The Trucker Convoy, Public Space, and Public Law

The Canadian protest movement known as the trucker convoy or freedom convoy has garnered national and international attention. The protest started as a response to the Federal governments’ expansion of the vaccination mandate to include truckers returning from the United States. This move, while perhaps symbolically significant, was already effectively in place through the United States’ policy that required truck drivers to be vaccinated in order to cross the border. On January 22nd a convoy of truckers departed from British Columbia on the Trans-Canada highway enroute to Ottawa. Once the convoy arrived in Ottawa they parked large vehicles on main roads and proceeded to honk day and night significantly disrupting the functioning of the city, harassing pedestrians, filling the downtown air with diesel fumes, and defecating in snow banks (Dyrkton, 2022).

Trucker protest, retrieved from the Guardian

Many of the demands of the truckers are misdirected, protesting mandates that are provincial responsibility, and demanding action from the Governor General, a symbolic office. However, the protest is largely ‘successful’ in that it has garnered widespread, international media attention (somewhat uncommon for most Canadian protest movements) and several provinces are dropping their public health mandates (Alberta and Saskatchewan). The protesters use very American language, constantly referring to ‘freedom’ and themselves to themselves ‘patriots’; there has also been speculation about the funding and organization from the United States, especially with the 10 million dollars raised in support of the ‘Freedom convoy’ on GoFundMe (although now this is being returned) (Dyrkton, 2022). 

The relative ‘peace’ of the protest, by this I mean lack of violent interaction with the Ottawa police, draws to mind other instances in which urban space has been occupied and how the police have responded. Two instances that come to mind are the homeless encampments and BLM protests this past summer. Canada is in the midst of a rising homelessness and housing affordability crisis and in many Canadian cities there have been encampments of people experiencing houselessness (Molina, 2019). In 2019, the Ottawa police removed an encampment in a wooded area near Ottawa’s Bayview LRT station within view of the Peace Tower and that was said to pose a risk to health and safety in the area (Molina, 2019). The CBC article notes that many of the people in the encampment had their belongings removed or destroyed. In 2020, protesters demonstrated in support of Black and Indigenous lives after the acquittal of a Ottawa police officer for the death of Abdirahman Abdi, a Black Ottawa man, during a violent arrest (CBC, 2020). Protesters camped and occupied the intersection of Laurier Avenue and Nicholas Street for 3 days before being dispersed by police at 3 AM, and 12 people were charged with mischief (CBC, 2020). The reasoning given by police for police action was that the protest posed a number of safety issues, including blocking routes for emergency vehicles (CBC, 2020). 

Clearly in both the above instances the police decided to invoke public law, in other words provisions of the Criminal Code to remove people from public space for public ‘health and safety’. The charge of mischief (for which the Abdirahman Abdi protesters were charged) is defined in the Criminal Code 430 (1): 

 (1) Every one commits mischief who wilfully

  • (a) destroys or damages property;
  • (b) renders property dangerous, useless, inoperative or ineffective;
  • (c) obstructs, interrupts or interferes with the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property; or
  • (d) obstructs, interrupts or interferes with any person in the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property.

In addition, the police are able to seize equipment and apply for  forfeiture of equipment used to cause an offense (section 490.1). Therefore and very large, very expensive trucks forming the convoy in Ottawa could be subject to forfeiture should the police choose to act. This begs the question why a group of middle class, white truckers seem to enjoy some sort of defacto immunity and respect for their property through inaction of the police that people of colour or people experiencing houselessness do not have. 

A group of downtown Ottawa residents filed a lawsuit against the organizer of the convoy. The suit was successful at seeking an injunction to stop the honking, and in addition is seeking punitive damages (McGregor and Aiello, 2022). Therefore, since any public law remedy (i.e. the criminal code) has not been pursued, private law (in this case a civil tort) is the remedy through which the citizens of downtown Ottawa are seeking justice; “In a context with a surprising dearth of government and law enforcement responses, residents of Ottawa turned to tort law for relief from the horn blasting tactic of the protesters” (Wright and Olszynski, 2022).

Famous photograph from the Oka Crisis of a protester facing off with a solider, retrieved from: CBC News

Barricading and occupying streets are a widely recognized form of protest. The Paris Commune (though an attempted revolution not protest) lives on in history and became famous because of it’s barricades in the streets of Paris in 1871. In Canada, numerous Indigenous Nations and groups have protested incursions onto their land and sovereignty through occupying space. One of the most prominent examples is the Oka Crisis in 1990 that began as a blockade of a local road blocking access to a development of a golf course that was over a Kanesatake ancestral cemetery (Marshall, 2020). The provincial police used tear gas, concussion grenades, and gunfire ensued; eventually Mohawk from the nearby Kahnawake reserve blockaded the Mercier Bridge cutting off the south suburbs of Montreal from the rest of the city. Eventually the RCMP, then the Canadian Military were called in. This demonstrates, after paralytic inaction at the federal level, the political will to enforce the law again seems to be reserved for people of colour. 

Ambassador Bridge, retrieved from The Globe and Mail

The truckers’ protest in many respects is about their freedom of movement and ability to participate in public life; through their protest they interfere with other ability to enjoy those same rights. While the honking in Ottawa downtown has stopped since the injunction,  the blockade at the Coutts border between Alberta and Montana remains and another blockade has developed at the Ambassador Bridge which connects Ontario to Michigan (BBC, 2022). This begs questions about the extent to which a protest movement representing a minority interest (considering Canadian vaccination rates and the results of the Fall 2021 elections) can disrupt public space and economic function before substantial action is taken when protesters themselves are not minorities (white and middle class).

BBC News. (2022, Feb 10th). Freedom Convoy: US offers Canada support to end truck protest. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-60342800

CBC News (2021, Nov 19th). Protesters arrested during Black, Indigenous lives demonstration in Ottawa released. In retrieved: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/second-homelessness-survey-ottawa-1.6228836

Dyrkton, J. (2022, Feb 4th). Protest in Ottawa: Occupying time on the ‘Freedom Convoy’ – and Canada’s Conservatives. Retrieved from: https://joergedyrkton.blogspot.com/ 

Gollom, M. (2022, Feb 2nd). Ottawa’s police chief says the response to the protest has been a success. Not everyone agrees. CBC News Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/ottawa-protest-convoy-police-success-reaction-1.6334976

Gopnik, A. (2014, Dec 15th). The Fires of Paris. The New. Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/12/22/fires-paris

Isai, V. (2022, Feb 8th ). A timeline of the protest. New York Times, Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/07/world/canada/ottawa-truck-driver-protest-timeline.htmlhttp

Marshall, T. (2020, July 9th). Oka Crisis. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/oka-crisis

McGregor, G. & Aiello, R. (2022, Feb 4th). Lawsuit filed against convoy organizers, seeking damages on behalf of downtown Ottawa residents. CTV News. retrieved from: https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/lawsuit-filed-against-convoy-organizers-seeking-damages-on-behalf-of-downtown-ottawa-residents-1.5768731

Molina, K. (2019, Dec 4th). Some tent city residents plan to ignore trespass notice. CBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/ottawa-tent-city-bayview-1.5390499

Wright D. & Olszynski, M. (2021, Feb 9th). Rigs in Parlour: The Freedom Convoy and the Law of Private Nuisance. Retrieved from: https://ablawg.ca/2022/02/09/rig-in-a-parlour-the-freedom-convoy-and-the-law-of-private-nuisance/