The participants were supposed to be a bunch of violent, hateful insurrectionists. Contrary to what you’ve been told, they weren’t. Photo: Rise Up Durham
by Andrew Lawton
from “The Freedom Convoy: The Inside Story of Three Weeks that Shook the World” used with permission
On the eve of the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa, the streets felt more like a party than a protest. Honks, diesel exhaust, and excitement filled the air. Drivers rounded city blocks blaring their horns, blasting music, and shouting “Freedom!” as they passed cheering gaggles on the sidewalks. The early arrivals—truckers who showed up on their own rather than in the several convoys set to descend on Canada’s capital— staked positions on Wellington St. and its immediate side streets. Many of them wouldn’t leave those spots for three weeks. The scene indoors was just as vibrant. People who only knew each other from Facebook and Telegram groups met for the first time and embraced. Hotels that had sat empty for much of the previous two years filled up.
In the days that followed, the atmosphere would become even more festive. A flatbed truck rigged with high-powered sound system became the main stage, hosting speakers and musicians throughout the week. People sang and danced into the night. The same stage hosted church services on Sunday mornings. And then there were the bouncy castles and the hot tub. Walking into Convoyland felt like taking a step into 2019—a time before mask mandates and vaccine passports. This is the world the protesters were trying to reclaim. If you were there, you’d never know the participants were supposed to be a bunch of violent, hateful insurrectionists. Contrary to what you’ve been told, they weren’t.
A “small fringe minority”
As the truckers neared Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed them as a “small fringe minority” with “unacceptable views.”1 Canadian media coverage oscillated between dismissive and slanderous. One outlet highlighted a purported security expert’s warning that convoy donors might be financing terrorism.2 Canada’s state broadcaster, CBC, mused that “Russian actors” might be behind everything.3 When the convoy established its semi-permanent presence in Ottawa—which one organizer dubbed “Trudeau’s Truck Stop”—the stories that trended on Twitter and dominated mainstream media coverage were almost universally negative. Stealing food from the homeless, desecrating monuments, Nazi and Confederate flags, and so on. Most of these incidents were wildly misrepresented. The convoy’s organizers were swift to condemn bad actors in their midst, and none of them were representative of the protesters as a whole. Nonetheless, these stories helped critics craft a narrative that the convoy was made up of a bunch of lawless, callous white supremacists.
These controversies generated far more buzz online than they did on the streets of Ottawa. Generally, I only learned of them when I was back in my hotel room warming up and recharging my phone. I didn’t see a single swastika or Confederate battle flag in my travels, although from the news coverage you’d think they were everywhere. There were lots of ‘Fuck Trudeau’ flags and no shortage of signs delving into any number of conspiracy theories involving 5G, George Soros, and Bill Gates, but sprinklings of incivility and kookiness are not violence.
The divide between media and reality
The divide between the media’s portrayal of the convoy and the reality on the ground was stark. Even though the mainstream Canadian coverage occurred at close range— the action was all unfolding steps from Ottawa news bureaus—reporters and columnists insisted the truckers and their supporters were dangerous goons. American and British outlets gave the convoy a fairer treatment. Some of this was no doubt exacerbated by convoy organizers’ refusal to engage with most media outlets, and the tendency of some protesters to heckle or harass journalists they encountered, resulting in unflattering news clips that further maligned the convoy. People who saw for themselves what the convoy was like grew more distrustful of the media’s coverage of it. Some of my most-praised coverage was simple live video streaming, showing viewers the unfiltered reality of life in what Ottawa police called the ‘red zone.’
Few journalists sought to understand the protesters and why they were there. Whether it was the HVAC technician who showed up to check things out for a weekend and never left, the fully vaccinated lefty who protested because she felt being pro-choice required opposing vaccine mandates, or the Alberta couple who walked into a hotel looking for a printer and ended up becoming a critical part of one of the convoy’s logistics hubs, there was room for everyone in the convoy. Over the three weeks, the convoy attracted a broad base of support, including from people who didn’t fit the moulds into which their critics sought to shove them. There were evangelicals and libertarians, Indigenous Canadians and Québécois, hippies and blue-collar workers. The convoy was far more reflective of Canadian society than many would assume. This diversity was why efforts to castigate all the protesters as knuckle-dragging, anti-science louts were misguided. Yet for all their differences, there was something that held the protesters together. It started with shared opposition to vaccine mandates and vaccine passports and morphed into a sense of community for people who otherwise felt like social and political outcasts. That bond kept the convoy together until the end, when two days of aggressive police action cleared the streets, removing the trucks and protesters in under forty-eight hours.
On that cold February weekend, mounted police knocked an elderly Indigenous woman to the ground, cops in riot gear pepper-sprayed journalists, the government conscripted tow truck drivers, and banks froze hundreds of accounts of people who’d never been accused, let alone convicted, of any crimes. That weekend ushered in the beginning of the end of the convoy’s time in Ottawa. It was also the first and only violent turn in the otherwise peaceful protest. This crackdown was largely celebrated by the Canadian media and condemned by foreign press. To the convoy’s supporters, it was proof of the very government overreach they were protesting; to the convoy’s detractors, it was long overdue. This clash only furthered the divide between the two narratives.
A turning point in Canadian polititics
At the end of the day, the convoy did manage to spark a political reckoning, albeit mostly within the Conservative Party of Canada. It also revealed the disconnect between the media and those it covers. More importantly, it signalled a turning point in Canadian politics and in Canada’s pandemic.
This book is the product of my on-the-ground reporting in Ottawa and countless hours of interviews with those involved in the convoy at various levels. It does not purport to be the definitive account of everything that happened in those three weeks. There are elements of the story I have not addressed at length: the arguments for and against vaccines and vaccine mandates; what was happening inside police forces faced with a giant, carnival-like protest; the experiences of Ottawa citizens whose streets were taken over by the protesters, to name just a few. These angles were well-covered by media as events unfolded, often at the expense of delving into how and why the convoy came to be. I’ve focused on this story because it is the one I most wanted to read. I was repeatedly struck in Ottawa by the divergence between media coverage of the convoy and what I saw with my own eyes. In part because they were not talking to mainstream media, protesters and organizers were often missing or even misrepresented in their own story. I wanted to understand their thoughts and motives, and write about the convoy as they experienced it. I have sought to do so here, accurately and honestly.
The convoy’s story is a fascinating one. One about Canadians, who generally welcomed each wave of Covid restrictions, finally deciding they’d had enough, and in large numbers declaring the pandemic over. About a scrappy group of truckers bringing a G-7 capital to its knees. About an earnest, grassroots movement evolving into a multimillion-dollar operation with lawyers, accountants, a public relations strategy, back-channel police negotiations, and multiple command centres spread out across Ottawa hotels. And about a protest that spawned spinoffs and copycats, not just across Canada but around the world.
“The Freedom Convoy: The Inside Story of Three Weeks That Shook the World” is available through Sutherland House Books.
ANDREW LAWTON is a senior journalist at True North and host of The Andrew Lawton Show. He previously hosted a daily talk show on Global News Radio. He has published written work across the world, including in the Washington Post, the National Post, the Toronto Sun, and on Global News.