A Shade of Grey. Where do we go from here?
Updated: Mar 5
Our weekend in Ottawa - Approximate reading time: 15 minutes
The content and opinions in this article is only that of the author, and not of any company, employer, associated group, non or for profit organization.
The dust has settled, somewhat, for the Convoy in Ottawa. When we booked our accommodations, we didn't realize that it would end up being the "red zone," where police would have checkpoints for the public to enter, leave, or move around within its perimeter.
There was a deep rumble in my bones to go to Ottawa. To take the kids out of school, and witness with our own eyes what is occurring. Was it like what social media showed? Was it like what I was reading in the newspapers and on TV? Crazy, hateful, anti-science militants attempting to usurp power? A bunch of everyday Canadians protesting in the streets? In a world of black and white, I often see a shade of grey. It's easy to have our opinions shaped with powerful media conglomerates and social media beaming us curated news, right in our hands. Often we spew our beliefs online, some even belittling others, regurgitating whatever media we consume (and I'm as guilty of the latter part as the next). I needed to ignore everything I'd seen online and on the news, and try to wrap my brain around things by first-hand experience. The same way that I far welcome face to face discussions over online, I needed to be as close to the situation as possible to try to understand it.
The last couple years have been life altering for all of us. Our daily lives have changed, interactions within our families and communities strained. From "two weeks to flatten the curve" and "all in this together" to "freedom" being the new f-word, and Canadian flags tantamount to terrorism. Here is the official story, comply with it or risk losing your job, family connections and social circle; perhaps even the ability to move freely between countries, or even within your own community. Seriously - exactly what is happening? Maybe my brain could process things better being in the eye of the storm.
By the time we got to Ottawa, the Federal Emergency Order had been revoked. While most of the Parliamentary area had very heavy police presence, and large fencing closing off main access points; the majority of the downtown area was getting back to its normal activities.
The first goal was to see the Parliamentary buildings. I've always wanted to go to Ottawa during Canada Day, even though I'm first to admit that I'm not really a big "flag-waving, overly-patriotic-type." I love old architecture, history, and have wanted to visit the capital since I was a child. Obviously, this is something that I'd want to do with my family. Ensuring their safety would be the most important thing, so lots of talking to them about what they'd potentially see, what to do in particular situations, and how to stay clear of trouble.
I just wanted to soak things in. I wanted to talk to as many people as possible. To understand things without the lens of my phone or tv - unfiltered, with my own ears and eyes. I spoke to people at every store we went to, tried to make small talk with people on the street, laughingly snubbed by many (wireless earbuds are hard to see under touques is my excuse for not being offended by being ignored). I wanted to talk to truckers and protesters. I wanted to talk to police, and people in the downtown area. I (annoyingly, according to my family) asked lots of questions, attempting to hear things directly from the people there, from literally every person I encountered.
I've only been part of a few protests in my life, but I've seen them often. Yes, it is a pain when we're delayed on the highway, or need to reroute our plan. But, no matter what the protest is, I generally honk in support. I personally believe that it takes guts to get out on the street to show support for a cause. It's uncomfortable, uneasy, and not the path of least resistance. Because I believe so strongly that protesting is a basic human form of expression, I vehemently defend all peaceful protests. If we take it away for one segment, we risk taking it away for all. However, I cannot imagine living adjacent to one for a serious length of time.
From people in stores, I heard a variety of responses. Some said their small businesses were super busy over the past weeks, just with having so many people around the area. One claimed the busy-ness kept them afloat after very slow months and lockdowns. At the large Rideau Mall, which was shut down for multiple weeks, all the staff we talked to breathed a sigh of relief being back at work. When we left the mall, we couldn't get out of the parkade as there was a large protest walking by for Ukraine. It reminded me of one Ottawa commentator I was following during the events earlier this month, "this is a city of protests, we see them all the time since it's the capital." I made sure to blast my horn for all the blue and yellow flags walking though downtown, despite the driving delay.
