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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘This is not my city’: Protesters turn a quiet capital upside down

Trucks blocking the streets of downtown Ottawa as part of a protest against Covid-19 mandates in Canada on Wednesday.

By Catherine Porter

Canada’s most important — and most notoriously boring — city has found itself stuck in a never-ending tailgate party.

Giant trucks scatter the roads downtown, stretching for more than a half-mile, in front of the Gothic stone Parliament buildings and government offices that feel as if they had been snatched from one former motherland, England, and plunked into the New World.

Between them, crowds of protesters wander, many wearing Canadian flags as capes or carrying them on hockey sticks and paddles. In makeshift encampments are tents and tables laden with snacks, coffee, mittens and earplugs. Grills sizzle with hot dogs. The flatbed of one trailer with a crane attached has been converted into a stage, with four loudspeakers erected on it, pumping the classic disco song by Sister Sledge, “We Are Family.” People dance in the adjacent intersection.

“This is not my city,” said Ellie Charters, 45, crossing the street before a line of shoulder-to-shoulder tractor cabs, their metal grills festooned in flags, handmade signs and stuffed toys. Charters, a local resident, called the party scene a “sanitization” of the protest’s darker motives.

From the start, the protest, initially organized to oppose a vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers, has attracted the company of far right, anti-government and other fringe groups in Canada. 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 that Parliament be dissolved and Trudeau removed from office.

But when many of the thousands of protesters who first arrived in Ottawa went home, several hundred truckers held firm. They parked their vehicles and refused to leave — and the police could do little to force them out.

Now, the protesters who have dug into Ottawa’s core for nearly two weeks are giddy with their sense of collective purpose and, so far, perceived success. However, many of the residents who live in nearby apartment buildings and renovated heritage homes don’t see it as a celebration but as an unruly, disrespectful and even dangerous occupation.

How could a group of ostensible anti-vaccine protesters, many wonder, descend upon their city and take it over?

This is the capital of a country whose constitution calls for “peace, order and good government.” Canadians are generally rule followers, and Ottawa — a quaint capital known for bureaucrats who skate along a frozen canal to work — takes that rule-following to new levels. A few years ago, a parks officer in a flak jacket shut down a lemonade stand that two little girls had set up on a grassy median, because they didn’t have a permit.

Protests in Ottawa are almost as common as traffic jams — regular affairs that quickly wash through. However, for almost two weeks, more than 400 truckers have made camp and settled their tractor cabs — some still attached to hulking trailers — across more than a dozen blocks that Ottawa officials have dubbed “the red zone.”

It’s clear the group plans to stay put.

Blasting truck horns echoed for up to 16 hours a day during the first 11 days of the protest, but they have gone silent. The prevailing sound now is the guttural hum of very big engines, fed by a seemingly endless supply of diesel fuel.

Since the police declared that they would remove fuel supplies and arrest people bringing fuel to the trucks, plastic orange jerrycans have become a veritable fashion item. At night, it seems everyone is carrying one — as if to dare the police to try to arrest them all.

Many protesters say they are here in peace. Some get on their knees and pray outside Parliament.

But there is a definite edge — like that end-of-the-night feeling at a tailgate party, when some of the crowd might have had too much to drink, and things could go sideways. In part, it is the trucks: giant lumbering machines that offer more esprit de roadkill than peace.

Local residents say it is far more than perception. They have been harassed on the street and recount being frightened, even chased. Police are investigating a potential arson attempt in the lobby of an apartment building downtown.

The mayor declared a state of emergency. Many locals said they felt abandoned by police. Charters helped start a community safety program to send volunteers to escort frightened residents out of their buildings past the protesters for errands, walks and even commutes.

“Why weren’t they enforcing the law at all? The police aren’t doing anything,” said Charters, a community activist. “We are keeping each other safe.”

Some relief has come thanks to Zexi Li, a 21-year-old data analyst, who brought forward a class-action lawsuit to silence the booming truck horns. Their incessant bellowing frayed the nerves of many living near Parliament Hill. On Monday, after lawyers presented evidence that the noise could cause serious, permanent ear damage, a judge granted a 10-day injunction.

Since the ban was announced, Li has been lauded repeatedly as a community hero. People have offered her portraits, groceries, guest rooms and gift cards — which captures what many residents say is the silver lining of the protest convoy.

“Ottawa has a very neighborly, community-oriented culture,” said Esther Cleman, a retiree in her 70s, who was braving a stroll around her neighborhood Tuesday accompanied by volunteers. “This convoy seemed to spark more people to stand up and say, ‘What can I do to help?’ ”

Many hope it will end soon, and they will get their nice, placid, uneventful city back.

There is a meme that has become popular: “Make Ottawa Boring Again.”

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