Dispatch from the Ottawa Front: Hot dogs, horns and hard men
This crowd is mostly friendly. But anyone telling you there's no dark edge here is either blind, or lying to you.
By: Matt Gurney
Years ago, I knew a guy who owned a few sports bars in suburban Toronto. One of his places was my much-beloved local. They were friendly bars with friendly staff, local community hubs, and as good for a bite as for a night of hard drinking. On a slow day, the owner and I got to talking, and I asked him what he'd learned about people. He thought about it for a minute and said the main thing that jumped out at him was that he himself had gotten way better at spotting the people — the "hard men," he called them — who come in to break things and hurt others. When he started pouring pints, long before he bought his first location, he said he could normally have someone figured out by their second drink. After years of tending bar and then owning a few, he told me, he could spot a hard man coming in the door.
Over the last 11 days, as a large protest has settled in — "occupied," as some local leaders are saying — parts of Ottawa, I've been fascinated to see the wildly differing reports coming out from people at the scene. Some are seasoned professional reporters, others are just locals with a social media account. Depending on which person you're using as your explainer of the local vibe, you could reasonably walk away convinced that most of what was happening in Ottawa was a pretty big party, or a hostile invasion by thugs and harassers. I wanted to find out which one it was, so on Sunday, I drove in from Toronto, arriving early Monday morning. I spent hours wandering the city, particularly the area immediately around Parliament Hill, trying to answer that question. Is this a huge group of friendly people? Is this a mob of unruly, dangerous types?
The answer is yes.
The following is my view of the situation in Ottawa, and should be seen entirely in that light. I should also note that I'm a tall, unsmiling white dude with a buzzed head who wandered the area in a gigantic and delightfully warm NFL hoodie, and it's very possible that my experience was skewed by the fact that I blended in. There are other protest sites at other parts of the city, as well, and I'll be heading out to some of them later. The observations below are what I saw around Parliament, and within perhaps a 10-minute walk of it.
The first thing you should know is that the protest is, in the main, friendly, at least to someone like me. The photos you'd have seen do it justice. Large transport trucks and smaller personal vehicles are packed tightly together along major streets around Parliament, and the road space and surrounding sidewalks have been colonized by the occupants. Booths and folding tables are everywhere, some selling trinkets, others for supplies or flyers and leaflets. I suspect this will anger locals tired of the protest, but I have to call it as I see it: the overall vibe was quite friendly. I spent about two hours wandering the largest sites, and was struck by the amount of direct eye contact. There's none of the usual practiced disinterest in those around you that you internalize when you live in a big city (Ottawa is big enough, in that respect). The protesters are eager to make eye contact and to chat, about everything — the weather (warmer!), the Superbowl, and, oh, how Trudeau has to go and the pandemic is a lie. And how about those Maple Leafs?!
Both of Canada's official languages are well represented in group. The crowd is overwhelmingly white, but not exclusively so. If you're looking for a bit of colour, you'll find it, but you will have to look. The smell of marijuana is definitely present, but not as much as some reports I'd read had led me to believe. It's there, but it's not rife.
There is a heavy but transient police presence. Key buildings and access points around Parliament Hill are guarded. Fencing and concrete barriers have been set out at critical chokepoints. But the main police presence is large groups of officers, typically moving in groups of eight or 10, who are circulating regularly through the crowd. The officers are polite, but don't stay in any place long. They are there to be seen — the bright yellow reflective vests help with that — and though they'll smile and chat if approached, they're constantly on the move. I personally saw detachments from the Ottawa police, as you'd expect, but also a group of officers from Sudbury, Ontario, as well as several groups of Ontario Provincial Police. They're armed with their usual sidearms, but no riot equipment. Many are carrying ear protection, though. More on that in a minute. These officers are often thanked and welcomed by the assembled crowd. I saw no arrests or interventions, which is interesting — there were protesters actively delivering fuel in containers to the trucks, and pouring the diesel into the truck tanks in full view of the patrolling officers. Despite the city's claim it is cracking down on fuel deliveries, the police took no action, and the protesters didn't try to hide what they were doing. Many of the protesters have responded to the city's announcement of the fuel crackdown by wandering the protest site holding empty fuel cans, many with slogans written on them, but I know what diesel smells like, and there is definitely fuel being brought to the trucks and poured into the tanks. I also saw propane tanks being brought in, and firewood. There are bonfires all along the route I walked; I expect there will be more when I return after dark. There are also barbecues set up randomly along the route. If you want a sausage or hot dog, you won’t have trouble finding one.
