The “Freedom Convoy” protest that gridlocked downtown Ottawa for weeks last winter started with two truck drivers on TikTok and quickly evolved into something no one organizer could control, a public inquiry heard Tuesday.
Organizer Chris Barber testified that the idea sprung up after he received a message on the social media site from a fellow truck driver, Brigitte Belton, out of the blue.
She was talking about organizing a protest against the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truck drivers who cross the border between Canada and the United States, Barber said.
“It literally exploded overnight,” Belton told the commission during her testimony.
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Before long, the two had assembled a loose group of core organizers, including Pat King. Within two weeks, thousands of trucks and protesters were headed to Ottawa.
There was no official leader of the convoy, Barber said.
But they hadn’t even arrived in Ottawa before rifts between organizers began, Barber told the commission investigating the federal government’s use of emergency powers to ultimately clear the protest.
“It was a power struggle a lot of the time,” he said.
Barber and Belton are among the first organizers to testify this week.
Before her testimony, a representative for Belton questioned the legitimacy of the commission and accused the judge presiding over it of being affiliated with the Liberal party because he was appointed by the government.
Jane Scharf, one of two paralegals to arrive with Belton Tuesday, is part of a group called “Stand4Thee,” which earlier in the year sought to have Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrested.
Justice Paul Rouleau responded by saying that she was incorrect, and while the government did appoint to lead the Public Order Emergency Commission, he has been an independent judge for more than 20 years.
The commission is tasked with determining whether the government was justified in triggering the never-before-used Emergencies Act on Feb. 14.
It began public hearings in Ottawa in mid-October and has so far heard from Ottawa residents and business associations, city officials and police. Hearings continue until Nov. 25.
The public viewing gallery was lively Tuesday, with Rouleau threatening to close proceedings off from in-person spectators if they wouldn’t agree to treat the inquiry like a courtroom.
A smattering of applause greeted Barber, who runs his own trucking company in Swift Current, Sask., as he entered.
He is a self-described internet “troll” who admitted to posting racist, anti-Muslim memes online. He also displayed a Confederate flag in his businesses. He said those flags are still there in his garage, but not on display.
Barber was arrested on Feb. 17 and charged with mischief, obstructing police, and counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation. He’s co-accused with fellow organizer Tamara Lich, and their trial is expected to take place next year.
As drivers were making their way to the capital, Barber said some of them became concerned about the role of Pat King, another organizer.
King, who had a large following, had suggested in a social media video that the prime minister was going to “catch a bullet.” Several participants wanted him to stay home as a result, Barber said.
In response, Barber put out a short TikTok video calling on people in the protest to keep their actions peaceful and to respect law enforcement.
“Anybody that joins this protest or this convoy, from either coast to coast, is to adhere to the rules of the convoy and I am dead serious,” he warned sternly from what appears to be the cab of his truck the week of Jan 24.
But by the time protesters arrived in Ottawa, Barber said he had a hard time finding agreement even on clearing lanes for emergency vehicles.
“I remember the first time we visited Kent (Street), we worked all day, we got that lane wide open and we were so proud of ourselves. We came back the next morning and it was completely plugged again,” he said, referring to one of the arteries that runs north to Parliament Hill from Ottawa’s central highway.
Barber said it was particularly difficult to clear lanes from an intersection east of the parliamentary precinct that was occupied by members of a Quebec group called the Farfadaas.
Ontario Provincial Police described the Farfadaas as an anti-government, quasi-sovereigntist group in an intelligence report submitted as evidence in the inquiry.
Steeve Charland, a member of the group who is facing criminal charges related to his involvement in the protest, told the commission Tuesday that he had little contact with the original convoy organizers.
The testimony made clear that various groups associated with the convoy could not even agree on why they were in the city.
And Barber insisted that those in Ottawa had nothing to do with protests that blocked border crossings elsewhere.
Barber said he was often at odds with another organizer, James Bauder, who runs a group called Canada Unity. The group had already mapped a route to Ottawa when Barber and Belton started working on their own plans, he said.
Bauder’s group also prepared a “memorandum of understanding” demanding that the Senate and Governor General force Trudeau and provinces to eliminate all COVID-19 restrictions.
Barber said that was not something his group came to Ottawa for, he didn’t read the MOU and he “will never read it.”
Barber and Belton both described the convoy as a peaceful, joyous event, with Barber saying the number who joined in was beyond his wildest dreams.
But a government lawyer confronted Barber with a graphic threat emailed to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
“When you start a fire and fan the flames, it can get out of control, and you had no control over those other factions who had come to this protest,” said federal lawyer Andrew Gibbs.
When his group arrived in Ottawa from Western Canada, Barber said he expected to be escorted by police to a staging area near Parliament Hill.
Instead, he said police escorted him right onto Wellington Street, outside the Supreme Court of Canada. The street was packed with trucks that had already arrived.
“I don’t know how things went so wrong when we first arrived,” Barber said, adding that it would have been better if the trucks were led off the main streets in the first place.
“Occupying or parking all over the city was never part of why we came,” he said.