The problem with Ottawa’s protesters

OTTAWA — To meet or not to meet, that is the question: As the occupation of Ottawa drags through its second week, even a simple meeting is complicated.

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The protesters want a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to demand an end to all vaccine mandates, and say they won’t leave until he acquiesces. Opposition leader Candice Bergen wants Trudeau to step up to solve the “crisis,” just a week after meeting with protesters and telling them, “Don’t stop, it’s working.”

Between a huge influx of cash, an entrenched encampment in the center of the city, and support from establishment politicians — there’s no telling when these protesters plan to leave.

“I’m willing to sit at a table with the Conservatives, and the NDP, and the Bloc [Québécois], as a coalition,” said Tom Marazzo, who acted as a spokesperson for the occupiers at a late-night press conference on Monday. “I’ll sit with the governor general. You put us at the table with somebody that actually cares about Canada.”

The mounting demands from the occupiers, who have entrenched themselves into downtown Ottawa since the last weekend in January, are a grab bag of anti-establishment, anti-government anger. But there’s one clear objective: Eliminate all requirements and mandates for the Covid-19 vaccine.

While the occupation notionally began in protest of a vaccine requirement for truckers crossing the U.S.-Canada border, their grievances stretch much further than truckers.

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Marazzo’s group, Police on Guard for Thee, contends in a statement of claim filed to an Ontario court that all public health measures — from masks to PCR testing — are “not scientifically, or medically, based.” They view workplace vaccine mandates as “extortion” and unconstitutional. His group is just one part of the coalition of groups occupying Canada’s capital. The other groups, many who share the same lawyer, have endorsed similarly outlandish claims.

These grandiose demands, particularly to have an audience with Canada’s unelected governor general — a largely ceremonial role, as the queen’s representative in the country, who has no say over government policy — show not only a clear misunderstanding of Canada’s democratic system, but also underscore why meeting with them is so fundamentally difficult, if not impossible.

Trudeau’s opposition in Parliament has had a different take on the occupation. Before the Conservative Party, led by interim leader Candice Bergen, began calling for a solution to the “crisis point,” she was enthusiastically meeting with the occupiers.

In an emergency debate held Monday night, Bergen told the House of Commons that Trudeau shoulders responsibility for worsening the protests “by calling people names who did not take the vaccine.” She implored the prime minister: “Will he agree to meet with the leaders here, the other opposition leaders and me, so that we can talk about a solution?”

Exactly a week earlier, Bergen sang a different tune.

Pizza and a photo op

On Jan. 31, Member of Parliament Marilyn Gladu posted a photo on Facebook of herself and Bergen sitting over pizza and drinks in a downtown Ottawa restaurant with two men. “Meeting with hard working truckers in Ottawa!” the caption read. The protesters had been occupying Ottawa for three days at this point.

Gladu was just one of many Conservatives eager to express their solidarity with truckers. In this case, though, neither man was impacted by the cross-border vaccine mandate. One owns a construction company; the other is a landscaper. Both traveled from other parts of Ontario to participate in the occupation.

One of the men also shared the photo of the impromptu meeting: “They said thank you for all we are doing and to keep at it,” one of the men wrote. The photo shows the four dined together. “So encouraging to get this right from our leaders who were in the house today challenging Mr Trudeau on his lies,” he continued. “So cool meeting them and having their support.”

Gladu shared her own photo of the dinner a half-hour later.

“Ms. Bergen, her husband, and MP Gladu were eating dinner. The two men were sitting at the booth next to them and asked to take a photo,” a spokesperson for the Conservative caucus wrote. “She did not have dinner with the individuals in the photo.”

One of the protesters offers a different description of the meeting.

“When they saw that we were obviously protesters — truck drivers, kind of thing — Candice reached out immediately, and said: ‘I just want to let you know, we are in full support of you guys, keep what you’re doing,’” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

The protester said Bergen was clear: “Don’t stop. It’s working.”

“I asked her about the whole no-confidence vote,” the protester said, raising the idea that the Conservatives could provoke a vote in the House to topple Trudeau’s government. Bergen rejected the idea: “She said that’s not the route we want to go right now.”

He says they spoke with Bergen and Gladu for at least 10 minutes.

Two days after his meeting, the protester wrote to his Facebook friends, encouraging them to support Bergen and Conservative Party leadership contender Pierre Poilievre.

Inside the mindset

Both protesters have been a part of the occupation since it arrived in Ottawa. Nothing in their social media presence suggests either of the men is violent — both have repeatedly expressed their belief that the occupation is overwhelmingly peaceful and positive. One even welcomed their family to the protest area, and endorsed the message — albeit under court order — to cease the relentless horn honking. A reprieve “will win some of the city people back to us,” he wrote.