For all the friendly chatter, there is another element in the group. I haven't owned any bars, but I've spent some very pleasant evenings in them, plus an entire career observing people, and I have passable danger-spotting skills. (My success rate at avoiding getting suddenly sucker-punched at dive watering holes hovers at very near 100 per cent!) There is a harder, nastier edge to this group, what my bar-owning friend would have called "the hard men." It's not large, at least not in the area immediately around Parliament during daylight — there are other areas I'll be checking out later today, and the vibe may well change. The group around Parliament is overwhelmingly quite pleasant and, as noted, unusually friendly and eager to chat. But anyone who denies there's another element there, though, is blind to it, wilfully or otherwise.
Again, I'm a big white guy, and I blend in by default, but more than once I felt myself being calmly but directly observed by exactly the type my bar-owning friend spoke of. There are hard people there, often in small groups, talking quietly by themselves, or standing silently, watching the comers and goers. If you know what to look for, and not all of us do, they're easy to spot. The more friendly, chatty types give them a wide berth. I spent a few interesting moments standing by a folding table stacked high with hygiene supplies, observing three stone-faced men participating in a kind of staredown with one of the roving police units. The police simply stopped and stood in place. No one said a thing. After maybe a minute, the hard men left. The police marched off. A woman behind the table with the toilet paper and tooth paste tubes looked at me with relief.
This group, the "hard men," is not the majority, not even close, but they're there. These are the types you'd be mindful of if you stepped off a bus and they got off behind you. They're the kinds you keep an eye on at the pub as they sit there drinking their beer in silence. If you're a vulnerable person, or you've had bad experiences with these types before, I can see why you'd find the protest intimidating.
Another group is obviously present: the mentally ill. As I walked through the protesters, I was reminded very much of Occupy Toronto, where I spent time during its tenancy in the downtown of my hometown. After a few days of chatting about the one per cent and global wealth inequality and white-collar crime, the site's original occupiers were suddenly joined by what seemed to be most of the mentally ill people living rough in Toronto. I suspect something similar is happening in Ottawa right now. Most seemed completely harmless, even bemused by the spectacle of it all. Some of them are very clearly in distress; one man was angrily shouting at someone who wasn't there, and one gentleman, rather underdressed for the chill, was loudly preaching the word of God to no one in particular. This third group, like the hard-edged type above, is small. But they're there.
There are speakers holding forth. There's a large flatbed truck being used as a stage and I watched a succession of speakers come through. One woman, nearly in tears of joy, went on at length to somewhat muted and confused applause about the utopia of equality they were building together — though many of "the rest of Canada" maybe wouldn't attain that level of spiritual completion until "the next life." Another gentleman had the crowd fired up, getting roars of approval with each profession he expressed gratitude for. "Let's hear it for the truckers!" Roars of approval and honks. "And the farmers!" Roars of approval and honks. "And the doctors!" Near silence, and some confused murmuring. "The ones who tell the truth!" the speaker somewhat sheepishly clarified. After a pause to consider, there were roars of approval and honks.
That's the crowd. Now a few other general observations.
Signs abound, mainly attached to the stone fencing around Parliament, but with many more on trucks. Most are political but some only in a vague, general sense ("Freedom is for all," said a typical example.) Many are profane. "Fuck Trudeau" is a common theme, but many provincial leaders come in for similar well-wishes. Many others, profane or not, are demanding Trudeau come speak to them, or at least reveal where he’s hiding out. (That would be a bad idea. I don’t think he should do that.) A surprising number of the signs are simply religious scripture and assorted spiritual slogans of the "Jesus Saves" variety. There's also a smattering of signs that are touting various political causes with no connection to the protest. I saw examples regarding gun control, foreign affairs, the rights of minority groups around the world and environmental causes. Someone has gone down the fence with a Sharpie correcting all the grammatical errors on the signs, something this editor approved of (and yes, I know we need a copy editor here — subscribe today and help us afford one!). They had a lot of work to do, and will probably need more Sharpies.
