For many inside the Freedom Convoy, faith fuels the resistance
Some protesters say they went to Ottawa on God's instruction
Trucker George Dyck ate a hot dog after the federal government announced Monday it would use emergency powers to break up the Freedom Convoy currently entrenched in the shadow of the Peace Tower in Ottawa.
Dyck says he doesn't fear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to invoke the Emergencies Act, which could set the stage for aggressive police action, lead to the freezing of his bank account and the loss of his insurance.
"I take it one step at a time," said Dyck. "In all honesty, God is my shield, and that is what I stand by."
Faith led him to Ottawa, and faith is what keeps him there.
Dyck, who lives about 600 kilometres southwest of Ottawa in Aylmer, Ont., prayed with his wife before deciding whether to aim his 18-wheeler up the highway to the capital in late January to join a protest movement that has roiled the city and the political establishment.
"I had the feeling I had to be here," said the 44-year-old trucker.
Dyck then joined a convoy rolling up from London, Ont., and shifted gears toward the capital.
His rig is one of the transport trucks parked along Wellington Street, across from Parliament Hill, anchoring the heart of the Freedom Convoy protest launched against vaccine mandates that is now radiating across the country.
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Listening to God
Dyck has been parked there for over three weeks and, this past Saturday, his cargo trailer was a refuge from the windchill-edged temperatures of downtown Ottawa, with a handful of chairs toward the back and a propane heater emanating warmth.
The words "Freedom Is Essential" are emblazoned in large blue and yellow letters across the side of his charcoal-coloured trailer.
At one point, a man shook Dyck's hand as he left the trailer, a folded $50 bill in his palm. This happens a lot — bills slipped in with a handshake, a smile and a thank you. Dyck often responds with, "God bless you."
For the past 20 years, Dyck has hauled freight across the Canada-U.S. border. His regular routes take him stateside twice a week.
Dyck owns his $150,000 rig, and it's fully paid off. So when the federal government — in conjunction with the U.S. — blocked unvaccinated truckers from crossing the border, Dyck says it was a direct threat to his livelihood.
He's not vaccinated. Dyck says he doesn't trust the vaccines, the health officials who say they're safe, the governments that promote them or the media that reports these messages.
He relies on his network of friends and contacts, through Facebook posts from those he trusts as well as one-on-one conversations, including with a doctor he's known for years, for information on the pandemic, which he feels has become a "scam."
Dyck is part of a protest for the first time in his life. He now finds himself at its centre, both geographically and symbolically.
"God keeps telling me to, 'Stay where you are. Don't go anywhere. You are doing the right thing,'" Dyck said.
Devoted to the cause
Christian faith — with an overtly evangelical feel — flows likes an undercurrent through the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa.
It's unclear how many of the roughly 4,000 people who gathered in the Parliament precinct this past weekend call themselves Christians, but the biblical references were everywhere — in the hand-made placards lining the stone and iron fence at the border of Parliament Hill reading, "We are praying for Justin [Trudeau]," quoting parts of Psalm 23 or paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 1:27 in the New Testament:
"God chose the foolish to shame the wisdom of the wise."
While no mainstream Christian organization has thrown its official support behind the Freedom Convoy, some of the funds raised for the cause have been donated through the GiveSendGo crowdfunding site, which is administered by a Christian group.
A hack of the GiveSendGo campaign revealed the names of more than 92,000 donors. The hack also revealed messages that accompanied the donations, including more than 13,000 references to "God" or "Jesus," according to an analysis by Vice magazine.
WATCH | What the GiveSendGo hack reveals about donations to the convoy protest:
Christian sermons of varying lengths emanate regularly from the main flatbed stage on Wellington Street and from curbside preachers using microphones attached to portable speakers. Their words waft in the air and mix with the rumble of diesel engines and fumes, thumping dance music, the tinge of marijuana.
Starting Friday, "Jericho marches" began circling the parliamentary precinct every morning. The name refers to the Old Testament story of the Israelites walking around the walls of Jericho for seven days. On the seventh day, the Israelites marched seven times, blew rams horns and shouted. The walls came tumbling down.
This past Saturday, a woman draped in a Canadian flag led the march with a megaphone in hand.
"When we sing, enemies flee," she said as she entered the grounds of Parliament Hill. "Hallelujah, hallelujah."
The march then joined a mass of people gathered in formation to spell the word "freedom."
Benita Pedersen, 43, from Westlock, Alta., started the Jericho marches. She says between 100 to 200 people came out on the first morning. The march plans to circle the precinct seven times this coming Thursday, she says.
"It's about the walls around hearts coming down," said Pedersen, sitting near the back of George Dyck's cargo trailer.
Pedersen is one of many grassroots organizers who tilled the soil that eventually sprouted the Freedom Convoy.
COVID-19 lockdowns devastated Pedersen's business as an event planner and disc jockey. In the early throes of the pandemic, Pedersen began organizing socially distanced and drive-thru events for Halloween, Remembrance Day and Christmas.
In early January 2021, Pedersen says she "hit a wall." Inspired by reports of hair salon, bar and restaurant owners across Alberta defying restrictions, she started organizing anti-lockdown protests.
"I surrendered to our Lord," said Pedersen, who would not reveal her vaccination status on privacy grounds. "I said, 'Your will, not mine. I will give everything I have to the freedom movement. My time, my energy, my money, my resources. If necessary, I will surrender my own freedom and even my life.' Because that is what it could come to."
