Ottawa residents describe their fears amid truckers’ protest as Canada’s far-right focuses

When Justin Romanov fled Russia to Canada almost a decade ago, he found a safe haven. As a refugee who had been repeatedly beaten by police in Moscow for protesting for LGBTQ rights, he felt safe enough to build a life – finding a partner and buying a house just outside Ottawa.

But over the past two weeks, Romanov, 26, said he saw a different side of Canada, with an unprecedented protest in the country’s capital. The hundreds of truckers and protesters who gathered outside Ottawa’s Parliament Hill demanding an end to Covid-19 vaccination mandates scared him and many other residents of the city.

“I just don’t feel safe being there,” Romanov, who drives downtown every day to work as a food delivery driver, told NBC News. “I don’t feel safe in downtown Ottawa right now because I have a feeling people will find out I’m a refugee and gay, I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble there and to be honest, I’m a little disappointed that this protest (is) still taking place across Canada.”

A protester walks past parked trucks in Ottawa demonstrating against vaccination mandates, February 8, 2022. Dave Chan / AFP-Getty Images

Not only is the “Freedom Convoy” protest still taking place in Canada, wreaking havoc in the capital and stopping traffic at its busiest crossing point with the United States, but its influence has also crossed the border with officials warning that a convoy of truckers could disrupt the Super Bowl this weekend near Los Angeles, before heading to Washington, D.C. The warning was published in a Department bulletin of Homeland Security obtained by NBC News.

Meanwhile, copycat convoys also formed in New Zealand, Australia, France and elsewhere. Meanwhile, online organizers said a protest scheduled for Monday in Belgium’s capital, Brussels, will see the merging of convoys from countries across Europe.

A woman places Canadian and French flags on her car before the departure of a “freedom convoy” in Nice, France, February 9, 2022. Eric Gaillard / Reuters

While the protest in Ottawa began in opposition to vaccination rules for truckers crossing the border, it quickly became a rallying point against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government and coronavirus regulations across the country.

And while some rallied peacefully, reports of protesters honking their horns throughout the night, accosting residents wearing masks, committing property damage and theft as well as the rare, but still ominous, presence of Confederate flags and flags bearing swastikas, the protest left many Ottawa residents nervous and afraid to leave their homes.

“I don’t leave my apartment after dark”

One woman, a nursing student living in downtown Ottawa who requested anonymity out of fear for her safety, told NBC News she was repeatedly accosted for wearing a mask by people appearing to belong to the “Freedom Convoy”.

“They target anyone who wears a mask, anyone who follows public health policy,” she said. “I myself have been accosted at least three times.”

“A man tried to tear off my mask. I was shouted at, told to go back to my country,” she said after someone overheard her speaking with an accent.

Since being accosted, she said she was afraid to leave her house after dark and refused to go out alone after dark. “It’s not safe. It’s really, really scary,” she said.

An “act of revenge”

Another Ottawa resident, Matias Muñoz, said an incident he believes linked to the protest could have cost him and others their lives.

On Sunday morning, two people entered Muñoz’s apartment building and appeared to start lighting a fire, before taping the residence’s front door in an incident captured on CCTV.

Muñoz said in an interview that the incident happened after frustrated residents of the building clashed with protesters, demanding they stop honking and making noise in the middle of the night.

“There was no physical altercation. It was really verbal. But some people got angry in the group of protesters, so that’s kind of the scene that happened that night “, did he declare.

He acknowledged that he could not say for sure whether the fire was started by people associated with the convoy. The incident is now in the hands of the Ottawa Police Service, with detectives asking for the public’s help in locating the suspects.

A sentiment shared by the three residents was that the protest that took to the streets of Ottawa does not feel representative of the Canada they know.

“Canada is a very diverse country and Ottawa is very diverse,” Romanov said. But the protest, he said, “seems to be a small minority of white people who have radical ideas (and) oppose this (vaccine) mandate.”

