Ottawa residents who lived through the convoy blockade in late January and February told the inquiry probing the invocation of the Emergencies Act that they felt “terrified” and that they had “no escape” from the blaring horns, diesel fumes and fireworks pinging off their windows.
Victoria De La Ronde, a resident of the Centretown neighbourhood — one of the most densely occupied areas of the protest — said the impact on her physical well-being caused by the protest was “quite extensive.”
“I certainly, during the experience, had difficulty sleeping. I had an effect on my lungs and my throat because of the fumes and other smells. And I also have long-term effects,” she said.
“The long-term effects are loss of hearing, loss of balance, some vertigo. (I’m) triggered by the sound of any horn now.”
De La Ronde, who has difficulty with her eyesight, said she often relies on sound to get around. This left her stranded amid the blaring horns, and compounded the impact of her long-term hearing loss. The experience, she said, was one of extreme helplessness.
“The horn-blowing was so loud and continuous, there was absolutely no place for me to go in my own unit. There was no place that had any less sound,” she said.
“I checked different rooms to see, well, maybe I can sleep on the floor here. There was no place at that had a diminished sound.”
She said she felt “trapped” in her own home, particularly as fireworks pinged off the windows in the middle of the night.
“During the fireworks, when the debris from the fireworks sprayed against my windows, I was just terrified that they would break any minute,” she said, adding the consequences of broken windows during the bitterly cold Ottawa winter would have been difficult.
The inquiry into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act heard first-hand testimony on Friday about the impact February’s so-called “Freedom Convoy” protest had on the people and businesses in downtown Ottawa.
Six witnesses are scheduled to speak, including De La Ronde, and Zexi Li, the 21-year-old public servant who filed a class-action lawsuit against Freedom Convoy organizers and participants on behalf of her fellow downtown Ottawa residents.
Li sought and was granted an injunction to stop protesters from using vehicle horns downtown after days of deafening honking from big-rig trucks parked in residential areas and the parliamentary precinct.
Her day to day situation during what she described as an “occupation” was one of “living in fear.”
“Oftentimes I was harassed for wearing a mask,” she said.
“They would blast their horns at me with a smile on their faces, and then they would cheer in unison and almost take joy in the in my flinching, my recoiling from the noise that I had been essentially experiencing non-stop for the entire duration of the events that occurred.”
Li is represented in that class action by Ottawa lawyer Paul Champ, who is also representing downtown Ottawa community associations and business improvement areas throughout the hearings.
During her testimony, Li described the measures she saw neighbours take to try to get some sleep amid the incessant honking.
One mother had to take her baby “out into the hallway, as far from the windows as possible, and bounce her in the hallways to try and get her to sleep,” Li said. Then the mother would have to bring the baby “back into the apartment where there was just the unrelenting horns.”
Others, she said, would “go down to the parking lot” underneath the condo building and “sleep in their car because it was the only place that they could escape to.”
The honking trucks would also idle in residential areas for extended periods of time. The diesel fumes that emerged as a result of this “permeated drapes, blinds, bedding, carpet,” according to De La Ronde.
“The full unit had a dull gaseous odor about it,” she said.
Diesel spilled onto the streets alongside the thick fumes in the air, according to De La Ronde. Despite this, protesters lit bonfires just meters from her home.
“They were roasting food out a few meters from my building,” De La Ronde said.
“There was such a potential for … a huge fire and an explosion. I was concerned that if I could actually get those earplugs to work, then I wouldn’t hear if my smoke alarm went off.”
'There was fear': Councillors describe 'nonstop' noise, threats
Catherine McKenney, the city councillor who represented one of the downtown wards impacted most during the protest, told the inquiry that people were braced for “serious disruption” ahead of the first weekend of the convoy, but expected things would return to normal by the end of the weekend.
So constituents were “surprised, and frustrated, and angry” when trucks were allowed to stay, McKenney said.
The councillor, and now mayoral candidate, was a vocal opponent of the convoy protest because of the disturbance it caused people who live and work in their ward, particularly the residential areas of the core.
“There was fear,” McKenney said.
“After Monday, when it didn’t end, it just became — in the words of people who were calling me and talking to me — they felt like they were under a great deal of threat.”
McKenney said they had to help one couple leave downtown “with a police escort in the first weekend.”
“There was a pride flag in their window. Their apartment was targeted. Somebody had defecated on the back step. And then later that night, you know, a pick up truck with angry people in it came back and were harassing and yelling at them,” the city councillor said.
“At that point, they felt very unsafe, and we had a police … escort them out.”
Residents felt a “general sense of fear, terror” they also felt “abandoned by their city and by their police,” McKenney added. Walking through the residential streets was when McKenney said they felt “most threatened, adding that they received homophobic threats as they passed through the protest.
“Everything combined just made for an exceptionally dangerous environment” McKenney said, pointing to the proximity of fuel cans, fireworks and fires near homes.
