Trucks blocking the intersection of Wellington and Sussex, the traditional centre point of downtown Ottawa during the truckers protest (17 Feb. 2022 drone image posted on Twitter, source unclear).
Occupations of land have often been used in Canada and elsewhere to express opposition, dissent and refusal – from Indigenous occupations and blockades such as the Tahrir Square in Cairo, Occupy movement, Oka, Ipperwash and around Caledon Ontario, to the forests of British Columbia. These are more often a tactic of progressive groups opposed to interests that exercise their strategic prerogatives over places and regions. These include resource companies with leases to harvest timber, for example. Unlike many of these previous examples, there have been no deaths (to date) in the truckers’ and white male supremacist protesters’ occupation. Nonetheless, the 21-day Ottawa occupation is unlike others which have generally not been the focus of attention on social media. The social media effect is to render the protest an intervention in users’ mobile phone media feeds. It is thus much more present and to hand.
Control over the organization of places, that is over the social spatialisation, and movement and flows between those places is the essence of sovereignty. The occupiers respatialised the picturesque centre of the capital from an urban downtown primarily home to local residents, businesses and government workers to a symbolic political space of not only the nation but of the people (or at least that was the claim of the flag-draped occupiers).
The protest was greatly extended by the preparation of the occupiers, the perceived difficulty of moving transport trucks, the social media visibility of any action taken, the presence of children and families in the occupation, support by some locals, including in law-enforcement agencies as illustrated in social media videos, and the choice of a tolerant policing strategy of the local police. The impotence of city politicians reveals the maxim that those, such as politicians, who are trapped in a situation will turn on each other. One victim of the occupation has been attempts to reform Ottawa Police Service with progressive and racially-tolerant policies and procedures. “Mandates” requiring vaccination for access to facilities have been more hastily repealed by a few weeks than what was expected.
However, to move from occupation to the insurrection proposed by organizers requires further forces outside of the occupation to seize command of the government and be seen to restore order and a veneer of normality. Any opposition such as police are ordered to stand down, demands are met by the government, and the participants actually have to disperse move on to other projects, lending an air of credibility and effectiveness to the new regime. However, this is extremely difficult in a decentralized, federal state where other groups may seize the chance to secede to pursue their own state-building projects.
-Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)