Communities organize against white nationalist occupations

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Scratch the Canadian flag and find fascism Lewis Parsons via Unsplash

Counter-protests across Canada

In the weeks since January 28 – when a convoy of truck owners descended on Ottawa, occupying the city’s downtown, blocking streets and services, harassing and intimidating residents, and honking horns at all hours – it’s become increasingly clear that police and the municipal and provincial governments are either unwilling or unable, or both, to respond effectively to the unfolding crisis. Likewise, establishment media in Canada has often struggled to cover the occupation accurately or critically, often repeating the occupiers’ messaging and downplaying the role that White nationalism and the tacit – and at times, like in Coutts, Alberta, explicit – support of the police are playing in the convoy. Over the past 10 days, governments at all levels have made some legislative moves in an attempt to address the entrenched convoy, which consists of around 400 trucks and has, at times, blockaded the Ambassador Bridge, a major trading route that connects Canada and the United States.

On February 6, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency in the city, and the following Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a province-wide state of emergency. On February 14, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act, which grants the federal government temporary powers to override the provinces and authorize special measures. It’s the first time the act has been invoked since it was established in 1988. That same day, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told the occupiers that any vehicles involved in the blockades would have their corporate accounts frozen and lose their insurance. However, despite these states of emergency, and a deal brokered between Watson and convoy organizer Tamara Lich meant to limit the occupation to a certain area of the city, some of the occupiers have indicated that they will not be complying. Sam Hersh, an organizer with Horizon Ottawa, said that Watson had “brokered a deal to cede part of our city.”

Although Trudeau’s invocation of the Emergencies Act may cause the situation to change rapidly between the time of writing this story and when this story goes to print (hours before press time on Tuesday, Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly resigned over his handling of the occupation), it’s clear that the real resistance has come from community members who have organized and mobilized in an effort to express solidarity with their neighbours and remove the occupation from the streets. “I can’t really do justice to the frustration and anger, how palpable it is in the city,” Hersh said. “It’s very tense.” He added that, “yes, it’s the capital city, but people live here,” He said he was frustrated with the Prime Minister. “He’s using our city as a bargaining chip.”

On both Saturday and Sunday, grassroots demonstrations by community members popped up in Ottawa. On Saturday, labour locals, community organizations, and residents across the city organized a march and demonstration in response to the occupation. Hersh said the march “energized” other residents of the city, who until then had been engaged in a debate over whether it was safe enough to hold any sort of counter protest given the volatility of the occupiers. “I’ve been involved in different counter protests against the far-right and it’s just not the same. Because this is an occupation. They’re everywhere in our city.” He added that it was difficult to convey both residents’ tension and the horror of walking in your city and “seeing a Nazi flag hanging over a hotel balcony.”

Sunday’s demonstration, which blocked off an intersection and trapped members of the convoy, preventing them from leaving, was grassroots and extremely spontaneous. “I think it was started by a local dog walking group on Facebook,” Hersh said. While it began small, with around 30 or 40 people out at 9 a.m. in the bitter cold, “it grew exponentially,” to more than 1000 people. Sunday’s demonstration managed to be more effective than many of the actions taken by police and politicians. Hersh said he and others negotiated with members of the convoy who were trapped, not allowing anyone except for those with childcare needs to leave until they agreed to concessions. “Both that they take down their hateful insignia and that they agreed to never come back to our city again. And a lot of them agreed to never come back.”

In addition to the fear of violence from the occupiers, Hersh said that part of the reason that residents didn’t organize anything sooner was that “a lot of people thought they were just going to come and leave,” he said. He first heard that the convoy was coming six days before it arrived and he thought at the time, “‘you know, we should organize something.’ But then I thought, ‘they’re just going to leave.’ That was a big mistake.” He offered a warning for the next city: “If we had organized a mass rally, it wouldn’t have gotten the same numbers it got [on Sunday], but if we had organized something when these people came to town, that would have had an effect.”

He said that many of the occupiers who the demonstrators blockaded were oblivious to the way residents felt towards them. “A lot of them said, ‘we didn’t know we were so hated here. We just wanted to go downtown and have fun. I thought everyone was having fun.’” And, he said. “A lot of them just didn’t care.”

