For nearly three weeks, Kiavash Najafi has been organizing safe walks with his neighbours through the normally quiet streets of downtown Ottawa. They’re there to intervene if they spot dangerous behaviour, Najafi said.
The Ottawa resident said he accompanied an elderly man to the grocery store after the man said he was pushed to the ground by anti-vaccine protesters—all because he was wearing a mask.
Najafi also witnessed a woman of colour get “harassed, accosted, and yelled at” by a group of about four young men, so he went to chat with her and offered to walk her home. The men quickly backed off.
“I try to avoid circumstances where I’d be confronting them,” Najafi said.
He’s talking about members of the so-called “freedom convoy” that has laid siege to the Canadian capital’s downtown for three weeks.
Najafi lives in Centretown, a neighbourhood in Ottawa that’s near ground zero for the convoy. Convoy members have touted anti-vax beliefs and demanded an end to all COVID measures. Many protesters are also demanding resignations, especially from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which have only heated up since Trudeau promised new laws to crack down on the protest.
According to Ottawa police, protesters from the “freedom convoy” are being investigated for more than 200 hate crimes. They’ve confronted citizens, blared their horns incessantly (until an injunction thwarted them), and continue to intimidate people—especially people of colour, several of whom told VICE World News they’re staying as far away from the convoy and its supporters as possible.
Hateful symbols have sprung up in Ottawa and at related events across the country, including swastikas and Confederate flags. A convoy member even took a shit on someone’s lawn—near a pride flag—while others were arrested in Alberta, some for conspiring to commit murder, and images suggest some of them followed anti-Islam ideology. Indigenous leaders have condemned the convoy for its “hateful, racist nature” and for appropriating their culture. So, it comes as little surprise that people of colour are unsettled and choosing to avoid the convoy and its supporters, most of whom are white. (There is, however, a very small contingent of Sikh-Canadians, many of them truckers, participating.)
Even the Canadian flag, seen draped over some semis at the protests, has a new meaning, said Irfan Chaudhry, the director of the office of human rights, diversity, and equity at MacEwan University. “The Olympics are happening, and normally you'd see the flag and feel pride,” Chaudhry said.
Reports of hate crimes in Ottawa have forced people of colour and members of other often targeted groups to get their “spidey senses up,” he said. “The impact of hate crimes, whether or not they happen directly to us, is they still have a ripple effect throughout communities.”
Members of the convoy have repeatedly said they are fighting for the “freedom” of “all Canadians.” Some have tried to distance themselves from the hate among their ranks, saying they’re exclusively on site to protest pandemic mandates.
“We are not racist… I have all types of friends, colour friends: Spanish, Chinese. They are great people. There is no racism here,” one of the organizers told Fox News earlier this week.
And yet, many people, especially those who belong to mis- and under-represented groups, have had their lives turned upside down. One woman, who is blind, went viral after tweeting about how the honking in Ottawa made it impossible for her to move around. The honking drowned out the auditory cues she relies on while getting around the city. (An injunction has since banned the honking.)
Thousands of people have also faced disruptions at convoy-related blockades along the U.S.-Canada border, including the one in the village of Coutts, Alberta, that crosses into Montana. Lovepreet Singh is one of thousands of South Asian truckers in Canada and he’s fully vaccinated, like most truckers are. A video featuring Singh went viral two weeks ago after he spoke out because he was stranded in Montana, waiting to cross the border. Singh waited for two days before opting to drive into Canada through British Columbia—paying $400 out of pocket for the gas needed for the longer trip.
Singh told VICE World News that after he spoke out against the convoy, its members started sending him racist and hateful messages. “They are targeting my skin colour, religion, nationality,” Singh said. “People were saying, ‘Go back to your own country.’ Stuff like that.”
The blockade in Coutts came to an end on Wednesday, but for weeks, Singh’s friends felt unsafe. “Other brown people who drive through those borders don’t feel safe,” Singh said at the time, adding that his friends felt pressure to honk because convoy members became suspicious of people who didn’t.
