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Dispatch from the Ottawa Front: Let freedom sing (badly)
When the streets empty out at night, the mood changes. And not for the better.
By: Matt Gurney
My second report (of three planned) from Ottawa will be a grimmer read than the first. But we might as well start with a moment or two of levity, of a kind.
On Tuesday afternoon, I returned to the site of the main protest, on Wellington Street, right along the southern side of Parliament Hill. The crowd was, in a general sense, the same as described in my first dispatch. The barbecues were going, the coffees were being poured, and the speeches were being made off the back of a flatbed truck, with a large Canadian flag, suspended from the chain of a large mobile crane hanging over it. The crowd had been entertained for some time by some singing, mostly of upbeat recent-ish pop hits. The singer was enthusiastic, positive, cheerful and, alas, not very good. She got plenty of applause anyway, especially each time she did a shout out to “Freedom!”
And then things got weirder.
One of the main responses to my first dispatch was skepticism that a tall white dude who easily blends in with the protest crowd was getting a “representative” view at the protest site. I shared that concern! And I was really explicitly clear about that in the first piece. You can take my reporting with all the lumps of salt you want. I am indeed a white dude, and so is almost everyone else at the protest site. It’s not universally white, but it’s overwhelmingly white. People wanted to know if my experience would have been different if I were a woman, or a person of colour, or wearing a mask, or any combination of those. I am also curious about that. I just don’t know, and can’t know. But I did make a point today of watching how anyone who was wearing a mask, or a person of colour, or a woman fared in the crowd. In my two hours on site today, I observed no problems. I don’t draw any conclusions from that, nor do I deny that it might take some bravery to walk through that crowd as a masked woman of colour. But in terms of what I saw, that’s all I can honestly tell you.
And now, to the absurdity.
As I was watching the singing, I was standing next to a young, masked black man. He seemed at ease, at least during our few moments together. Until the singing stopped. A young boy got up onto the stage. He was nervous, but it was announced that he was going to read a poem he had written to commemorate the protest. The poem, a woman with the microphone informed the crowd, was called “I Have a Dream” and was inspired, she helpfully explained, by the Rev. Martin Luther King.
I couldn’t help it. My eyes just sort of slid over to the black man next to me. He looked back at me, and we shrugged at each other. Not a word was exchanged, but that young man will live on in my memory as the purest distilled essence of exasperated disbelief I have ever seen compressed into human form.
(I won’t dunk on the boy’s poem. Let’s just say it didn’t exceed my expectations, and was surprisingly heavy on U.S. rhetoric.)
I witnessed other moments of almost comical absurdity as I walked the city, twice during the day and once, for almost three hours, last night. I saw one woman drop her Canadian flag, pick it up, and then walk off, only to belatedly realize that she’d made a terrible error: she was carrying it right-side up, not upside down, as has been typical of the protesters. She quickly corrected this. I saw one protester lock himself out of his truck. And on Tuesday, when I needed to make a quick call, I walked away from the main protest to find a quiet spot. After the call, I was bemused to realize that this conveniently silent and private public area was … Ottawa’s notoriously dull Sparks Street. Even with thousands of protesters a few dozen metres away, something about Sparks somehow seems to simply repel human presence.
There were also moments of plain dissonance, where it was hard to reconcile the various things all unfolding at once because they were just too weird a juxtaposition. Last night, I had to stop to take a call, and didn’t feel comfortable walking with a phone to my ear (lots more on that later). So I stopped someplace where I could put my back against something solid while I was distracted by the phone. A concrete railing over the Rideau Canal was a useful barrier and resting post. When I was done the call, I looked down at the canal, and saw a few skaters enjoying the evening. A young couple was skating slowly, hand in hand, down the frozen surface. It was a beautiful scene, almost iconically Canadian, and I watched them for a moment. And when I turned around to return my gaze to the protest, what I saw was a small group of OPP officers standing behind their parked cruiser, lights flashing, while they engaged in a stare off with a group of protesters by a pickup truck maybe a hundred feet away.
That, my friends, was a jarring mental transition. But then again, so is the transition from day to night down on Wellington Street (and nearby).
It’s a different place at night. Not in a good way. I got there around 8 p.m. or so on Monday. The streets had almost emptied out. Most of the office workers had gone home by then, I guess. The cheerful revellers had cleared out, too. The music had stopped, the folding tables mostly cleared and put away, and the encampment was quiet. The roving police patrols I’d noticed keeping such an overt presence during the day were gone as well. Instead, the officers had pulled back, way back, and taken positions on the streets and at intersections around the protest site. I saw one foot patrol go in, but just one, and not very far.