Hersh said that people elsewhere in Canada aren’t getting the full picture of what has been happening in Ottawa from mainstream news outlets. “For a long time they said it was peaceful. They said that the far-right element is just a small part of it, but it’s a significant part of it,” he said. “And another narrative that has not stopped is that it started as a legitimate movement and it’s turned into something worse. But that’s not the case. It was always a far-right movement.” But, according to him, “most journalists have not been taking this seriously for the threat that it is.”

Hersh said that he doesn’t think many of the occupiers, especially the true believers, understand that there could be consequences for their occupation. “Some of them gave up their jobs to be here. A lot of these people aren’t going to have anywhere to go.” He said it was sad, but “I don’t have much sympathy for folks who are comfortable coming to a rally with Nazi flags and White supremacist groups.”

Meanwhile, occupations have also been taking place in other Canadian cities, although on a much smaller scale – and there, too, abolitionists and other community organizers have been on the frontlines of protest. In Winnipeg, where a number of people with semis, tractors, and trucks have been occupying the city since February 4, hundreds of people braved an extreme cold warning on Sunday to attend a counter protest.  Cerah Dube and Daniel Friesen of Winnipeg Police Cause Harm, an abolitionist organization, who were part of the counter protest, said that while the Winnipeg occupation hasn’t been as disruptive as the Ottawa occupation, it’s taken enough of a toll that community members felt the need to stand in solidarity against the occupiers. “The area where they’re located in Winnipeg is less of a main hub than it seems to be in Ottawa,” Friesen said. “There’s lots of ways to avoid the area if you don’t need to go there, but there’s lots of residential areas right around there, so it’s quite disruptive to those people. There’s been quite a lot of honking, they had a train horn at one point. People are pretty sick and tired of having them be disruptive in their neighbourhood.”

Dube added that “Some people don’t feel safe leaving their residences just because of how volatile and unpredictable folks that are associated with the occupation are.” She added that, like in Ottawa, “fascist imagery has been used” by the occupiers, as well as explicitly white nationalist messaging, although the media has largely been repeating the claim that the occupiers are against vaccine and masking mandates or other measures meant to protect public health.

Friesen said that while it’s possible to debate whether or not the occupiers “want to enact fascism,” there is no question that, similar to what Hersh described in Ottawa, it’s a white nationalist occupation that it has little to do with public health measures. “If you look at the people who put the call out for people to participate in these actions, it is at the very least a white nationalist occupation,” he said. “It’s in no way a protest anymore at least, because in Manitoba they announced that they’ll be dropping all COVID restrictions by the middle of March. So at this point they have no reason to stay there except for to dig in and to terrorize people and to feel powerful.”

Although many people have been calling for the police to “do their jobs,” both in Ottawa and elsewhere in Canada where white nationalists have entrenched or attempted to entrench themselves, all three organizers emphasized that the occupations themselves demonstrate whose side the police are really on. “The level of inaction does equate to support for [the occupation],” Dube said. “And I think people are starting to realize that police serve and protect a certain populace in society. They do not do that for everyone, and that’s become very clear. This idealized notion that we should be able to rely on the police is proving to be simply not true,” Friesen agreed. “I think it’s been made clear that the police are on the side of the occupiers.”

In Ottawa, Hersh, who has been active in that city’s defund movement for years, said that the OPS “in many instances, have used their own mismanagement of this crisis as an excuse to get more resources.” Ottawa’s defund movement had managed to pressure the city into providing a smaller increase to the police service in the last budget, something that the police are now exploiting to ask for even more resources. “It wasn’t what we asked for, but it was something, and the police used that as an excuse [for not ending the occupation]. They said ‘because of budget pressures, we’re not able to deal with this crisis,’” Hersh said. “It’s absurd to use this as an excuse to get more money.” But, he added, calling for the police to do their jobs isn’t necessarily useful, since the police are doing their jobs. “What does doing their job mean?” he asked. “It means upholding white supremacy, it means upholding colonialism. And that’s what they’re doing. They’ve showed their true colours.”

Friesen and Dube agreed that last weekend’s counter demonstration in Winnipeg will not be the last. “It wasn’t meant to be a one-off action. It was meant to be a kick off to empowering people to take action and to show these people occupying this intersection that they’re not welcome here and that we will stand up to them and that they’re not in any way the majority.” Hersh said Ottawa residents would do the same. “We’ll keep taking to the streets until all of these people are gone from our city,” he said. “We keep ourselves safe.”

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