With the illegal insurrection in Canada’s capital now entering its third week, close observers are linking the occupation to past protests supporting pipelines and fossil fuels, digging into the white supremacist funding and logistics behind the convoy, and spotlighting the increasingly serious health impacts for downtown Ottawa residents exposed to round-the-clock noxious diesel fumes, deafening truck horns, and random harassment and intimidation in their neighbourhoods.
The wall-to-wall news coverage is picking up the complexity of an urban invasion that produced three starkly different storylines:
• The Nazi, Confederate, and Three Percenter flags paraded through downtown Ottawa in the early days of the occupation, combined with the paramilitary tone and efficiency of the occupiers’ supply and logistics camp, set up in a baseball stadium parking lot six kilometres from Parliament Hill;
• The continuing siege that has driven many downtowners out of their homes, with protesters taking shifts to blare air horns around the clock until an interim court injunction shut them down for 10 days;
• The feeling of giddy celebration surrounding the more than 400 trucks still gathered in the immediate vicinity of Parliament Hill earlier in the week—about one-quarter of them occupied by families that had brought their children along.
Within a week of the convoy’s arrival, Ottawa’s EnviroCentre had begun adding up the carbon dioxide and particulate emissions assaulting residents of the city’s Centretown, Lowertown, and ByWard Market neighbourhoods, with irate truckers idling their vehicles for 16 or more hours per day. Health professionals pointed out that the price of convoy participants’ “freedom” would soon be measured in respiratory and heart disease, hearing loss, and potentially long-lasting emotional trauma for the citizens in their path, not to mention the children in their midst.
Some of the participants digging in for a long-term occupation, fed up with two years of pandemic restrictions, are describing this event as the most important moment they’ve ever been a part of. Equally fed-up local residents say the estimated 100 children in the crowd amount to a human shield, impeding efforts to shut down a radical right leadership pursuing a delusional bid to get Governor General Mary May Simon to dissolve a duly-elected government. (Children were being deployed more obviously at the heavily-travelled Ambassador Bridge between Ontario and Michigan—video image at 39:36.)
Carney: ‘This is Sedition’
Ottawa resident Mark Carney, the former Bank of Canada and Bank of England governor now serving as UN special envoy for climate finance, was uncompromising in his assessment of the occupation.
“No one should have any doubt,” he wrote in the Globe and Mail earlier this week. “This is sedition. That’s a word I never thought I’d use in Canada. It means ‘incitement of resistance to or insurrection against lawful authority.’”
On the first weekend after the convoy arrived, it was “understandable that many would want to come to Ottawa to protest” after two years of pandemic restrictions, and “many Canadians who joined the demonstrations undoubtedly had peaceful objectives,” Carney said. But that was before two weeks of blocked streets, harassment, intimidation, alleged assaults on downtown residents wearing masks, and one group of protesters allegedly trying to set fire to a 100-unit apartment building with barbecue briquettes at around 4:00 AM and nearly succeeding. At last report, the local arson squad was investigating.
“From now on, those who are occupying the downtown of our country’s capital should be in no doubt,” Carney wrote. “They are no longer simply advocating a different strategy to end COVID-19. They are not patriots. This is not about ‘restoring freedom’ but beginning anarchy. This isn’t getting carried away at a rally. It’s not a rush of blood to the head. It’s deliberate and calculated, and because of that, they must know that from now on, there will be consequences for their actions.”
Looking back, “the goals of the leadership of the so-called freedom convoy were clear from the start: to remove from power the government that Canadians elected less than six months ago,” Carney added.
‘Peaceful Overthrow’ of a Government
“Their blatant treachery was dismissed as comic, which meant many didn’t take them as seriously as they should have,” he added. “Certainly not our public safety authorities, whose negotiations facilitated the convoy’s entry into the heart of our capital and have watched as its dangerous infrastructure has been steadily reinforced—a policy of engagement that has amounted to a reality of appeasement.”
Occupation leaders withdrew their 15-page “memorandum of understanding” February 8, claiming that it “does not reflect the spirit and intent” of the occupation and “we do not want any unintended interpretations to continue”. But the document, still available online, clearly lays out its authors’ intention to replace the Canada’s national government with a “Citizens of Canada Committee” with representation from Simon, the Senate, and Canada Unity, the main organizing group behind the convoy.
Just days before Canada Unity took down the document, a news site from Thunder Bay, Ontario reported that the group was “advocating a peaceful overthrow of the Trudeau government” and “actually looking for help from the Senate and Governor General in order to achieve that goal.”
That cause “has attracted the company of far right, anti-government, and other fringe groups in Canada,” the New York Times writes. “In the first days, in Ottawa, at least two flags with Nazi swastikas fluttered in the crowd. Many demonstrators were draped in flags that told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau where to go, rudely. They demanded Parliament be dissolved, and Mr. Trudeau be removed from office.”