I had a really great discussion with a younger Jewish man. We spoke for over 15 minutes. I would estimate he was mid to late 30s. I asked how things were over the past few weeks. He said that because he was towards the edge of the red zone, his business had not really been impacted. He wanted to see what the hype was about during the protest, and he went and checked it out with his two kids. "The last two years have been horrible for them. I brought them down there a few times. The truckers cooked them pizzas. They had a great time."
From the general public, I heard a mix of thoughts reminding me of what a divided country we seemingly do have. One local complained about the noise, and how busy it was with people. Others said they found life more annoying now, with all the checkstops. One thing that I found interesting, is that some whom I'd assumed would be very "anti-convoy," expressed how much they were against the mandates. One mom, who was struggling with reduced hours and her husband laid off, counted down the days when they wouldn't need to screen customers for passports. She lamented how worried she was about her kids missing out on their formative years. One older lady, who I was sure was going to say she was pro mandate looked at me and said, "Do you mind if I pull this damn thing down?" (referring to her mask). She asked what I planned to do in Ottawa. I told her all the tourist attractions we wanted to see, and mentioned I needed to balance out what I was seeing in major media and online. "You cannot trust the TV news," she said, laughing.
I turned on the news and saw coverage of the Ukraine/Russia conflict. On the bottom ticker I read as it said "Dozens of Ottawa residents talk of PTSD from Occupation." This heavily contrasted what I was hearing from residents. I was honestly very surprised at how little complaining I did hear. Obviously, I did not have a huge sample size, but out of the few dozen people I talked to, only a very small fraction had anything negative to say. If only I had more time, I could have asked more people, and get a bigger perspective. However, it did make me question if it really was just a tiny, fringe amount of people with "unacceptable" views like I was told.
I know it is far from scientific, but for me, I do generally gauge how serious the person is about the pandemic, by whether they wear a mask while alone outside or driving. We know quite definitively that these serve no purpose in these specific circumstances. I'd estimate the percentage of people wearing masks outside was roughly 30 on/70 off. It seemed like the closer we got downtown, the frequency was higher, and as we got farther from downtown, less and less. While I'm not trying to necessarily correlate the two, it was interesting that the closer you got to Parliament Hill, there were more and more Government buildings and workers. Could that have been a contributing factor?
Our first stop was the Hill, and we went there daily. We checked out many of the famous statues and buildings. On the initial visit there was a sole protestor, walking the square around the Flame with a hand painted sign. There were definitely more police officers than tourists in the area. I never felt "unsafe," but there was such an eerie feeling - almost post-apocalyptic; knowing that just days before police clashed with frontline protesters, and hundreds of huge trucks filled the streets. Aside from the large fencing, and red and blue flashing lights, you'd never really be able to tell anything out of the ordinary happened. Only a few intermittent signs of protest and counter-protest were taped up in the area.
We saw lots of Parliamentary, Provincial, and RCMP officers throughout downtown. All the police officers we talked to were kind. If you smiled and waved, they did the same, and engaged in small talk. Most didn't want to give any opinions on the past few weeks, and understandably so. "No comment," was the most common answer. During one interaction, when I asked how the officer's last few weeks have been, he said, "It's closer to a month. It's a bit like a broken record," with a tone of frustration. I can only imagine the immense, and stressful workload. He declined a handshake but agreed to an elbow bump.
Outside our residence downtown, we threw out our garbage. Inside the shed, was a hand-made sign, "You will own nothing, but be happy." This is a reference to the World Economic Forum's agenda for 2030, which many protesters claim is the reason for the extra harsh lockdowns in Western democracies. I'm not sure if the sign was from a neighbour in the building, or perhaps someone that stayed here before us. I wanted to see the "vibe" and makeup of the audience at one of their protests. Although not at the scale as weeks previous, there have been regular protests since. The one we saw advertised started later than what it said on the poster. I saw people of all ethnicities in attendance, with a lot of people there reminding me of how the treeplanters dress (when we see them each summer). Quite a few elders were there, and a few "well-dressed" business-looking people. A lady that looked very "hippy-ish," with a beautiful vibrant jacket, had a bird on her shoulders and a sign that said "free hugs." I'd estimate around 150 people were there, just adjacent to the War Museum. I spoke to one attendee who said things had been a bit "fragmented" since the police crackdown. According to him, this was one of the smaller events, with multiple protests and walks still occurring daily.
