When reporter Andrew Lawton arrived in Ottawa to cover the Freedom Convoy last January, he was repeatedly struck by the divergence between what he saw on the ground and what he read in media coverage of events. In part because they were not talking to mainstream media, protesters and organizers were often missing or even misrepresented in their own story. With exclusive access to some of the major players in the convoy, he set out to write fairly and accurately about the protest and the events leading up to it. First of two excerpts:
On my way to Ottawa, I’d heard little in the media about the convoy beyond predictions of a violent insurrection and accusations of racism and extremism. Walking around downtown Ottawa the first weekend, I was relieved, though not surprised, to see nothing of this nature. I spent my time talking to people and taking in the sights on the streets and taking breaks from the frigid weather in my hotel room every couple of hours where I’d also recharge my rapidly draining cell phone. On one of these breaks, I looked at Twitter and was baffled to see what was trending in the online convoy discussion. A Terry Fox statue across the street from the Prime Minister’s Office had been desecrated. A drunken woman had danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Truckers had stolen food from a homeless shelter. And a man flying a Confederate flag had made his way through the crowd, as had another man with a swastika flag. These stories were all the rage online, but felt a world away from the block party atmosphere on the ground.
At the convoy press conference the first Sunday, Benjamin Dichter, a long-time conservative activist and organizer who was acting as a spokesperson for organizers, laughed it all off as “fake news.” The “defacing” of the Terry Fox statue, reported by multiple media reports, was harmless: protesters had put a baseball cap on Fox’s head and tied a Canadian flag around his neck as a cape. They also placed in his arms a sign reading “MANDATE FREEDOM.” All of these were easily removed with no damage to the statue. Nevertheless, the incident lived on in the comments of politicians and journalists as an example of convoy lawlessness.
Sometimes, it would take months to learn the truth behind a story impugning the convoy. There was indeed a video of a woman dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It received widespread criticism across the country. It wasn’t until more than two months later that Ottawa police admitted the woman had no association with the convoy.
On Feb. 6, an Ottawa man named Matias Munoz published a Twitter thread accusing two arsonists of bringing a “full package of fire-starter bricks” into the lobby of his downtown Ottawa apartment building at 5 a.m. One of the would-be arsonists admitted to being part of the convoy, Munoz wrote. The tweet received more than 12,000 retweets and the incident was raised in the House of Commons by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen, and other MPs as an example of “violence” within the convoy. It wasn’t until March 21, more than a month after the protest had been disbanded, that police confirmed there was no connection between the suspects and the trucker protest. After the statement from Ottawa police, Munoz blamed the convoy for creating “a lawless scenario in Ottawa’s core that acted as a catalyst for this arson attempt to occur.”
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One of the most damaging stories was the allegation that truckers had harassed people at the Shepherds of Good Hope, a downtown Ottawa shelter and soup kitchen. The charity said in a Jan. 30 statement that trucks had parked in its ambulance drop-off zone, and that protesters subjected soup kitchen staff and volunteers to “verbal harassment and pressure” to give them food. The statement said the soup kitchen was “not certain of exact numbers,” but that the incidents spanned several hours. While many of the organizers I spoke to were skeptical of the story, it was not altogether implausible. Food was difficult to come by that first weekend if you didn’t know where to look. Many downtown restaurants, including those in the Rideau Centre, a nearby shopping mall, pre-emptively closed. (The ones that stayed open made small fortunes, however). The food tents under which volunteer cooks fried chicken wings, grilled hot dogs, and roasted whole pigs had been set up quickly but did not yet have the capacity to feed the tens of thousands who turned up on the first weekend. In any event, the incident was a one-off, and not representative of general protester behaviour. Convoy organizers prided themselves on feeding the homeless over the next three weeks.
And then there were the flags. One masked man walked through the crowd on Parliament Hill holding a Confederate battle flag with a transport truck on it. A still image of the man circulated quickly, particularly among journalists, who devoted entire stories to it. A less-viral video of the man walking around shows other demonstrators heckling him and chasing him out of the crowd.
The swastikas were even more curious. One photo shows a man in the distance — not amid the protesters on Parliament Hill or Wellington Street — with a swastika flag on a pole. My colleague Candice Malcolm of the pro-trucker media outlet True North put out a $6,500 bounty for information that could identify the flag-bearer. She wanted to ask what he was thinking. Nothing substantive ever came of it. Was he an anti-convoy agitator or a genuine Nazi sympathizer? Both are possible. A handful of other swastikas appeared amid the protests, although typically in the context of demonstrators ham-fistedly accusing the Canadian government of being Nazis. This does not excuse the reprehensible use of such a hateful symbol at a protest, but there is a difference between Nazi sympathizers and people who are too dumb to come up with a more sophisticated argument than calling political opponents Nazis. That nuance was missing from the coverage.