She held her first rally in the parking lot of the local curling rink in Westlock in February 2021. Sixty people showed up. She received a $1,200 fine for breaching the province's Public Health Act. She kept organizing rallies in towns and cities and kept receiving fines.
Pedersen, who is living off her savings, now faces 10 separate fines. The matters remain before the Alberta courts.
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In January, a friend who is a farmer presented her with a steer horn resembling a shofar — a trumpet made from a ram's horn referenced in the Jericho story. At that moment, Pedersen said she felt the call to join the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa.
Pedersen hitched a ride with a friend who drives a transport truck and was carrying a load to Ontario. The driver connected her with another trucker who took Pedersen to Ottawa.
She spent her first night sleeping on the floor of a local church friendly to the cause. She then spent three nights in the home of a church member and is now staying in a location related to the Freedom Convoy, though she won't reveal where it is.
For Pedersen, ending the vaccine mandates is a first step in what she calls the "freedom movement." She worries climate change-related mandates could soon follow.
"The government has to transform into a true representation of the people. It may mean every party member walks away from their banners," said Pedersen, who has traditionally voted for the federal Conservative Party. "So this can never happen again."
A prayer service
Shortly after Saturday's Jericho march, about 100 people gathered on the snow-covered lawn of Parliament Hill, to the east of the doused Centennial Flame, for a prayer service ministered by Harold Albrecht, a former Kitchener, Ont., Conservative MP.
Albrecht, a former Protestant minister for six years, asked the gathered to break out into smaller groups of six and eight to pray for a country that he says has become unmoored from its Christian foundation.
Both Catholics and Protestants prayed together in Albrecht's group. One man invoked the name of Saint Joseph, who is not only the biblical husband of Mary, Jesus' mother, but one of the Patron Saints of Canada.
Albrecht says vaccine mandates unjustly marginalize the unvaccinated by threatening their livelihoods. He says it also goes against Scripture found in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy that forbids the seizure of millstones to secure owed debt.
"The millstone was the means of grinding their grain for food… [and seizing it] would be taking a person's livelihood away," said Albrecht, 72, who would not reveal his vaccination status on privacy grounds.
"To me, that is what we are doing [with the vaccine mandates] — we are actively removing a person's ability to feed themselves, to feed their family."
Laurence Leriger, 46, is facing the loss of his job as a shipping loader operator at a rock quarry, after his employer imposed a vaccine mandate for all workers.
Leriger, from Niagara, Ont., who is unvaccinated, has until March to get the shots or face losing his job. He won't get employment insurance, because his departure will be categorized as voluntary leave.
But he would never leave his job — and he won't take the vaccine.
"I think it's absolutely appalling… they are holding our livelihood over our heads if we don't take part in a medical experiment," said Leriger, standing by the Centennial Flame monument.
Leriger sees himself as a true conservative, but doesn't see a home in the current Conservative Party. He voted for the People's Party of Canada (PPC) in the last election.
"It's hard to find anyone I want to vote for," he said. "There's slim pickings in the people I want to represent me."
Leriger, who became a Christian at age 30, says his personal trials are only part of what motivates his weekend trips to Ottawa in support of the Freedom Convoy. He feels governments crossed a line by shuttering churches during lockdowns.
"The very nature of the church is to get together, and the government was trying to rule the church. The government left their sphere of authority," said Leriger.
"This is wickedness. This is complete rebellion against God."
A drive to stop mandates
George Dyck says he was 34 when he committed to a Christian life. While he was never one to lash out physically, he says he struggled with anger and drinking and felt his wife and four children drifting away from him.
One day, he walked into his bedroom alone, fell to his knees and prayed for forgiveness. He says God told him he needed first to forgive himself.
"And the hardest thing in my life was to ask my kids for forgiveness," said Dyck.
His life changed, and the family grew closer.
While on the frontline of the Ottawa protest during the week, Dyck sleeps in his truck's cabin. On weekends, his wife and children come up from Aylmer to visit and they all stay together in a motel.
Dyck says he doesn't take any money from Freedom Convoy organizers, because he trusts that God will provide.
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He's part of an interconnected network of truckers who've been involved in border blockades that have sprouted in Coutts, Alta., Emerson, Man., and Windsor, Ont. Dyck says there is no one leader, but they all act in concert, helping each other when the need arises.
What unites them is the drive to end vaccine mandates and force Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from office.
"If he stays in power, then we are in a dictatorship," said Dyck. "I would rather die on my own two feet than beg for the rest of my life."
Before the pandemic, he voted for the federal Conservatives; in the 2021 election, he voted for the PPC. He doesn't know who he would vote for the next time around.
"I am not sure who you can trust anymore. I lost faith in pretty much everything," he said.
Dyck says he believes there are shadow powers behind Trudeau and other world governments. He says pandemic restrictions are just the beginning of a creeping tyranny that will tighten its grip.
"We live in the Book of Revelation, 100 per cent," said Dyck, referring to the last book of the Bible, which is widely interpreted in evangelical circles as prophesying the end times.
"If you look at what's happening, how the government is working. It is step-by-step all in the Book of Revelation. It's clear as day."
With pressure mounting on Ottawa police to end the protest and politicians of all stripes condemning the disruptions, Dyck says he knows he's put all his material possessions on the line for this cause — his career, his rig, his mortgage.
"I have children, they might have children. If we don't sacrifice everything now, then what kind of future will they have?" he said.
"What did Jesus do? He gave it all, he gave everything."