Sarah Chown’s car now rolls seamlessly through the busy downtown Ottawa intersection that, just one year ago, was made impassible by massive trucks and screaming protesters.
But to this day, her drive to the Metropolitain Brasserie, a restaurant she co-owns just 200 metres from Parliament Hill, is marked by memories of the so-called “Freedom Convoy.”
“Not a day goes by, still, that I don’t drive through that intersection and remember what happened there,” she told Global News in an interview.
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The Metropolitain Brasserie is located on the corner of Rideau and Sussex streets. That intersection was one of the main gathering points during the convoy protests, which snarled Ottawa streets for weeks on end one year ago.
Sound systems were set up in the middle of the intersection in front of Chown’s business, blasting music as demonstrators danced and drank late into the night.
Shortly after the convoy’s arrival, she closed down her restaurant, which had been open for takeout after months of the ups and downs with COVID-19 public health measures. Eyeing the large glass windows in the front of her business, she packed up any valuables, wine and liquor that could be seen from the crowds outside.
Chown said she wasn’t sure when she’d be able to pull them back out, and it ended up taking three weeks along with the controversial invocation of the Emergencies Act for the convoy to leave.
“The hit that we took as a business, financially, was astronomical.”
Ottawa police were overwhelmed and unprepared, leaving little recourse for the locals who lived and worked in the area that the demonstrators against COVID-19 restrictions decided to occupy.
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The Emergencies Act public inquiry late last year heard repeated testimony from residents who described being harassed for wearing masks, and hearing fireworks pinged off their windows as they tried to sleep. The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario confirmed families missed children’s chemotherapy appointments as trucks blocked city streets.
Some downtown residents described sleeping in parking garages to escape the incessant honking, and those with homes close to the ground floor said they felt the impact of diesel fumes on asthma and breathing difficulties.
“It was horrendous,” Chown said.
But, she added, “it feels like we’ve been through a lot of recovery since then.”
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Catherine McKenney spent much of their time walking the streets of their Centretown ward. At the time, they were the city councillor representing Somerset ward, which was one of the hardest-hit neighbourhoods in Ottawa.
What they remember most vividly are the looks in people’s eyes.
“The fear in people’s eyes, just as they went about their business — going home, coming back from running an errand or from work — that will always stay in my mind,” they said.
As McKenney called on fellow politicians and police to do something about the entrenched demonstration as the days and weeks went on, someone leaked their home address online.
“So in the middle of it all, in this surreal time when I felt an overwhelming responsibility for the safety and well-being of an entire neighborhood … we had to take our daughter, who was 15, and we had to move her out of the city to go stay with friends,” they said.
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“So that would always stick with me. That day will always stick with me.”
In the year since the convoy, many Ottawa residents have expressed how hard it is for them to shake a feeling of unease. During the official inquiry into the protests, locals described the lingering trauma they continue to experience.
Victoria De La Ronde, a resident of the Centretown neighbourhood, told POEC that the impact on her physical well-being caused by the protest was “quite extensive.”
“I certainly, during the experience, had difficulty sleeping. I had an effect on my lungs and my throat because of the fumes and other smells. And I also have long-term effects,” she said.
“The long-term effects are loss of hearing, loss of balance, some vertigo. (I’m) triggered by the sound of any horn now.”
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McKenney recalled a moment, long after the convoy left the city, when someone pulled up alongside them in a large truck and yelled their name.
The former city councillor, who is openly trans nonbinary and had recently ran for mayor against the successful candidate Mark Sutcliffe, said they immediately braced for what might come next.
But instead, McKenney said the man yelled, “you’re awesome!”
McKenney thanked him, they said, and carried on.
The people who live and work downtown have spent the year healing in their own ways.
And while watching the public inquiry play out at the end of last year was “therapeutic” in its own way, Chown said it laid bare the struggles in trying to bring order back to the streets and the impacts that few people outside of Ottawa’s downtown core will ever truly understand.
Ottawa police faced significant criticism and accusations that they failed to take seriously the threat the convoy posed and their participants’ publicly stated intentions not to leave the city once allowed in.
Looking forward, Ottawa’s new Mayor Mark Sutcliffe says the city has a clear focus: making sure the “Freedom Convoy” doesn’t happen again.
“The Ottawa police have been working very hard and collaborating with other police services to make sure that we’re prepared for any events in the next few days, the next few weeks, in the next few years,” he said in an interview with Global News.
“We’re going to make sure that the kinds of events that happened last year never happen again in the city of Ottawa.”
The convoy protests, Sutcliffe said, were “very disruptive and obviously very disturbing to a lot of people in our community, especially the people who live in the immediate vicinity.”
To this day, a large chunk of Wellington Street running directly in front of the Parliament buildings remains closed to vehicles.
Sutcliffe said conversations are continuing about how best to use the road in the future.
“We should reopen it to vehicles in the short term while we’re making a decision about the future of Wellington. That’s the right decision for the long term,” he said.
Meanwhile, many of the figures who rose to prominence during the convoy protests — and their supporters — continue to spread COVID-19 misinformation to their audiences today, according to Stephanie Carvin, a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service analyst who now teaches at Carleton University.
“I think the key thing that surprises me is that they haven’t really moved on,” she said. “It’s still about the pandemic.”
The convoy movement has been plagued by infighting as some organizers attempted to re-capture the energy of the February protest. But Carvin said she worries that Canada’s institutions still don’t know how to deal with the misinformation and conspiracies that fanned the flames of the convoy.
“There’s no sense to me that they’re prepared to deal with the more extreme elements of this wider, polarized movement,” she said.
“That concerns me greatly.”
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