Conservative senator says 'friendly ... patriotic' Ottawa protesters have been demonized

Conservative Saskatchewan Sen. Denise Batters defended anti-vaccine mandate protesters in a speech late Tuesday, saying these "friendly" and "patriotic" demonstrators have been unfairly maligned by the "chattering classes."

Police have launched more than 100 protest-related investigations

Conservative Sen. Denise Batters is pictured in an undated photo. The Saskatchewan senator says "friendly" and "patriotic" demonstrators have been unfairly maligned by the "chattering classes." (Chris Rands/CBC)

Conservative Saskatchewan Sen. Denise Batters defended anti-vaccine mandate protesters in a speech late Tuesday, arguing these "friendly" and "patriotic" demonstrators have been unfairly maligned by the "chattering classes."

Batters — who was photographed posing in front of convoy trucks gathered in Ottawa during the protest — said she didn't experience any of the harassment that locals complained of during the weeks-long occupation.

"I can say that in the last two years, I never felt safer walking home from my office at night. The protesters I met very much reminded me of the people I know in Saskatchewan — friendly, hard-working, patriotic Canadians," she said.

While she said she sympathized with Ottawa residents who had to endure constant noise during the demonstration, Batters said she only saw "peaceful" and "non-threatening" demonstrators when observing the crowd from her Senate office, which faces Wellington Street, the centre of the now-disbanded occupation.

"I do not tolerate harassment, intimidation or destruction ever, but I can honestly say that I personally did not see any of that behaviour exhibited by the protesters," she said. "What is the national emergency this time? Dance parties and loud horns?"

Ottawa police have launched well over 100 criminal investigations related to the demonstration after receiving more than 1,000 calls for service from local residents.

The police are probing reports of hate crimes and harassment, among other possible criminal offences. More than 1,550 tickets have been issued for bylaw infractions like excessive noise and the use of fireworks in the densely packed urban core.

It was a veritable carnival of hate, endorsed and condoned and even cheered on by some Canadian politicians, craven cowards.- Independent Sen. Paula Simons

Nearly half of all businesses in Ottawa's Centretown neighbourhood were shuttered during the occupation, costing proprietors tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue and leaving many employees without pay, according to early estimates from the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas.

Batters argued that criticism of the demonstration — which snarled Ottawa traffic for weeks and turned large swaths of the downtown core into a no-go zone — is rooted in a form of class discrimination.

While many of the people who live downtown in a "public service city" have been "fortunate" during this COVID-19 pandemic, she said, other Canadians have lost their jobs because of pandemic restrictions or vaccine mandates and are frustrated.

"I sensed in the discussions about the protesters in the media and among the privileged, chattering classes on Parliament Hill almost a fear of these working-class people who had invaded the city," she said.

"Ottawa's mayor called them yahoos and idiots. Others online maligned them as Nazis and terrorists. Everyone had an opinion about them, but certainly no one was talking with them."

Another Conservative, Nova Scotia Sen. Michael MacDonald, said "entitled" Ottawa residents were wrong to demand that the convoy leave town. MacDonald also praised the protesters for having the "courage and decency" to protest COVID-19 restrictions.

"It's everybody's f--king city, this is the capital of the country. It's not your god-damned city just because you have a six-figure salary and you work 20 hours a week, you haven't worked a full week in two years. It's sickening, it's sickening," MacDonald told a protester in a recording that was posted on social media.

MacDonald has since apologized for his remarks.

A man with glasses wearing a suit and tie is seen standing in front of a microphone.
Nova Scotia Sen. Michael MacDonald is pictured in an undated file photo. MacDonald said entitled Ottawa residents were wrong to want the Ottawa protesters to leave. (CBC)

Batters made her comments during the Red Chamber's debate on the government's use of the Emergencies Act to clear out the Ottawa demonstrators.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have defended the decision to invoke the legislation, saying the protesters — some of whom called for the government's overthrow — were "a threat to our democracy."

In a "memorandum of understanding," protest organizers called for Trudeau to be replaced by some form of coalition government with the Governor General, the Senate and demonstrators — an arrangement that has no basis in Canada's Constitution. 

Batters and other Conservative senators, like Quebec Sen. Leo Housakos, have said invoking the Emergencies Act was an overreach.

