Fearful Ottawa residents flee downtown as protest drags on

As the disruptive protest in Ottawa drags into its second week, some residents of the downtown core say they've been living a nightmare, under siege and terrified to leave their homes — except to seek refuge away from the epicentre.

Residents fed up with noise, harassment and threats of violence

A protester affixes a flag to the top of their truck, parked beside a truck with a sign calling for the jailing of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, outside Parliament Hill, as a protest against COVID-19 restrictions ontinues into its second week in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

As the disruptive protest in Ottawa drags into its second week, some residents of the downtown core say they've been living a nightmare, under siege and terrified to leave their homes — except to seek refuge away from the epicentre.

For 10 days, downtown residents have been subjected to relentless honking, random fireworks and choking diesel fumes from trucks parked near their homes. They've expressed outrage over the open display of hate symbols, and some say they've been subjected to racial, homophobic and transphobic slurs. Others claim they've been attacked for wearing masks.

Many residents say they've felt let down by all levels of government and police since the protest convoy arrived Jan. 28.

While there may be some reprieve to the horns after a judge granted a 10-day interim injunction Monday, many residents point out that won't put an end to the multitude of other worries they're facing.

"Being a woman of colour, I felt very fearful," said Arushana, who left her home in the ByWard Market to stay with a colleague in the Glebe last weekend. CBC is not using her last name because she is concerned for her safety.

After putting up with sleepless nights and fireworks being aimed at her building, one of the final straws was seeing a Confederate flag on her way home from work.

"I broke down," she said. "As a first generation immigrant child, seeing such hatred, especially when my parents came to this country to provide me and my sister with a better opportunity and a better life ... I didn't feel safe."

WATCH | Monday's protest headlines:

Ottawa police ask for reinforcement as courts silence horns

1 year ago
Duration 2:41
Ottawa police are asking for more reinforcements to fight protests that city officials have started calling an ‘insurrection.’ Meanwhile, a court injunction silenced the honking horns to the relief of area residents.

Kevin Nielsen described feeling "a general sense of terror," living within blocks of Parliament Hill and felt intimidated every time he left his building. He left his home on Thursday to stay with friends elsewhere in the city. 

"I was constantly on high alert," he said. "It had a large impact on my mental health." 

He said he witnessed others being subjected to homophobic slurs, while also facing them himself through social media.

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, whose ward encompasses much of the affected area has received hundreds of emails from residents "who just are at their wit's end."

"They were unable to sleep. They felt helpless. Many people who have been in touch with me have moved out of their homes," McKenney told CBC. "But we also have people living downtown or living in social housing, and we have seniors who have not been able to leave."

WATCH | Effect of convoy protest felt acutely by people living with disabilities:

Effect of convoy protests felt acutely by people living with disabilities

1 year ago
Duration 6:10
'It's been hell, to put it bluntly,' said Richard Troy Baker, an Ottawa resident who teaches online cooking courses, about how the protests in downtown Ottawa have affected his life and his ability to feel safe outside his home. Baker has ataxia and uses a wheelchair.

CBC also heard dozens of similar stories from people.

"I am a Jewish woman … On top of the deafening honking and stench of diesel, seeing the rampant antisemitism and the harassment of women for wearing masks was incredibly distressing," one person wrote in an email.

Yet another wrote she was confronted on her way to the grocery store. "I was shoved, screamed at, called [sexist and homophobic slurs], and had three large men try to pen me in and physically block my way, because I was wearing a mask."

One woman said that even though she doesn't live downtown, she's still fearful.

"I am a brown woman and I am also incredibly scared of the occupiers. It infuriates me that people seem to be more upset about the war memorial than Nazi flags, Confederate flags and Trump flags being brandished about," she wrote.

"I have lived in Ottawa my whole life and … this is the first time in my life that I don't feel safe enough to [walk around]."

Two protesters ride horses past parked trucks and Parliament Hill during a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions, in Ottawa, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Residents feel abandoned

Many of the people who have left said they recognized they were privileged to have a quieter place to go. But one person wrote about how even fleeing didn't mean truly escaping.

"What may be the most difficult aspect [is that] most of my family supports the protest. It is heartbreaking that as I am going through this trauma, I have family trying to defend the protest to me," she wrote. "This is a siege, not a protest and it is non-stop harassment."

One persistent theme among the emails and people CBC spoke with was they feel let down by government and Ottawa police.

As one person wrote, "All levels of government failed the citizens downtown."