As the second week of the insurrection dragged on, occupiers shifted their demands, with spokesperson Tom Marazzo proposing that the Opposition Conservatives, New Democrats, and Bloc Québécois form a coalition to negotiate with a core group of convoy organizers. Michael Kempa, associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, declared that plan a “non-starter”, since “no other external party can become part of a coalition government. That’s just not how a constitutional democracy works.”
Marazzo’s spectacle had Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson saying the protesters were embarrassing themselves with scenes out of a Monty Python sketch, and urged them to just go home.
From Pipeline Backers to Insurrectionists
By the time the convoy rolled into town January 28, The Canadian Press had already connected some of its main organizers to a fossil-funded white supremacist event three years ago, where hundreds of trucks mobilized by the Yellow Vest movement came to town for a much shorter, more temporary Parliament Hill protest that drew then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer as a speaker. “The convoy is mainly organized by a movement known as Canada Unity, which launched on Facebook in February 2019, when the United We Roll convoy protested on Parliament Hill , demanding more oil pipelines and an end to the carbon price,” CP wrote.
Signage at the time also opposed legislation that was then pending to ban oil tanker traffic along the ecologically sensitive north coast of British Columbia and enact the new federal Impact Assessment Act.
“While the grievances fuelling drivers vary, virtually all are united in opposition to an energy policy they believe will dampen the oil and gas sector,” the Star Edmonton wrote. “In addition to gripes with federal carbon pricing, which took effect this year, the convoy riders are opposed to Bill C-69 and Bill C-48, which would revamp the National Energy Board and the approval process for energy projects, and ban oil tanker traffic on British Columbia’s northern coast, respectively.”
Fast forward three years, and the capital city of a G-7 country has been brought to its knees by a group of far right insurgents masquerading as truckers, even though almost 90% of the country’s big rig drivers are vaccinated and their biggest union has disavowed the convoy.
Press Progress, a news site maintained by the Broadbent Institute, has compiled a comprehensive list of the “extremists and social media influencers” behind the occupation. The list includes:
• Canada Unity founder and “memorandum of understanding” co-author James Bauder, a Yellow Vest supporter and apparent adherent to the massive QAnon conspiracy theory, last seen targeting workers on a picket line outside an oil refinery in Alberta;
• Benjamin Dichter, a failed Conservative and People’s Party of Canada candidate who Press Progress says welcomed the Confederate flag to Ottawa, and is said to believe the federal Liberal party is “infested with Islamists”;
• Far right broadcaster Pat King, who frets about “depopulation of the Caucasian race” and joined the convoy with the prediction that “the only way that this is going to be solved is with bullets”;
• Renegade Independent Ontario MPP Randy Hillier, who told convoy supporters on Parliament Hill that “this is the hill we die on”;
• Tamara Lich, a member of Wexit, “a far-right secessionist movement that seeks to break away Alberta, Saskatchewan, and other western provinces from the rest of Canada”.
‘Threats to be Eliminated’
A CBC profile Thursday morning dug into the military, military intelligence, and RCMP background of some of the other principal organizers. Freelancer Justin Ling, who was a constant presence on Twitter in the early days of the occupation, broke down the “unrivaled coordination between anti-vax and anti-government organizations “ for The Guardian. Blogger Brittany Bested has assembled a profile of the convoy leadership, along with a timeline behind the event.
A question emerging in the last couple of days is whether some of the leading lights behind the Yellow Vest protests just happened to shift their focus from carbon pricing and pipelines to COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates—or whether they saw both as fertile ground for insurrection.
“Canada’s next leader will have to deal with a mobilized, motivated minority of the population that views government and science as threats to be eliminated,” behavioural psychologist Caroline Orr Bueno tweeted ahead of last September’s federal election. “Like the Yellow Vest movement—which saw oil and gas pipeline protest being used as a cover for right-wing extremist activity—the anti-vaccine movement has become entangled with far-right extremism as white nationalists and other extremists use the guise of vaccine skepticism to push increasingly extreme conspiracy theories targeting Jews, immigrants, health care workers, and others.”
News reports are just beginning to follow the money trail behind the occupation, with funding through crowdfunding sites GoFundMe and GiveFundGo shut down, hundreds of donations streaming in from outside Canada, some of the money apparently routed through a hacked Facebook account, five major Bitcoin investors raising about $500,000 for the convoy, and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendocino vowing to investigate the organizers’ funding.
Diesel Fumes and Deafening Noise
For all that the occupation is supposed to be about a global health crisis, there’s little indication that participants are terribly concerned about the health impacts they’re bringing to the downtown neighbourhoods immediately south, east, and west of Parliament Hill. Air pollution readings in the area were up to 14 times above normal, and experts were warning that even short-term exposures at that level could trigger life-threatening conditions like asthma, CBC reports.
Jeffrey Brook, Scientific Director of the Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium (CANUE), said the occupation “poses a number of unnecessary risks” to people living in core-area neighbourhoods.