By 9:30 p.m., as I continued my walk through the area, there was a very clear difference between the vibe on either side of the police positions. Outside, the city was quiet — the horns had stopped, and there were no fireworks, and it felt like a pretty normal Canadian city. People milled about walking their dogs or picking up food. The nicotine addicts puffed away outside doorways of condo towers and office buildings.
Inside those cordons, though, things were not so good.
I want to be careful not to overstate this. I spent more than two hours inside the protest area last night, beyond the police cordons, walking around, and did not feel that I was in direct physical danger at any time. I made a promise to my wife that I’d not take stupid risks and I kept that promise. I didn’t feel I was in jeopardy walking those streets, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that the mood — the vibe — was different. When the party crowd leaves, what’s left is a much smaller group of men (it’s overwhelmingly men) who were either retiring to their idling vehicles to stay warm or gathered in small groups around propane heaters or bonfires, chatting. During the day, with a crowd to blend into, I could move around with impunity. At night, I was very clearly an outsider, and I was watched carefully.
I repeat: I did not feel in danger. I engaged in friendly chatter with a lot of the men. Everyone was polite. But any conversations around those fires died the moment I walked up. I mentioned in the first dispatch that I am typically “unsmiling,” but last night, I was strutting around like a pageant contestant, grinning at everyone, waving, trying to get a response. No dice. I wasn’t threatened or harassed and there was polite chit-chat aplenty. But no one had much to say to me, and I just kept moving on. From what little I overheard, the men were mostly chatting about the police, and wondering if they were going to “make a move.” A crowd at nearby Confederation Park had been cleared out on the weekend. I think the protesters expect another move soon. (So do I, but that’s for tomorrow.)
Something interesting about the people I saw at night, though? The hard men I mentioned in the first dispatch were gone, and most of the mentally ill. I don’t know where the latter went, and I suspect the former find it more comfortable to be in an anonymizing crowd. There’s nowhere to hide after dark — things were maybe a bit more busy toward ByWard Market but not much. It’s hard to overstate how deserted the streets were. It was packed during the day and near-to empty at night. The groups standing around were rarely larger than 10 people, and usually quite a bit smaller. And there weren’t that many of them. Most police cordons were mirrored by a small group of protesters. It might be an exaggeration to describe them as hostile toward each other. “Wary” might be a better word. In a few places the groups were close enough to chat, and I saw a bit of that, but not much. The whole thing had a weird “checkpoints at a DMZ border” feel to it. Which is a thought that’s going to fester, I think.
I grew up in or near a big city, though usually in posh enough areas. I don’t claim to have the world’s most attuned sense of “street smarts,” but I have some, and my guard was up continuously during my nighttime visit. Not out of a sense of danger, I stress again, so much as a heightened awareness that this was a time and place to pay attention. This was not akin to walking my dog through midtown Toronto while I listen to a podcast. It felt a lot like walking out at night to get your car in a neighbourhood with a lousy reputation. That’s why, when I had to take that call, I found a place where I could put my back against something solid. It wasn’t even conscious. When you live in big cities, you pick up certain habits, and last night, it was easy to fall into them.
The protesters weren’t the only ones who’d changed their demeanour, by the way. Not far from the Supreme Court, I was walking south on a quieter street, getting a sense of how quickly the noise of the idling trucks would fade in the quiet of the night. (Pretty quickly.) At one intersection, a young Mountie was standing outside his cruiser, eyeballing the street. For a big guy, I move surprisingly quietly — I have a frustrating habit of startling people by getting close to them before they’re aware of me. As I was moseying down the street toward this Mountie, whose back was turned to me, I began to realize that he had no idea I was coming. I began deliberately making some noise. Clomping my boots a bit harder; a few loud coughs into my hand. I didn’t want to sneak up on him, but he was standing where I was going. Maybe it was the sound of his idling engine or maybe the toque, but he didn’t hear me. But another cop, across the intersection, did see me coming, and once she realized that the Mountie didn’t, she moved very quickly and decisively toward me, alerting her partner. I put out my hands and smiled, and the situation was defused, but that female officer was on alert, and my approaching her oblivious partner scared her.
Once the sun goes down, everyone’s more tense, it seems. There is no doubt in my mind that this nighttime environment, for the late workers and dog walkers and cigarette puffers who actually must be there, is a much heavier burden than the bouncy castle crowd that hangs out during the daylight.
When I returned on Tuesday, to the bad singing and the worse poetry, the mood was much improved. That’s what an influx of cheerful people does. The crowd was much smaller today, but the weather was less pleasant — Monday, though cold, was at least sunny. Tuesday wasn’t much colder but it was greyer and there were flurries. I walked the entire length of the Wellington Street protest, and a bit down Bank Street, a north-south route that intersects the Wellington protest like a T. I didn’t see much on Tuesday that changed anything I’d concluded on the Monday, but I did have a chance, given the smaller crowds, to move more freely and deliberately, and look for specific things I’d wanted to keep an eye out for. The next little bit of this dispatch will be a bit disjointed, but here are some random observations that I’d like to relay, gathered both on Monday and Tuesday.
