Ottawa trucker protest sparks questions about definition of ‘peaceful’ protest

Click to play video: 'Trucker convoy: Ottawa protests continue for 2nd day'
Trucker convoy: Ottawa protests continue for 2nd day
The convoy opposed to mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for cross-border truckers, dubbed the “Freedom Convoy,” continued demonstrations in Ottawa for a second day on Sunday. Many businesses in the area kept their doors closed to avoid further confrontation, since some protesters verbally and physically assaulted staff at some establishments for enforcing public health measures. Global’s David Akin reports from the scene – Jan 30, 2022

Police haven’t reported any physical violence at the ongoing Ottawa rally against vaccine mandates and other government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions, but critics warn that conflating the absence of bloodshed with “peaceful” protest downplays the dangers of the weekend demonstrations.

For two days, the downtown core of the nation’s capital has been a no-go zone as trucks and crowds have snarled traffic, with some members defacing monuments and wielding signs with violent and hateful imagery. Police are also investigating what they describe as threatening behaviour toward officers, city workers and other individuals, as well as damage to a city vehicle.

But as of Sunday afternoon, there were no arrests related to incidents of physical violence during the demonstrations, a police spokeswoman said, though a statement issued that evening said “confrontations and the need for de-escalation has regularly been required.”

This has prompted many media reports to describe the protests as “peaceful.”

Story continues below advertisement

Activists and academics on social media have taken issue with this characterization, saying it undermines the fear, damage and disruption the protests have wrought.

Catherine McKenney, the councillor for Ottawa’s downtown, said the protests have been very disruptive for local residents, adding many have also found them disturbing.

“They’re also seeing the images that we’re all seeing, of very right-wing extremist messages: the flags that display the swastika, confederate flags, images of a prime minister being lynched,” McKenney said.

“I’m not sure that I would continue to call this peaceful.”

Click to play video: 'Trucker convoy: Protesters gather on Tomb of Unknown Soldier, spark outrage'
Trucker convoy: Protesters gather on Tomb of Unknown Soldier, spark outrage

McKenney, who is non-binary, said they aren’t sure they would be safe venturing downtown.

Story continues below advertisement

“There’s no doubt that there is a large element in this convoy, that is part of a movement, that is extreme and that is xenophobic. We knew that coming into the weekend, but it’s really very difficult to see that play out in our neighbourhoods.”

Josh Greenberg, professor of communication and media studies at Carleton University, echoed many of McKenney’s concerns.

Get the latest Health IQ news. Sent to your email, every week.

He explored the issue in a series of tweets in which he argued the evidence of intimidation and harassment, alongside the blatant flouting of public health measures and limiting access to key city infrastructure, do “not meet a common definition of ‘peaceful.'”

“By what common understanding of the term does what we are seeing on the ground, on TV, in our social media feeds qualify as ‘peaceful protest?'” he wrote. “Is it merely the absence of physical violence and injury? That’s not unimportant but is insufficient as a definitional threshold.”

Greenberg did not respond to request for an interview on Sunday.

Click to play video: 'Trucker convoy: Ottawa protests continue for 2nd day'
Trucker convoy: Ottawa protests continue for 2nd day

Fareed Khan, founder of Canadians United Against Hate, described the protests as a threat to political stability and “peace-loving” Canadians.

Story continues below advertisement

“People do have a right to peacefully protest. I’ve been involved in organizing a number of these sorts of things,” said Khan.

“But you know what we didn’t do? We didn’t disrupt an entire city … we didn’t call for the unseating of the government. We didn’t intimidate and threaten people who didn’t agree with us.”

Khan said the demonstrations don’t have to come to blows to jeopardize public safety. He said some protesters have refused to wear masks in indoor venues, and suggested the mass gathering could become a COVID-19 “superspreader event” that would have deadly consequences far beyond those who attended it.

Khan accused protesters of targeting marginalized groups with racist and antisemitic symbols, intimidation and harassment.

He added that Canadians United Against Hate’s planned in-person vigil in Ottawa marking the fifth anniversary of a deadly shooting at a Quebec City Mosque was cancelled on Saturday due to safety concerns.

Click to play video: 'Transport minister ‘shares’ protester frustrations, public health measures needed to end pandemic'
Transport minister ‘shares’ protester frustrations, public health measures needed to end pandemic

Deirdre Freiheit, president of Shepherds of Good Hope, said staff and volunteers at a soup kitchen allegedly fielded verbal abuse from protesters demanding meals over several hours.

Story continues below advertisement

Freiheit alleged that a member of the shelter community was assaulted by protesters, and a security guard who came to his aid was threatened and called racial slurs. Ottawa police have reached out to Shepherds of Good Hope to investigate the incident, a service spokeswoman said Sunday evening.

Khan said the public response to this weekend’s demonstrations exposes a racist double standard in civil resistance, suggesting protests advocating for the rights of those who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour have faced much harsher opposition for causing far less disruption.

“This smacks of racism and white privilege,” he said. “If you had a Muslim, or a brown person, or an Indigenous person who organized such an event and called for unseating the government of this country, security forces would have been down on them like a bag of hammers.”

Click to play video: 'Trucker convoy: Blaring horns, cheers as hundreds descend on Parliament'
Trucker convoy: Blaring horns, cheers as hundreds descend on Parliament

Sponsored content