In Edmonton, convoys full of trucks and cars adorned in Canadian flags and homemade signs that say “Fuck Trudeau” or include anti-vax slogans have been driving through busy streets some Saturdays. Chaudhry, who’s based in Edmonton, said he’s been avoiding downtown—where he works—because he doesn’t want to find himself in a dangerous situation. Given his role at MacEwan University, Chaudhry has had several people tell him they’re scared of the convoys.
Across the country, Shireen Salti, a Palestinian-Canadian living in Toronto, said she’s stayed away from the convoy supporters who’ve gathered in her city. She said she feels safest outside of her home when she’s walking with another person.
“Women downtown tend to get harassed all the time,” Salti said. “I never did feel comfortable, but now it's worse.”
Salti said news of the freedom convoy especially started to affect her when words like “occupation” and “siege” started being used to describe it.
“I lived in Palestine under siege, so it's triggering to hear the word ‘occupation.’ That's when reality hit,” Salti said. “The language we are using right now is affecting immigrants, and we need to pay close attention to it.”
When the “freedom convoy” first arrived in Ottawa, a friend of Salti’s, a queer Jordanian migrant, called her up, stressed. He asked, “Are we facing another occupation here? Did we run from our countries to come to the land of freedom and they are marching in the name of ‘freedom’ because they can’t go to restaurants and gyms?”
Salti has friends and family in Ottawa, and she said most have opted to stay away from the protests to keep safe.
Amid the fear and discomfort, many residents and onlookers have repeatedly criticized police for their inability to get the situation under control—despite the fact their work during the “freedom convoy” has cost Ottawa more than $14 million. It’s a stark difference from the brutal force cops often use when moving in on Indigenous-led land defence movements or Black Lives Matter marches. (Ottawa leadership has repeatedly said they’re worried that a crackdown on the convoy could incite violence, and security experts have noted that the use of large trucks complicates the situation, in part because they’re hard to remove.)
The optics are so bad that Ottawa’s Police Chief Peter Sloly resigned earlier this week, and grassroots efforts have had to step in where police have failed. A new anonymous account, @OttawaConvoyReport, raises awareness about the occupation and the racism, homophobia, and other problematic behaviours that have come to characterize it. The account recently published a thread of messages from people of colour who say they’ve been harassed, called racial slurs, and intimidated with swastikas.
“A lot of people have come to us to anonymously report protestors being racially violent toward them,” the person behind the account told VICE World News. “Many individuals are reaching out to us (an anonymous Instagram page that has only existed for three weeks) because they want to be heard and supported but have expressed feeling unsafe going to the police.”
The group has connected people to free services, including counselling, legal support, safe walks, and grocery delivery services from “vetted volunteers.”
According to Najafi, leadership in Ottawa is “completely lacking.”
“All that to say: This is our city and we shouldn’t need a safety walk,” Najafi said.
For weeks, Canadians, most of whom disagree with the convoy, have watched political jockeying unfold in Parliament: NDP leader Jagmeet Singh came out early to condemn the convoy’s leaders “that claim the superiority of the white bloodline and equate Islam to a disease.” Trudeau has also spoken out against racist flags and criticized convoy members for desecrating war memorials and attempting to steal food from homeless folks. Meanwhile, some Conservative MPs suggested that accusations of racism are nothing more than “name-calling,” and two Liberal MPs dissented against Trudeau because they didn’t agree with his handling of the situation.
The situation came to a head this week when Trudeau invoked Canada’s Emergencies Act for the first time since it was introduced in 1988. The act gives the government unprecedented tools to deal with the crisis, including permission for banks to freeze all accounts that are funding the convoy. On Thursday, police presence in Ottawa also ramped up. So, if tensions don’t ease now, some say it won’t be a good look for Canada globally.
“We’ve had to pull unprecedented legal measures. If that doesn't change anything, what does that say about the feasibility of our government?” Najafi said. “We are a laughingstock internationally.”
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