottawa police have said they won't tolerate any attempts at a prolonged occupation and have barred vehicles from the area around Parliament Hill.

The zero-tolerance policy was evident Wednesday, when bylaw officers announced they had issued 154 tickets and towed 44 vehicles as part of the city's enforcement plan.

In the minds of some convoy supporters, though, the policing strategy is part of an attempt to goad the movement into violence.

"They want you to be the people they accuse you of being. They want you to be the terrorists," David Paisley, host of Live From the Shed, a webcast dedicated to the convoy movement, told his viewers this week. 

In a recent interview with CTV, interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen said her caucus was welcome to attend convoy protests this summer, rejecting the claim the Ottawa occupation was an attempt to overthrow the government. Federal conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre turned up Thursday marching with James Topp

Police on motorcycles.
Several groups see Canada Day weekend as a chance to project a more unified, moderate image, and are asking supporters not to turn Canada's flag upside down or wave ones brandished with 'f--k Trudeau' messages. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Such appearances concern Ahmed Al-Rawi, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University who studies online extremist movements.

"We've seen in the past many members of that movement showed some kinds of violence and harassed others … it would be like giving credibility to these people," said Al-Rawi.

Within the movement, civil opposition often coexists with extremist claims and actions that fall outside democratic norms, let alone the law. 

A judge recently told CBC/Radio-Canada that he received offensive messages from convoy supporters, including a threat that prompted a police response, after presiding over hearings involving the movement's leaders.

"It's intimidation," the judge said. "It's trying to influence a court decision, and that's serious."

This month, two pro-convoy groups have been encouraging members to contact municipal libraries to protest Drag Story Hour, events in which a performer in drag reads books with LGBTQ-positive messages to children.

At least seven libraries reported receiving a wave of hateful comments and threats via email, phone and on Facebook.

A man stands on a truck.
The movement, with its lack of clear leadership, makes it difficult for law enforcement to deal with, according to one expert. (Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters)

In their messages to supporters, influential figures in the convoy movement are frequently ambivalent about their commitment to the democratic process. 

"[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau] should be in jail for treason. RCMP, the police officers — they should be arresting the politicians for the crimes they are committing against their people," said Ron Clark told his 128,000 Facebook followers in a video this week.

Clark, who has been driving around central Canada attending different gatherings of convoy supporters, also railed in his video against "transgender crap" in schools and blamed chemtrails for causing natural disasters in British Columbia (this is based on a conspiracy theory that maintains jet exhaust contains chemicals that control the weather).

A movement at a crossroads 

Though there may be individuals within the movement who pose national security risks because of their violent ideologies, the movement itself is best treated as a public order issue, said Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University and a former national security analyst.

But, she added, the movement in its current form is difficult for law enforcement to deal with. 

"I think one of the challenges for police right now is that there aren't leaders. There isn't one leader. There are different movements. There is jockeying. There is infighting," Carvin said.

At the moment, some anti-mandate groups are trying to rally around the movement's least polarizing figures, rather than specific issues.

Among the most popular are Tamara Lich, a key organizer during the winter occupation who was recently rearrested on allegations she broke her bail conditions, and Topp, whose anti-mandate march across the country culminated Thursday in Ottawa.

Tamara Lich, a key organizer during convoy's winter occupation of Ottawa, was recently rearrested on allegations she broke her bail conditions. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But the future of the convoy movement likely depends on its disparate groups finding new grievances beyond their opposition to vaccine mandates, and deciding what kind of relationship it wants to have with democratic institutions. 

Shadoe Davis, whose webcast mixes conspiracy theories and right-wing politics and is popular within the convoy movement, told his listeners this week to start running in school board and municipal elections. Anti-mandate group Stand4thee recently held an online information session for aspiring candidates. 

So far, though, convoy supporters have had little success at the ballot box. 

Jason LaFace, a convoy organizer from Sudbury, Ont., ran in the recent provincial election. He received 1.2 per cent of the vote.

Corrections

  • We initially reported that the host of the webcast Live From the Shed was anonymous. In fact, the host is David Paisley.
    Jul 01, 2022 12:35 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at jonathan.montpetit@cbc.ca.

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