At the same time, both are emblematic of an intense anti-government and anti-vaccine ideology that ran through the convoy and ensuing occupation, which some Conservatives cheered on. Ever since details about the organizations and organizers behind the convoy emerged — showing that some have endorsed QAnon, questioned the true death toll of the Holocaust, and warned of the “Islamization of Canada” — Conservatives have insisted that they identify with the protesters, not the organizers. Erin O’Toole, who was leader of the Conservative Party until he was ousted by his own MPs last week, insisted, “I’m meeting with truckers that are part of the convoy. I’m not meeting with the organizers.”

But these two protesters who met with Bergen and Gladu are representative of the conspiratorial mindset in the rank and file of the protest.

“Keep posting your photos of you getting the ‘vaccine.’ It helps us identify those that may need help in the future for health problems,” the protester who spoke to me wrote last June. “Let’s hope this ‘vaccine’ wasn’t the actual method they are planning to depopulate the earth with.” A few months earlier: “Why are they pushing this vaccine so hard??? They have said it doesn’t work, so how is it the answer? Seems like they are hiding something.” Earlier, he shared a meme repeating a long-debunked conspiracy theory that HIV antiretrovirals, not AIDS, were responsible for scores of deaths — and accusing Anthony Fauci of being responsible. Before that: “No need for lockdowns or mask. Never was a need.”

During the occupation, he posted a meme of Trudeau in handcuffs — “my mandates have killed more than I promised they would save,” it reads. “Now my punishment should fit the crimes.”

The second protester has peddled the debunked allegation that Covid-19 vaccines have been responsible for a significant number of deaths, and that media companies are covering the true death toll.

The protester said he was vaccinated, “for work,” but that he won’t vaccinate his children.

“I’m not against vaccines whatsoever,” he told me. “But this one, there was too much uncertainty.”

Wander through the crowd in downtown Ottawa and you’re likely to hear a significant amount of vaccine skepticism and misinformation in the crowd, which they picked up from self-styled experts online.

But you’re also likely to hear personal stories about why they’ve turned so sour on these life-saving innovations: The protester told me his relationship with his parents broke down because he refuses to vaccinate his kids. There are stories in that crowd of mental health struggles and suicides, which the protesters blame on the mandates.

Of course, the scientific and medical communities have come to an overwhelming consensus: Covid-19 vaccines are incredibly safe and correspond to a vanishingly small rate of complications. Even if they have been less effective in preventing infection from the Omicron variant, they slash the mortality rate for Covid-19 across the board. They are the solution to bringing this whole pandemic to an end, and alleviating the mental health burden on everyone.

Yet the protester is still convinced that the jury is out. “They certainly haven’t given us enough time and run it through the scientific method enough times,” he told me from downtown Ottawa.

The only place where this debate continues to rage is on conspiracy-minded outlets such as InfoWars and the Canadian online outlet Rebel News — which has inserted itself in the occupation and appears frequently on the protesters’ Facebook pages. Canadian politicians like Maxime Bernier, leader of the far-right nationalist People’s Party of Canada, have also sowed doubt about the vaccines.

Prior to the dinner with Bergen and Gladu both men shared posts supportive of the People’s Party of Canada. “Referendum and put this guy in charge,” one wrote of Bernier.

I asked him whether his opposition to these vaccines makes it difficult for the prime minister to come out and meet them and to hear their concerns — that sitting down with them could legitimize their concerns, which aren’t backed up by science.

He didn’t think so. “They are not giving anything back,” he said. “[Trudeau] just continually doubles down on vaccination as the way to cure this.”

‘The PM’S problem’

As the second week of this occupation wears on, draining Ottawa’s resources and residents’ patience, even amiable occupiers are contributing to the tense and difficult situation.

Some of the protesters have started issuing dire warnings that riot police are en route to the city to conduct a mass arrest. Organizer Pat King called for Ottawa police officers to lay charges against their own chief of police, Peter Sloly, calling him a “puppet” of Trudeau.

The protester who spoke with me wrote on Feb. 6 that there is “clearly lots of law enforcement against us.”

There’s little incentive for the protesters to leave, however, as they gain worldwide notoriety and cash continues to flow in. Since their GoFundMe was canceled by the crowdfunding site, they have raised north of $7 million from various sources, including in bitcoin.

As the occupation has dragged on, Bergen has called on Trudeau to “find solutions that will allow the good people of Ottawa to get back to their lives and businesses.”

Emails obtained by The Globe and Mail reveal Bergen, before she became interim leader, resisted the idea of asking the protesters to go home. “We need to turn this into the PM’s problem,” she insisted. (At least one Tory MP, former leader Andrew Scheer, is still supportive of the occupation — he was pictured Wednesday heading down to chat with the occupiers and giving them a thumbs up.)

The “peaceful resolution to this impasse” Bergen described in a letter to the prime minister might be easier said than done. As her dinner date wrote on Facebook the day before they enjoyed a drink together: “There is however a very simple way to get this convoy to disperse and move out. Trudeau can step down [as] PM and then have all the mandates and lockdowns ended! This is the only way this ends.”

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