The nursing student echoed her thoughts, saying she believed there was “definitely a far-right ‘underbelly’ out there and from what I’ve seen they’re not trying to hide it.”

Hundreds of truckers and their supporters block downtown Ottawa streets as part of a convoy of protesters against Canada’s COVID-19 mandates on February 9, 2022 in Ottawa, Ontario. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“We are peaceful people”

Rally organizers and demonstrators repeatedly sought to distance the protest from Canada’s far-right presence.

Speaking in a telephone interview on Wednesday, Tim Coderre, a volunteer convoy coordinator, said that while there could be “isolated pockets of people doing random things on their own”, those people would not not represent the entire movement.

“We are peaceful people,” he said. However, he said the protest was propelled by “a very, very rich movement with a lot of players”.

Ultimately, he said the protest he identified with was to protect people’s “freedoms and freedoms”.

“We don’t care if a person wants to get vaccinated, it’s their choice. We just want the same choice to have reservations about it,” he said.

Canada’s Far-Right “Belly”

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a non-profit group that monitors hate groups, far-right groups and hate crimes in Canada, has repeatedly stated that some of these actors, including some of the biggest supporters of the protest, with two people behind the early crowdfunding initiatives for who supported the protest among them, appeared to be associated with the “extreme right movement” in Canada.

Vehicles block the road leading from the Ambassador Bridge, connecting Detroit and Windsor, as truckers and their supporters protest vaccine mandates on Tuesday. Carlos Osorio / Reuters

The organization also noted that one of the most prominent early supporters of the protest was Pat King, who it says is a well-known figure in Canada’s “far-right ecosystem”.

In an interview, Bernie Farber, president of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said that while the protests may have started as protests against vaccination mandates, they appeared to have been effectively “co-opted” by the far right.

“You don’t need a large number of people to co-opt a protest like this. You need a few instigators, you need a few Nazi and Confederate flags, and the media is rightly starting to focus on that,” he said.

While this ecosystem has been around for some time, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network said that, especially “since the start of the pandemic, Covid conspiracies have brought together various fringe and far-right elements” across the country.

The scene of the protest in Windsor, Ont., on Tuesday. Carlos Osorio / Reuters

And regarding the Freedom Convoy, the organization said: “A lot of their supporters swear it’s not about the far right, and even, oddly enough, that they’re not anti-vaccine. Most of them probably believe it, too.But the organizers behind the convoy, and where it came from, paint a very different picture.

Amid police crackdown, protest spreads across Canadian border

In recent days, police and government officials appear to have stepped up efforts to end the nearly two-week protest.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared a “state of emergency” on Sunday, saying the protest posed “a grave danger and threat to the safety and security of residents” as police began to impede the fuel to reach the demonstrators. So far, at least 85 police investigations have also been opened in connection with the protests, including for alleged hate crimes, mischief, property damage and theft, while more than 1,300 tickets have been issued.

Trudeau denounced the protesters’ tactics, saying the chaos “must stop” during an emergency debate in parliament on Monday night.

But as police and politicians scramble to contain the chaos in Canada, it has already seeped beyond the country’s borders, with some, including former President Donald Trump, appearing to fan its flames.

In New Zealand, dozens of people rallied against vaccine and mask mandates joined a convoy to the capital, Wellington, on Tuesday, with a number of participants spotted carrying “Trump 2024” flags.

Meanwhile, another self-proclaimed “convoy” also appeared to be forming in France, making its way from Nice to Paris to demonstrate against coronavirus rules.

Some members of the convoy were also due to join a protest in Brussels next week, which organizers charged on social networks as a major event that will include “convoys” from across Europe, signaling a potential new chapter in the saga unleashed in Canada’s capital.

Coderre, the volunteer convoy coordinator, said he believed the protests would only grow.

“The ‘marginal minority’ comes out full tail,” he said, citing Trudeau’s remarks. “It’s not as marginal as he thought.”

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