When Justin Romanov fled to Canada from Russia nearly a decade ago, he found a safe haven. As a refugee who had been repeatedly beaten by police in Moscow for protesting in support of LGBTQ rights, he felt safe enough to build a life — finding a partner and buying a house just outside Ottawa.
But over the past two weeks, Romanov, 26, said he has seen a different side of Canada, with an unprecedented demonstration in the country’s capital. The hundreds of truckers and protesters rallying outside Ottawa’s Parliament Hill and demanding an end to Covid-19 vaccine mandates have made him and many others in the city afraid.
“I just don’t feel safe to be there,” Romanov, who travels downtown every day to work as a food delivery driver, told NBC News. “I do not feel safe in downtown Ottawa right now because I have a feeling if people will learn that I’m a refugee and a gay, I’m afraid of some trouble there and to be honest, I am a little bit disappointed that this protest (is) still happening across Canada.”
Not only is the “Freedom Convoy” protest still happening in Canada, bringing chaos to the capital and traffic on its busiest crossing with the United States to a halt, but its influence has also reached across the border with officials warning that a trucker convoy could disrupt the Super Bowl this weekend near Los Angeles, before making its way to Washington, D.C. The warning was issued in a Department of Homeland Security bulletin obtained by NBC News.
Meanwhile, copycat convoys have also formed in New Zealand, Australia, France and elsewhere. Meanwhile, organizers online have said a demonstration planned for Monday in Belgium’s capital, Brussels, will see convoys merge from countries across Europe.
While the demonstration in Ottawa began in opposition to vaccination rules for truckers crossing the border, it quickly became a rallying point against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government and coronavirus regulations across the country.
And while some have gathered peacefully, reports of demonstrators blaring their horns throughout the night, accosting residents wearing masks, committing property damage and theft along with the rare, but still disturbing, presence of Confederate flags and flags bearing swastikas, the demonstration has left many Ottawa residents on edge and afraid to leave their homes.
‘I don’t leave my apartment after dark’
One woman, a nursing student living in downtown Ottawa who requested anonymity over fears for her safety, told NBC News she had been accosted multiple times for wearing a mask by people appearing to belong to the “Freedom Convoy.”
“They’re targeting anyone who’s wearing a mask, anyone who’s respecting public health policy,” she said. “I myself have been accosted at least three times.”
“I had one man try to rip my mask off. I’ve been screamed at, I’ve been told to go back to my country,” she said, after someone heard her speak with an accent.
Since being accosted, she said she has been afraid to leave her home after dark and refuses to go out after dark alone. “It’s not safe. It’s really very scary,” she said.
A ‘vengeful act’
Another Ottawa resident, Matias Muñoz, said an incident he believes was related to the demonstration could have cost him and others their lives.
On Sunday morning, two people entered Muñoz’s building and appeared to begin to light a fire, before taping up the front door of the residence in an incident captured on surveillance video.
Muñoz said in an interview that the incident happened after frustrated residents in the building had clashed with demonstrators, demanding that they stop sounding their horns and making noise in the middle of the night.
“There was no physical altercation. It was really verbal. But some people got angry in the protesters’ group, so that was kind of the scene that was set that night,” he said.
He acknowledged that he could not say for sure whether the fire was set by people associated with the convoy. The incident is now in the hands of the Ottawa Police Service, with detectives asking for the public’s help in locating the suspects.
One sentiment that all three residents shared was that the demonstration that has taken over Ottawa’s streets does not feel representative of the Canada they know.
“Canada is a very diverse country and Ottawa is very diverse,” Romanov said. But the protest, he said, “looks like it is a small minority of white people who have radical ideas (and) are standing against this (vaccine) mandate.”
The nursing student echoed his thoughts, saying she believed there was “definitely a far-right ‘underbelly’ and from what I’ve seen, they aren’t trying to hide it.”
‘We’re peaceable people’
Organizers and demonstrators with the rally have repeatedly sought to distance the demonstration from Canada’s far-right presence.
Speaking in a phone interview on Wednesday, Tim Coderre, a volunteer coordinator of the convoy, said that while there may be “isolated pockets of people who are randomly doing things on their own,” those people did not represent the overall movement.
“We’re peaceable people,” he said. However, he said the protest has been propelled by “a very, very rich movement with a lot of players.”
Ultimately, he said the demonstration he identifies with is aimed at protecting people’s “freedoms and liberties.”
“We don’t care if a person wants to take the vaccine, that’s their choice. We just want the same choice to have reservations about it,” he said.
Canada’s far-right ‘underbelly’
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a nonprofit group that monitors hate groups, far-right groups and hate crimes in Canada, has repeatedly said that some of those players, including some of the protest’s biggest proponents, with two people behind early crowdfunding initiatives to support the demonstration among them, appeared to be associated with “the far-right movement” in Canada.
The organization has also noted that one of the most prominent early supporters of the demonstration was Pat King, who it said is a well-known figure in Canada’s “far-right ecosystem.”
In an interview, Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said that while the protests may have started with demonstrating against vaccine mandates, they appeared to have been effectively “co-opted” by the far right.
“You don’t need a large number of people to co-opt a protest like this. You need a few instigators, you need a couple of Nazi flags and Confederate flags, and the media quite rightly so starts focusing in on that,” he said.
While that ecosystem has existed for some time, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network has said that especially “since the start of the pandemic, Covid conspiracies have been bringing various fringe and far-right elements together” across the country.
And when it comes to the Freedom Convoy, the organization said: “Many of their supporters swear this isn’t about the far-right, and even, bizarrely, that they aren’t anti-vaccine. Most of them probably believe it, too. But the organizers behind the convoy, and where it emerged from, paint a very different picture.”
Amid police clampdown, protest spreads beyond Canada’s border
In recent days, police and government officials appear to have ramped up efforts to bring the nearly two-week demonstration to an end.
On Sunday, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared a “state of emergency,” saying the demonstration posed a “serious danger and threat to the safety and security of residents” as police began to block fuel from reaching demonstrators. So far, at least 85 police investigations have also been opened in connection with the protests, including for alleged hate crimes, mischief, property damage and theft, while more than 1,300 tickets have been issued.
Trudeau has denounced protesters’ tactics, saying the chaos “has to stop” during an emergency debate in Parliament on Monday night.
But as police and politicians work to contain the chaos in Canada, it has already seeped beyond the country’s borders, with some, including former President Donald Trump, appearing to fan its flames.
In New Zealand, scores of people rallying against vaccine and mask mandates joined a convoy to the capital, Wellington, on Tuesday, with a number of participants spotted carrying “Trump 2024” flags.
Meanwhile, another self-branded “convoy” also appeared to take formation in France, making its way from Nice to Paris to demonstrate against coronavirus rules.
Some members of the convoy were also expected to join a demonstration in Brussels next week, which organizers have billed on social media as a major event that will include “convoys” from across Europe, signaling a potential new chapter in the saga sparked in Canada’s capital.
Coderre, the volunteer convoy coordinator, said he believed the demonstrations will only grow.
“The ‘fringe minority’ is coming out in full tail,” he said, invoking Trudeau’s words. “It’s not as fringe as he thought it was.”