The event poster stated that there would be speakers from former communist countries in Eastern Europe. We didn't stick around for long, but one lady with a thick accent (I believe Romanian) pumped up the crowd on a megaphone. What seemed like every 9 or 10 cars drove by, honking in support. A few thumbs down were seen also, and one loud angry expletive from a vehicle, although he was slightly muffled from his mask, with the gentleman leaning out the window giving the finger. "We love you!" the protesters whipped back. I did not see anything violent, or anything that led me to believe there was anything negative towards anyone else. I did have to turn to my phone and research one person's flag as I did not know what it meant. It turned out it said "essential" in another language. However, this was just one of many events, and arguably wasn't one of their larger ones.
With no truckers downtown, we did some sleuth work on social media. Some of the truckers had travelled home, but many went to two camps on the outskirts of the city, awaiting their trucks to be released. On the west side, was the smaller, English camp. Towards Montreal, was the French camp, with larger facilities.
The language barrier was palpable at the larger camp, but they were in seemingly positive spirits and we used Google Translate to converse. There was a person handing out "Stop Corruption" stickers at the door. Piles upon piles of food and supplies were on neatly arranged tables in the one building. In the larger storage facility I must have counted a hundred jerry cans sitting on the side, while four young guys played road hockey across from a huge stockpile of goods - dry foods, toiletries, books, blankets, hygiene products, cases of water. Outside, an igloo with a stove was ready to warm up people, while many sat at tables or worked on vehicles in the main structure. We didn't stay later, but they were in expectation of hundreds of people to head there in the evening.
Many dozens of vehicles were parked outside, of supporters from across Canada. Some adorned Provincial, Metis or Every Child Matters flags. Many had stickers or had hand drawn political statements. Every trucker we spoke to said the same thing, they were concerned about the life their children and grandchildren would inherit. Never did I hear anything specific about the shot, but rather the potential ill effects of "increased control of the government," and how that could negatively impact all Canadians. Loss of jobs, feelings of helplessness, the division - all were common themes. It appeared their trek was an act of desperation. I suppose, most protests are exactly that. "It was the most moving, powerful, loving thing I've seen, until the police broke us up," was the sentiment of three French truckers. "The amount of support we saw from across the country, and the people in Ottawa, was overwhelming." Knowing the separatist history of their province, I found this particularly interesting. They were very quick to voice their opposition to the Premier of Quebec, and Trudeau. One of their trucks had stickers calling both of them out.
The English camp seemed a bit more "fun-oriented" I'd argue, but it may have just been the ease of talking in English, and the way the camp was set up, that led me to this conclusion. With that said, it specified at the entry way that no booze was allowed. Dozens upon dozens of vehicles were lined up outside, with the license plates from every province, around 20 portapotties lined up outside. A makeshift stage made up of a trailer, decorated with diesel cans, with two semi trucks; balancing the view across multiple firepits. A few hundred feet away were multiple large tents and a smaller cooking tent . As the daylight slipped away, music was turned up, and flashing lights, like at a rave, strobed.
In one of the large tents, a gypsy-like vibe, as around a hundred people laughed, sang, and filled cups from large boxes of Tim Horton's coffee; a singer belted out sing-along songs, playing guitar. Kids sipped on juice boxes and water bottles. Hay was spread on the icy ground to stop people from slipping. The tables were overflowed with supplies for those staying in vehicles. A white-board with contact information for organizers, legal teams, and information on how to get their trucks back, as well as a "We Need" list. The wall had a large Indigenous flag, and a "Big Bear" flag - who I believe may have been one of the leaders there, or maybe a social media influencer. I'd never heard of him before being in Ottawa. Tall in stature, with distinct light brown braids, he spoke clearly and concisely, passionately talking about unity. He mentioned his concern of how he felt that many organizations dear to his heart had been "bribed by the Feds" for their allegiance. He asked where we were from, offered us food, and talked about the protest plans the following day, and questioned if we needed accommodations. He only chatted a few moments and then rushed off to take a phone call.