Housakos said Canada has dealt with protests that were more violent than the convoy occupation and Trudeau himself fuelled the movement by flatly refusing to speak to convoy organizers.

'A shameless lie'

"It is the responsibility of the prime minister to be measured when there are frustrated mobs out in the streets who are not happy with their government, not to call them names, not to stoke the flames of division," Housakos said.

Canadian Senators Group (CSG) Sen. Jean-Guy Dagenais, who was appointed by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, also said the use of the Emergencies Act is not justified because there was no "insurrection" and no violence — just "angry citizens" demanding COVID-19 relief.

Ottawa police have called the convoy an illegal occupation that led to widespread lawlessness.

"It is a shameless lie to say today that the police needed the Emergencies Act to deal with the trucker protests," Dagenais said, referring to part of Trudeau's justification for triggering the Act.

"Unfortunately I see, and I hope you will as well, that the leadership that a true statesman must show is just not part of Justin Trudeau's DNA. Justin Trudeau prefers to dictate rather than engage in dialogue."

Independent Sen. Paula Simons, who was appointed by Trudeau in 2018, painted a much different picture of the Ottawa protest.

Simons called it a "block party from hell" and a "travelling hate circus" rooted in a long-history of far-right extremism in Canada.

'Drunks and thugs'

While some "ordinarily decent Canadians" may have taken part in the protest, Simons said, they were "seduced and hoodwinked" by nefarious characters who preyed on frustrations and fears about the pandemic.

"This event was not infiltrated or appropriated by racists. It was organized by them. Those bouncy castles, barbecues and hot tubs — those were stunts designed to distract, delude and troll us," Simons said.

Simons said the event was not a "street party" or a "festival" or a wintertime version of Canada Day but rather an event marked by people waving Confederate flags, "mouthing slogans about freedom" and screaming about free speech while attacking journalists.

Simons said protesters brandished antisemitic symbols like the swastika and the yellow Star of David while equating mask mandates with the horrors of the Holocaust. She said "thugs and drunks" stole food from a homeless shelter and attacked women and people of colour on the city's streets.

A protester yells 'Freedom!' at a person who attempted to stick a paper sign on a truck criticizing the convoy protest on its 18th day in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"It was a veritable carnival of hate, endorsed and condoned and even cheered on by some Canadian politicians — craven cowards, people who knew better but chose to exploit this volatile and dangerous moment for their strategic advantage and to exploit these damaged and deluded people for petty personal political gain," Simons said, taking aim at what she called the "naiveté and willful blindness of those who minimize this ugly campaign of intimidation as though it were some sort of authentic expression of working-class Canadian angst."

Simons condemned the protest as "an organized grift, a giant con" that had to be cleared away by police.

She also raised red flags about the use of the Emergencies Act, saying she was "troubled by the precedent." She said the legislation could be weaponized in the future against environmental activists, Indigenous peoples and workers.

Top cops-turned-senators endorse Emergencies Act

While some senators expressed concern about the legislation's effects on civil liberties, two former top cops who are now senators endorsed the government's use of the emergency legislation during debate Wednesday, saying it was necessary to quell unrest.

Independent B.C. Sen. Bev Busson, a former acting RCMP commissioner, said the nation's capital became an "amusement park for anarchists" and it was right for police to move people out who "stood for the overthrow of our government and the dissolution of our democracy."

Busson said that, with recent reports of demonstrators gathering on the outskirts of Ottawa, it's prudent to keep the act in force "so these people do not again overwhelm the people who are trying to protect us."

Former RCMP Commissioner Bev Busson is pictured in this March 2007 file photo. Busson said Wednesday the Emergencies Act power were needed to bring an end to anti-vaccine mandate protests she called an "amusement park for anarchists." (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

CSG Sen. Vern White, a former Ottawa police chief, also said it was right to trigger the Emergencies Act powers at a time when local law enforcement looked helpless in the face of growing crowds.

The seizure of firearms at the Coutts, Alta. border blockade and the shutdown of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont. made the anti-mandate protests seem like "an octopus with multiple tentacles that was adding limbs faster than the authorities could remove them," he said.

Ottawa's 911 system was overwhelmed by fraudulent calls and protesters were targeting other city roads, schools and the airport before the act was deployed, White said. The relative quiet in downtown Ottawa and at the other protest sites is a testament to the value of the Emergency Act powers, he added.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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