There have been reports of disabled vehicles — deliberately disabled, that is, to make it harder for the site to be cleared. I did see some, but not many, and most of the ones I saw were much smaller personal vehicles, not the large transport trucks. How many? I didn’t take a firm count so I can’t give a more accurate estimate than “a few but not a lot.” I expected to see more. For what that might mean in terms of the logistics of clearing out the protest eventually, I can’t say … but dragging out a wheel-less pickup truck isn’t the same challenge as dragging out a literal mobile crane. I did see some vehicles with engines that were partially (or in one case, almost entirely) removed, and a few others with their hoods open while men worked on the engines. I don’t know if they were being deliberately disabled or needed maintenance; given that the idling engines are providing power and heat, I imagine the latter. I asked one man what he was up to with his truck, a large tractor. He just smiled at me and said, “Oh, a few things.” Read into what what you will.
Fuel is still flowing freely to the vehicles, and to portable generators that some protesters are using to power RVs and campers. As mentioned above, there are also propane heaters, including some large industrial ones, the kind you see at an outdoor worksite, not at your local patio when the weather gets a bit nippy. These require large propane tanks. I observed a group of men changing the tank for one, using a wagon to transport it from a small stash of such tanks collected within steps of the fence around Parliament Hill. These are laid in plain sight. (See photo above, from Tuesday afternoon — that’s the wagon, not the stash.)
Many of the vehicles that are part of the protests have been covered in hand-written well wishes from protesters and visitors. Sometimes with pens or markers, but often just by fingers into the dust and grime the vehicles have collected. There are a few slogans — “Fuck Trudeau,” “End the Mandates” and whatnot — but it’s mostly just names and well wishes. And speaking of slogans, there’s virtually no partisan signs around, which probably comes as a relief to the parties. I saw a handful, tops, of PPC signs, and one of those had been torn and shoved into a wastebasket. Sorry, Max.
One thing that was truly weird is the number of people wandering the site doing livestreams or podcasts. You see this at many large protests or even just cultural events, but boy howdy, was there ever an unusual number of them. All Canadians know it’s poor manners to walk in front of someone who’s about to snap a picture. Now imagine that, but it’s 50 people, all stumbling around with selfie sticks narrating their impressions to whatever followers are watching from home. Some of these streams seemed as much about tourism as anything else: “Hey guys, check this out! Isn’t it crazy! Subscribe today!” Some of the more animated streamers had a more strident edge and were railing at their audiences about freedom and dictatorships and oppression and even, in one case, revolution. So that’s a cheerful thought.
I saw a report on Tuesday that perhaps as many as 100 of the trucks have children in them. I couldn’t begin to estimate how many actually do, but there are families there together, and lots more people with dogs. During the daytime, the kids are playing freely and seem to be having a terrific time. The entire event must seem an adventure. I don’t know where they go at night; I have no doubt some are sleeping in the trucks with their families, but I don’t think anyone can guess how many that would be. Some of the protesters are staying in nearby hotels. I’ve run into some in my lobby. The woman at the checkout counter told me, with a weary eyeroll, that she’s never seen so many “medical exemptions” to masking. And isn’t it wonderfully romantic, she added, how many of the couples checking in got their medical exemptions together! What are the odds?
As I was preparing to leave the downtown area, I stopped quickly into a few convenience stores, fast food places and a Starbucks, to ask how things have been. These are all businesses in immediate walking distance of Parliament Hill. I did not observe any that were closed outright, and all the people I spoke with reported that things were “better” or some variation on that. It’s been loud, they agreed, but improving. One or two places reported rude customers who refused to mask. None reported anything worse than that.
Oh, and as to the noise? The court granted an injunction against honking on Monday, and this was being mostly honoured on Tuesday, during my rounds. There were some exceptions, but not many, and they were brief. Some trucks were revving their engines loudly, but only a few, and a revving engine isn’t nearly as offensive as a blaring horn. I truly believe that the assault of the horns is perhaps the most unique feature of this entire affair, and I can’t help but wonder what took 11 days – and action by an individual citizen — to get that injunction filed. The degree to which it is being honoured suggests it could have been helpful much earlier, and also offers a glimmer of hope. If an injunction to stop honking is being honoured, what others might be?
That’s about the only good news I can offer, actually. My second day in Ottawa, and particularly my second night, has left me deeply worried that a bad outcome is highly likely. But that will have to wait for my third dispatch.
Until then, from the capital, take care.
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