The kids made friends with two young ones from Alberta. Their mom drove them in, to be in Ottawa. The boy asked if I'd like him to take a picture of our family, and he'd gladly take a donation. I loved his spirit. I said, "how about you let me take a picture of you with my family, and I will give you a few bucks." You could see him deeply thinking if this made sense. "Sure. That's a great idea!" I snapped the photo and passed him a bill. "My mom spent $180 in gas to get here, I'm trying to save it for her," as he clutched a moderate stack of bills from his pocket. I didn't have the heart to tell him his mom definitely spent more than that in fuel costs from Calgary, but I commended his drive.
In the quieter spots, by the bonfires, most people were talking about the situation in Ukraine, worried about the collateral damage of civilian lives to be lost. Graders were off in the distance, clearing a field as they expected many more vehicles to arrive. Everywhere people were entrenched in discussion. By one of the bonfires, one trucker from the west coast introduced himself and talked about his experience of the past weeks. He then turned his talk to a more religious tone. I generally don't feel comfortable talking about my belief system so the next opportunity to walk away, I bailed.
It reminded me of an organized pit/field party back in high school. Food, people chatting, smiling, hugging. Everyone introducing themselves to each other. There were many with small children there. One lady from Salmon Arm travelled without a proper winter jacket, so a local gave her a mid 90's pure white puffy jacket. She walked around with a sharpie and people signed it. The same lady that gave her the jacket spoke of a trucker that was parked right by the major hotel near Parliament. She said he had to leave a day early, not just because of the impending police action, but due to his own emotional state. Being at one of the main entryways to the protest, he heard hundreds of stories from people why they supported their movement - adverse reactions, lost jobs, closed businesses, family member's suicides. According to her, it was too much for him, and he simply couldn't take it anymore. Note, I did not witness this first hand, but I did see her eyes well up, fighting back tears, as she gave her account.
Later, in a starry filled country sky, the crowd grew to about 3-400. Fireworks lit the area as provincial captains of the truckers spoke on the mic. An elderly Polish lady spoke about growing up in communism, and how "she'd never dreamed in her life, she'd see it happen in Canada." Truckers and their supporters almost gave off the feeling of victory, and celebration. "The spark of freedom has been lit. No one can stop that." One trucker ended off a talk with "This is not over."
Overall, I am extremely happy with how the trip went. Aside from all the "normal" tourist activities, I got to see with my own eyes, and hear first hand from people in Ottawa, from as many viewpoints as I could on the recent happenings. Yet, I feel a hesitation to share this. I shut my personal facebook down a few months ago because I could not stand to see the division happening between friends and neighbours. How is this possible in our own country? Why should one feel scared to lose their job, respect of peers, the means of feeding their own children, all from a different viewpoint? Why has the last two years brought us to this point? Is this the kind of world we want for our children? If one of my family chooses a different medical path from another, does this make them less of a person? And if not, are we running our society in a way that is congruent with that? Are we prioritizing the following of (often questionable) rules over community, family and friendships? I remember speaking out against policies of Prime Ministers and Presidents of both major parties before and never feeling so stifled. I don't believe my values have changed since then, so why is it so different now?
We sometimes separate ourselves from differing viewpoints by using negative terminology for the opposing group. Sheep, FluTruxKlan, Covidian, Freedumb Movement. When this is done, it is an attempt to diminish the other side, often, to dehumanize. It's easy to feel morally superior if you can look down on others. This is where we need to draw the line. We need to know that everyone, even those who do not see how we perceive things are just trying to do their best on this planet. Everyone is trying desperately to make sense of this messed up movie that we're in, seemingly spiral out of control.
We are lucky to get 80-90 years on this planet. Let's remember everyone's humanity, that is the common bond. I believe it's important to truly reflect on ourselves, before we are consumed by anger, or wish harm on others. Communities, friendships and relationships have been strained, and are in need of love and healing. The mandates may be (temporarily?) lifting, but in the meantime - I still grapple with the last two years. From this trip to Ottawa, I continue to see a shade of grey. But it begs the question - where do we go from here?