Small but noisy band of stalwarts vow to keep up protest outside Russian Embassy, consulate
7 months into Russia's grinding war on Ukraine, these Ottawa protesters are standing firm
Last Friday — Day 212 of Russia's bloody invasion of neighbouring Ukraine — retired United Church minister Karen Niven-Wigston did what she'd done for most of the previous 211 days: She unfurled her blue and yellow Ukrainian flag and stood in a place where she knew the gesture couldn't be ignored.
Most afternoons, Niven-Wigston joins a small but dedicated band of protesters outside the steel fence of the Russian Embassy on Charlotte Street in Ottawa.
That day, they'd decided to move a short distance down Range Road to gather across from the Russian consulate, a grey stucco house that might itself go unnoticed were it not for the vivid banner reading "Stop Putin's War" planted along the sidewalk in front of it.
The mood among the protesters — their numbers fluctuate, but on this day there were about 15 — was upbeat and collegial, even jovial, despite the gravity of their message. They waved their flags and cheered when passing motorists honked in support, as nearly every one did.
One man was dressed as a clown, complete with red nose, balloons and a horn of his own that he would honk in reply.
"I think a sense of humour really binds us together," said Niven-Wigston as she paused to wave at a passing car.
"We get a lot of support as you will see, just with peace signs or honking, and basically we feel we are here to represent all of those people who can't be here."
But their message is equally aimed at the Russian diplomats and consular staff inside these buildings, and the late afternoon protests are timed to confront them as they head home for the day.
'Kill them with kindness'
With pointed slogans such as "Putin's cowards work here," the protesters don't pull any punches, though some do opt for a kinder, gentler strategy.
"Personally, my approach has always been to kill them with kindness, so just annoyingly friendly," said Angela Kalyta, another regular protester, who wore a traditional floral crown called a vinok.
Kalyta, a PhD student who lives nearby, said she likes to smile, flash peace signs and even blow kisses to the Russians as they drive away.
"At first they generally tried to ignore us," she said. "They'd roll their eyes at me, but then they started waving back."
Kalyta, one of the few regular protesters with Ukrainian roots, discovered the previous day that her name had been added to the growing list of Canadians sanctioned by Russia, and believes she earned the censure when she was quoted last month in the Kyiv Post.
"So I'm now banned from Russia for my activities here," she said.
The article focused on an incident in Ottawa in which three young men driving in a car with diplomatic licence plates were photographed spray-painting black a small blue and yellow bicycle chained to a post in front of the Russian Embassy.
The bike had been left there to commemorate the hundreds of Ukrainian children known to have died in the war.
UCC is disgusted by the act of vandalism and hate that took place in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Ottawa?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Ottawa</a> yesterday, on Free Ukraine Street. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cdnpoli?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#cdnpoli</a> <a href="https://t.co/4E6lzVGk4n">https://t.co/4E6lzVGk4n</a> <a href="https://t.co/scn1dTUIgk">pic.twitter.com/scn1dTUIgk</a>—@ukrcancongress
The men also painted a Z and a V on the sidewalk, patriotic symbols of support for Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine. Activists have photographed the same black sedan entering and exiting the embassy compound, and have shared the images with CBC.
Allegations from Russian Embassy
More recently, Russia's ambassador to Canada, Oleg Stepanov, told Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik that someone had tossed a Molotov cocktail over the embassy's fence in the early morning hours of Sept. 12, but that it had failed to fully ignite.
The embassy provided CBC with surveillance videos of the alleged attack. RCMP have confirmed they're investigating the incident.
Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry has alleged police in Ottawa have turned a blind eye to "aggressive demonstrators," and complained Canadian authorities have failed to prevent "hostile actions" against its diplomatic staff.
In a statement provided to CBC on Wednesday, the Russian Embassy said the protesters "demonstrate increasingly provocative and aggressive behavior" including "shouting and insulting with obscene language."
The embassy claims there have also been "incidents of attacking cars of the Embassy, blocking access to and out of diplomatic territory, damaging property with paint [and] throwing eggs…. Some demonstrators made photos of passengers in diplomatic vehicles and tried to scare the children with threats, which could be described as harassment of minors."
The embassy says it has reported all of these alleged incidents to RCMP, and believes investigations are under way.
"We hope that those who violated the Canadian law will be duly prosecuted through the court system," the embassy said.
On Friday, an RCMP cruiser and an Ottawa police SUV sat in a parking lot near the consulate, but officers didn't intervene. Protesters said one of the officers told them there'd been a complaint from the consulate — not the first, they said, and likely not the last.
"What they say about us is overblown, to put it politely," said Niven-Wigston.
On Monday, Ottawa police told CBC any information about calls for service from either the Russian Embassy or its consulate could only be obtained through an access to information request. On Wednesday, RCMP said it "maintains an open line of communication as and when required with all missions, including embassies and consulates," but could not confirm or discuss any specific calls for service.
According to protesters, any aggression has been strictly one-way.
Flora Benoit, another regular who lives nearby, described some embassy staff as "just nasty" toward the group, and said protesters sometimes have to leap out of the way of vehicles entering and exiting the embassy compound.
"If you don't jump out of the way, you'll be hit," said Benoit, who uses a megaphone to blare music ranging from John Lennon's Imagine to Bayraktar, a jaunty ode to the Turkish-made combat drone that has been used to great effect by the Ukrainians against the Russian invaders.
One of them came up to us and said, 'Who's paying you to protest?'- Karen Niven-Wigston
"They don't like that," the retired federal public servant explained, describing one run-in with an embassy staffer. "He said, 'You know, your music is violent.'"
Niven-Wigston recalled another confrontation outside the embassy on Russia Day in June.
"One of them came up to us and said, 'Who's paying you to protest?' I said to him, 'It's my civic duty.' And he said, 'Ha! You're being paid by the government.'"
Occasionally, there's a faint signal that the protesters' message is getting through.
The day before the gathering at the consulate, Benoit said she was standing in front of the Russian Embassy holding a sign reading "Be brave like your Russian protesters," when she caught the eye of a man behind the fence.
Russia had just announced plans to conscript 300,000 fresh troops, sparking anti-mobilization protests in cities across that country. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested.
The man looked at Benoit's sign and subtly nodded his head.
"It seemed like he had some heart," she said.
Protests are 'very meaningful'
Kalyta said she recognizes the difficult situation embassy staff are in.
"The Russian regime is really scary, and I don't know what that's like, I've never lived in that," she said. "[But] I definitely feel like Russians need to be standing up. More of them need to be standing up. Come on, it's time."
Orest Zakydalsky, a senior policy adviser with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress who's gotten to know the regular protesters over the past few months, and whose name was also added to Russia's sanctions list last week, believes the group, though small, is making a tremendous difference.
"This is one of the most important things we can do, is keep the war top of mind and in the press so people don't forget that in the middle of Europe there's Russian rockets and artillery shells slamming into civilian buildings and hospitals every day," he said. "It's very meaningful."
As for the Russians working for their government here in Canada, Zakydalsky urged them to consider their own future.
"I think that the people inside the buildings have a chance to think about who they work for and the kind of world they want to leave to their kids, and what they want to tell their grandchildren," he said.