“Small increases in air pollution exposure, which these diesel truck/generator emissions are causing over parts of the city, can aggravate your lungs and cardiovascular system, which means already-stretched hospitals could see more emergency room visits and/or admissions for asthma, heart attacks, and strokes,” he said in an email. “The constant noise can also add to the burden on nervous and cardiovascular systems, and contribute to more stress and sleep disturbance for nearby residents.”
Carleton University environmental epidemiologist Paul Villeneuve gave CBC the litany of harmful substances contained in diesel exhaust. “Those include things like arsenic, formaldehyde, benzene, and many of these have been shown to cause cancer and affect the cardiorespiratory system,” he said.
Diesel also includes nitrogen dioxide, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), which “is a noxious pollutant,” said atmospheric scientist Douw Steyn, professor emeritus of air pollution meteorology at the University of British Columbia. “Particles of that size tend to lodge deep inside your lungs” and “ultimately, with long-term inhalation, can produce serious health effects.”
Steyn explained a phenomenon called the “urban canyon” effect that keeps substances trapped in place once they’re produced. “Unless there is very high wind, the pollutants are going to be trapped there,” he said. “And of course, that is where people live and move and breathe.”
Diesel Exposure Increases Covid Risk
Toronto physician Dr. Mili Roy, Ontario co-chair of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), said air pollution in Ontario already causes more than 6,600 premature deaths per year. She told CTV that exposure to traffic air pollution can trigger asthma, respiratory infections, and allergies in adults and children, while increasing the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis, heart disease, high blood pressure, infertility, birth defects, and neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s.
Air pollution also increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission, infection, and death, she said.
The Ottawa EnviroCentre crunched the numbers to get at the carbon dioxide emissions the occupation was generating. Using Natural Resources Canada data, Jen Stelzer, the centre’s director of community sustainability program, calculated that an idling rig burns through 3.1 litres of fuel per hour, and the fuel emits 2.7 kilograms of CO2 per litre, for a total of 8.37 kilograms of CO2 per hour, or 200.38 kilos per day.
The trucks need to be idling to sound their horns, and some news reports have had the horns sounding for 16 or more hours per day. So if, say, 200 of the more than 400 trucks still in town are semis, and the occupation was entering Day 14 as this story went to virtual press, their total emissions would hit 561,000 kilograms—without accounting for the round trip from as far away as British Columbia.
“The effects of this ongoing protest go beyond the obvious,” EnviroCentre Executive Director Sharon Coward told The Energy Mix in a statement. In addition to the diesel haze in the air, “parked trucks along our rivers and canal system mean that spilled diesel, oil, and other contaminants wash directly and untreated into our delicate water systems as they flow off the streets with melt water. Urban wildlife has been subjected to noise pollution reaching100 decibels for extended periods of time, a level on par with a constant chainsaw.”
So “the impact of this occupation extends for human and wildlife residents long after the trucks leave,” Coward said. “Our people and communities (human, animal, plant, and ecosystem-wide) need to return to the beautiful city we all call home, and to minimize the harm this convoy is causing as soon as possible.”
Throughout the occupation, meanwhile, news reports have warned that prolonged exposure to noise that loud can cause permanent hearing loss—and until the court injunction took effect, the truck horns were sounding for hours at a time, when they’re meant to be used for seconds.
The Globe and Mail says people in the targeted neighbourhoods can expect long-lasting health effects from an onslaught that has left some seniors afraid to leave their homes and some health care workers seeking rides to work so they won’t be targeted in the streets.
“People in the city are dealing with the emotional and mental toll of a protest that has occupied downtown Ottawa… as trucks blare their horns at all hours, streets are blocked by large vehicles, and some report physical and verbal abuse from protesters,” the paper writes. “Experts worry that the stress could have long-lasting effects on the health of residents who have also been navigating life during a pandemic.”
“I don’t think, as a resident, that one can look at one’s environment in the same way again. That when there are other protests, this will be a trigger,” said Ivy Bourgeault, professor in the school of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa. “Uncertainty and no control just causes enormous amounts of stress, and that is in addition to the chronic stressors that people have been dealing with in relation to the pandemic.”
After coping with all that the last two years have brought, downtowners are now “suffering pretty significantly in terms of their sleep patterns, their mood, their irritability, and their overall physical health,” added Taryn Grieder, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “There’s a link between psychological stress and physical effects on the body,” she added, so “it’s not a good situation.”
Local resident Tim Abray was one of many locals who said they’d been attacked by occupiers, in his case because he approached their illegal encampment at Ottawa’s Confederation Park to take pictures. He told the Globe he’d been sleeping badly, and that he and his family had their bags packed in case they had to make a quick exit.
“The previous two years are nothing in comparison to the last week,” he said. “This is an ever-present imminent, physical and mental community threat.”
This story originally appeared on Energy Mix and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.