Ottawa·Analysis

3 weekends, 1 hot tub: Ottawa residents reach protest boiling point

Eighteen days into a truck protest that has taken over public infrastructure, polluted downtown air and created an atmosphere of fear for some downtown residents, it appears the citizens of the nation's capital have finally had enough.

Frustration not just at occupiers, but police and other leaders

Counter-protesters gathered on Saturday in support of COVID-19 vaccines and mandates in Ottawa, rallying against anti-mandate demonstrations that are now in their third week. Another counter-protest blocked trucks on Sunday. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

Three weekends and a hot tub — apparently, that's Ottawa's breaking point.

Eighteen days into a truck protest that's taken over public infrastructure, polluted downtown air and created an atmosphere of fear for some downtown residents, it appears the citizens of the nation's capital have had enough.

This weekend, people took to the streets in what were characterized as counter-protests.

On Saturday, about 500 people — including labour unions and those supporting front-line workers — marched from Lansdowne Park through the Glebe, but didn't wade into Centretown for fear of escalating existing tensions.

But the quickly organized protest that sprang up on Sunday at the intersection of Bank Street and Riverside Drive made its anti-convoy point rather more directly.

A neighbourhood Facebook shoutout from the previous night called for the community to block vehicles from a so-called "blue collar convoy" heading downtown.

It initially attracted about 25 people to the intersection. But by late afternoon, the grassroots group had grown to 1,000 — and tensions often ran high.

The counter-protests stopped trucks, sometimes removing the Canadian flags flapping from the open beds of pickups in exchange for letting drivers go back home. 

WATCH | Counter-protests grow, block convoys: 

Frustrated residents launch counter protests

3 months ago
Duration 1:55
Growing frustration with protests over COVID-19 restrictions has sparked counter-protests in cities across Canada, and experts warn there's a potential for escalation.

At one point, a truck heading north on Bank Street, presumably toward the protest, was quickly swarmed by a group of protesters who flung themselves in front of the moving vehicle.

Clearly concerned for hours that someone would get injured, police quickly separated protesters and the truck, allowing it to head back to where it came from.

But the crowd's pent-up frustration wasn't directed exclusively at the protesters who've been clogging downtown streets, those whose behaviour has led many businesses to close and locals to move out.

It was also aimed at the authorities, who many believe have been letting it all happen.

Barbecues, bouncy castles

Police have allowed bouncy castles, barbecues, street hockey games and dance parties on Wellington Street.

They appear not to be halting efforts to refuel the trucks parked in the downtown, despite earlier promises that those doing so would be arrested.

Those occupying Ottawa's downtown streets in protest of COVID-19 mandates appear to have little regard for increased penalties and fines for infractions. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

Not one, but two videos of Ontario Provincial Police officers being friendly with protesters have gone viral on social media.

The first of one allowing protesters to have photos of themselves taken in the back seat of his car; the second of an officer telling a couple he pulled over that he "100 per cent supports" the protesters and has heard nothing but great things about what they're doing in Ottawa.

The latter has led to an internal investigation.

This has fed a growing — if possibly unfair — perception that police are not just giving protesters who are committing offences a pass but actually sympathizing with them.

Perhaps the last straw were the well-publicized photos of two men in a hot tub that they'd brought to the parliamentary precinct Saturday, making fools of the law-abiding people of this city.

Two protesters were lounging in a hot tub at the intersection of O'Connor and Wellington they were somehow able to set up in downtown Ottawa on Saturday. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

That anger expressed itself Sunday. Protesters challenged officers about why they weren't being tougher on protesters. One woman at the front of the crowd held a sign that read "Do your job," while nearby, a man screamed the same thing in an officer's face. 

The community counter-protesters weren't the only ones to take things into their own hands.

Mayor Jim Watson appears so fed up with the inaction — or perhaps desperate to improve the situation even a little — that he's reversed his previous position and has agreed to meet with organizers, as long as they move the parked vehicles out of residential neighbourhoods and the city-owned baseball stadium parking lot by Wednesday.

What they might agree on should this meeting ever come to pass is hard to imagine.

WATCH |  Mayor says he has a deal for trucks to leave residential neighbourhoods:

Ottawa’s mayor reaches deal to limit protest as residents push back

3 months ago
Duration 5:57
The mayor of Ottawa has reached a deal with a protest organizer to limit demonstrators to near Parliament Hill, but not before frustrated residents pushed back against the protesters and police were met with criticism over their response. Frustrated residents took matters into their own hands in Ottawa, staging counter-protests to prevent some vehicles from reaching the convoy protest on Parliament Hill. The federal government is also calling the apparent inaction by Ottawa police 'inexplicable'.

According to a letter sent out by Watson, convoy organizer Tamara Lich has agreed to Watson's demands that all vehicles be moved to Wellington Street, between Elgin Street and the eastern end of Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway.

"The truckers here in Ottawa have always been about peaceful protest. Many of the citizens and
businesses in Ottawa have been cheering us on but we are also disturbing others," Lich wrote in a letter to Watson. "That was never our intent."

Then, hours later, Lich tweeted that "the media lies" and that there is "no deal." Hours after that, she replied to a CTV reporter to say she was talking about a federal deal and the local deal is on.

Could become a federal problem

If by some chance Watson's brokered deal somehow comes through, many more vehicles could be crammed at the foot of Parliament Hill, making it a more direct problem for the federal government. 

Should the blockade impede parliamentarians from the Hill or other nearby government buildings, the Parliamentary Protective Service folks, overseen by the RCMP,  will have to be more directly involved.

Is trying to shove the trucks up onto Wellington more buck-passing, this time by the mayor? Earlier in the day, it was Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair doing the jurisdiction dodge, when he said on CBC's Rosemary Barton Live it was "inexplicable" that local police were not enforcing the law.

WATCH | Federal government considering emergency powers:

'We just need the police to do their job,' says minister of emergency preparedness

3 months ago
Duration 10:44
Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair discusses on Rosemary Barton Live the federal government's response to the protests against COVID-19 restrictions that continue to cause major disruptions across the country.

But whether the convoy moves closer to the seat of federal government, or stays where it is, the federal government will likely have to take more direct action. Blair also said for the first time on Sunday that there are discussions about whether to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time since it was passed in 1985. 

The armed forces could also be requested by the province's attorney general under Part VI of the National Defence Act.

Entitled "Aid of the Civil Power," this part of the act allows for the military to be called upon to help "in any case in which a riot or disturbance of the peace, beyond the powers of the civil authorities to suppress, prevent or deal with … occurs or is, in the opinion of an attorney general, considered as likely to occur."

Maybe the buck will eventually stop with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet. They got together Sunday evening, with meetings of the prime minister and premiers and of the national Liberal caucus scheduled for Monday.

The question remains whether it ever needed to get to this.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

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