Mathieu Fleury, city councillor for the adjacent Rideau-Vanier ward, convened daily briefings between city officials and members of the local community and business groups during the convoy. He said residents in the most-affected areas were facing “number of micro aggressions” and were “scared to leave” their homes.
“And when they left, there was a number of incidents near the red zone which created additional anxiety,” Fleury said, referring to the “secure area” the police established in the downtown core in the later period of the convoy.
Fleury said he also spoke with the executive director at Shepherds of Good Hope, a homeless shelter in downtown Ottawa, about an incident where “one of the homeless residents … was assaulted and beaten up, and where food was stolen.”
Buses intended to provide accessible transportation to Ottawa residents also couldn’t make their way into the downtown core, Fleury said As a result, some residents “couldn’t get to to their cancer treatment because the bus couldn’t get there and they were not mobile.”
McKenney said they reported “hundreds” of emails and phone calls to police, but police “just weren’t responding to the threats people felt they were under.”
“People just felt very abandoned,” they said.
“While this was happening in their residential area, in their neighbourhood, they had no security.”
Police reaction ahead of convoy 'baffling,' witness says
Questions quickly emerged during the hearings about the Ottawa Police Service’s handling of the convoy — both before the protesters arrived, and once they were there.
“It didn’t seem to be taken as seriously as other events,” said Nathalie Carrier, the executive director at ZAC Quartier Vanier Business Improvement Area, which represents the neighbourhood east of the parliamentary precinct.
Police did not seem to prepare properly for the protest’s arrival, according to Carrier.
She described a conversation between community business leaders and officials from the Ottawa police in which police said they could not stop the convoy trucks from arriving. Carrier said that did not seem to match how police had acted to control or limit traffic in downtown areas in the past, such as La Machine, which saw giant mechanical beasts showcased throughout Ottawa’s streets.
“(Sloly said) ‘I can’t stop vehicles from driving in the City of Ottawa,’ which was baffling to me personally, as an events person, because we have and we do often for events,” Carrier explained.
Kevin McHale, executive director of the Sparks Street Business Improvement Area, which represents the pedestrian-only shopping and dining district just south of the Parliament buildings, said he was told the same thing.
“Basically (police said) they didn’t have the right to stop the vehicles from coming in,” he explained.
When pressed on whether they felt they had the information they needed to be prepared for the looming protest, both McHale and Carrier replied “no.” And as the vehicles dug in and the situation deteriorated, Carrier said she had a call with then-Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly that left her “shaken.”
“I remember being scared, personally, because I remember the chief saying at one point, ‘you guys are scared. I get it. I’m scared, too,'” Carrier said, her voice shaking.
“I thought, if the chief of police is scared, something much bigger is happening here than a protest — and that personally scared me.”
The call made her realize, she said, that “everyone was caught off guard.”
“Everyone,” Carrier repeated.
A lawyer representing Sloly pushed back at Carrier’s description of what the former chief said in that conversation, and said that his client was going to tell the commission during his upcoming testimony that “he didn’t say that” he was personally scared, but rather that his client was expressing empathy.
Once protesters had set up across downtown Ottawa, some residents found themselves frustrated by what the police did — and did not — respond to.
“They’re supposed to be supporting us and making sure us, as the public and the community, feel safe and that the laws are upheld,” said Li.
There were issues with “illegal fireworks, illegal fires, public urination, public defecation, harassment on the streets, soup kitchens,” Li said. But despite making calls to law enforcement reporting fireworks and open fires in the vicinity of gasoline, “nothing” came of the report.
Li described frustration when she said some people in her condo building began throwing eggs at the protesters from their balconies, and police responded.
“When that incident occurred, I remember the police actually came to my building to inquire about the egg-throwing as a complaint had been made by the truckers,” she said.
It was an “affront,” Li said, in “light of everything that was happening to us and what they were really ignoring.”
Ottawa still facing 'years' of recovery: business leader
For businesses in the downtown core, the impact was “devastating,” according to McHale.
“It’s something we still deal with today,” he said.
Ottawa’s downtown mall, the Rideau Centre, was forced to close during the protests — something that cost them “two million dollars a day,” Carrier said. She also pointed to the impact on small businesses, including a local bakery in the region her business improvement association covers.
“They were closed for three weekends. The worst of which would be Valentine’s Day. and and Family Day,” she said, adding those holidays typically amount for a large amount of business for the bakery.
Many downtown businesses also had to close their doors, and Carrier said their business suffered due to protesters handing out free hot dogs and snacks on the street right in front of store’s doors.
As a result of the protest, Wellington Street, which is directly across from Parliament, remains closed to this day. During the demonstrations, police also directed visitors “not to come downtown.”
We’ve already seen, in tourism numbers this summer, they’re down. We’re continuing to see that the reputation of the city has been — as a place to visit — has been greatly tarnished,” McHale said.
“It is going to take us years to truly recover for that in the downtown core — if we ever do.”
The hearings are expected to run for six weeks, with testimony from 65 witnesses representing all levels of government, various police agencies, as well as organizers of the convoy.
— with files from The Canadian Press