Something I was particularly interested in was how other passersby were being treated. There have been reports of people wearing masks being accosted, shouted at, even assaulted. (I've heard of one instance directly from a personal friend; he was unhurt but badly shaken after two young men shouted at him for wearing a mask while running errands.) I observed none of that directly; and there is no shortage of masked people out and about. I'm not denying there have been issues, but I didn't witness any, nor did anyone I see with a mask seem particularly intimidated. Of course, there's a damn good chance anyone who would be masked and easily intimidated is avoiding the area, so treat my observations with ample skepticism re: the sample group. I chatted with one masked woman, an older lady of perhaps a full five feet in height, who was wearing front-and-back-facing cardboard placards telling the protesters to embrace love and go home. I asked her how that's gone over. She shrugged and told me she had to tell one nasty young man to get bent on the weekend, but otherwise has had no problems. She added that she would love to chat more but had to go home and let her dog out, and wanted to get a burger first. Godspeed, ma'am.
I was also curious about how journalists were being treated, given reports of harassment and at least one attempted assault that I know of. There were quite a few signs and even shirts decrying the mainstream/lying/failing/complicit media. There were also several camera crews set up for live reports, and none was bothered. I will note one interesting moment, though. I saw a woman doing a live hit with a cameraman. A group of three of the hard men stood about six feet away, staring hard at her, but there was a group of six other protesters standing next to the hard men, staring hard at them. The hard men melted away as an OPP patrol walked through. I'm honestly not sure what to make of that, but it was interesting. I didn't bother telling everyone I engaged in purely idle chit chat with that I'm a journalist, but if I got into an actual conversation with someone, I would, and the reaction was typically a shrug. One or two protesters suddenly became seized with the desire to tell me their thoughts, and they were about what you'd expect: Trudeau is bad, mandates are bad, vaccines are bullshit, and freedom is good.
And yes — I was told, many times, that vaccines are bullshit, or poison. I know that a talking point of the organizers has been that the protest isn't anti-vaccine, and I didn't check anyone's QR code, but in my thus-far limited experience, the general mood goes beyond mandate skepticism into outright enthusiastic embracing of anti-vaccine conspiracies. Make of that what you will.
And, at last, one more point: the horns. Yes, by God, the horns are fucking loud.
I have been to Ottawa many times before. As a Torontonian, I am obligated to roll my eyes at how quaint and dull the capital is, but it is a lovely city (I resent that circumstances have forced me to acknowledge this, but here we are). It's a small city, though. My Torontoness often causes me to forget this. But Ottawa is small. The "downtown" is a few blocks, and you're well into residential areas if you set off down a street and walk a few hundred metres away from Parliament. In Toronto, and other genuinely large cities, the downtown is sort of a thing unto itself. A protest there, even a loud one, can be muffled into oblivion by the sheer scale of the downtown core.
Ottawa does not have that scale. The horns may be downtown, but the downtown suddenly turns into a "quiet residential area" 200 metres away from the trucks. Walking the city today, it struck me that this is one of the two most important things someone reading this should take away from this dispatch: the city is just too damn small to benefit much from distance from the protest. Many more suburban areas are far enough removed, and according to friends I have there, basically normal. But in areas immediately around Parliament, areas that would by the normal standards of more typical protests be far enough from the Hill to escape any real disruptions, the horns are still plainly heard (and the fireworks, too, though I saw none myself today).
I mentioned above that on top of their usual duty equipment, the police patrols were carrying ear protection. I brought some in my backpack, too, and considered using it on a few occasions when the honking got particularly unpleasant. In the end, I just walked off to go explore another area. The people who live and work there don't have that luxury, and though I still roll my eyes a bit at some of the more overheated descriptors of the honking — no, it's not like being in a warzone, because in wars, the loud noises also include things like fire and shrapnel — I appreciate better how aggravating it would be for having now been up close myself. I was told repeatedly that Monday has thus far been a quiet day, relatively speaking. Still, after only a few hours of a relatively quiet day, I've had quite enough of truck horns. After 11 days, I might be prone to hyperbole, too.
As for the other thing I think you need to know? If you want to believe, or convince someone else, that it's just a big friendly group of patriotic Canadians, you can pick and choose from many examples to support that case. But that's a lie. There’s a nasty edge to this group — small, but real. If you believe that it's a crowd full of dangerous people, well, that's true, too, but it's not the majority, not even close. There's good and bad, mingled all together, and that, as much as the thousands of tonnes of heavy steel parked bumper to bumper, is what's going to make resolving this such a Godawful mess.
More to come as my explorations continue. Stay peaceful, Ottawa.
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