I ran into Conservative members of Parliament Michael Cooper and Damien Kurek, both from Alberta, handing out coffee to convoy protesters and conducted an impromptu interview with them. As we were setting up the shot, Cooper kept looking behind himself. I later learned it was because he had earlier spoken to the CBC while someone in the background carried a Canadian flag with a swastika sketched on it. A screenshot of that image had gone viral, which was when Cooper learned of it. CBC later ran a story on how Cooper was “under fire” for being in the vicinity of whoever the flag-waver was.
On slower days, convoy critics got creative. CBC did a radio segment about why “freedom” isn’t necessarily a nice word because it “thrived among far-right groups.”
The reality was that the main media narrative was already set, and the convoy’s critics didn’t care much about truth if a rumour felt like it fit. Canadian Anti-Hate Network chair Bernie Farber tweeted out a photo of a wildly antisemitic flyer “taken by a friend in Ottawa at the Occupation.” He labelled the convoy “the worst display of Nazi propaganda in this country.” As Quillette editor and National Post contributor Jonathan Kay pointed out, the photo appeared on Twitter weeks earlier when it was snapped by someone in Miami with no connection to the convoy. Farber is not a random Twitter troll. He’s testified in Parliament and is a regular on the CBC. Journalists and politicians ran with his story unquestioningly. NDP member of Parliament Charlie Angus said the convoy’s supposed extremism “isn’t hidden, it’s right there in the open.” Justin Trudeau went so far as to accuse Jewish Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman of standing with “people who wave swastikas.” Liberal MP Ya’ara Saks said that “honk honk,” the convoy’s online rallying cry, was actually code for “Heil Hitler.”
Even if the unfortunate incidents were all accurately represented, which they weren’t, they were still marginal events in a massive protest involving tens of thousands of people whose time in Ottawa was marked by peaceful demonstration and celebration. Convoy spokesperson Dagny Pawlak wasn’t surprised that the media elevated the one-offs to the status of major stories. “The mainstream media will find that one potentially toxic element and portray that as representative of the entire movement,” she said. “That’s something we didn’t want to give them.” But organizers couldn’t control every person in a crowd that size.
The racist, extremist narrative embraced by many in government and the media subsumed a lot of interesting individual stories from among the protesters. Some of the most tremendous reporting in the convoy came from Rupa Subramanya, an economist and National Post columnist who spent almost every day walking around the Wellington Street camps talking to people about who they were and why they were there. “I have spoken to close to 100 protesters, truckers and other folks, and not one of them sounded like an insurrectionist, white supremacist, racist or misogynist,” Subramanya, a woman of colour from India, wrote in an essay on the popular Bari Weiss Substack.
It was strange that such a simple tactic — talking to the people involved in the protest — seemed radical in this landscape of media coverage. Subramanya identified that the protest, while ostensibly focused on vaccine mandates and passports, had morphed into an outlet for broader frustrations with government intrusion into personal lives. It was telling, to her, that many of the protesters she interviewed were immigrants from communist dictatorships who felt Canada was no longer offering the freedom they had fled their home countries to find.
In the city-within-a-city that the convoy created, people found the freedom and normalcy they craved, which speaks to why so many of them stuck around after intending to spend just a couple of days in Ottawa. Some found far more than that: trucker Tyler Armstrong, whose baby blue Kenworth was parked on Wellington right in front of the Hill, met and fell in love with protester Ashley Wapshaw at the convoy. Volunteers Bethan and Mike Nodwell, who didn’t know each other before the convoy, met and learned they were cousins. One man I spoke to told me he found faith through a ministry in Ottawa. Critics might write these off as isolated incidents, but they were more representative of the convoy experience than the isolated negative ones presented by the media and picked up by politicians.
Some of the most popular coverage I did in Ottawa came from simply streaming live video as I walked around. A few of my supporters told me they were so distrustful of the media’s depiction of the convoy that they enjoyed the simplicity and honesty of a live feed of what was happening on the ground, even if what was happening was, at a particular moment, nothing important.
In fairness to the media, some reporters did their best to go out into the (often hostile) crowd to talk to people. Two standout examples were Evan Solomon of CTV and Sean O’Shea of Global News. Both of them had real conversations with people and stood there and took it when folks screamed at them. As a journalist with a conservative media outlet, I was largely spared the nastiness directed at a lot of mainstream media folks, which was difficult to watch and, as I told a couple of protesters, only furthered the negative depictions of the convoy in the press. I understood where the anger was coming from, having seen the media’s vilification and misrepresentation of the convoy, but this didn’t excuse the appalling behaviour of individuals attacking journalists who were trying to do their jobs.
Excerpted from The Freedom Convoy: The Inside Story of Three Weeks that Shook the World, by Andrew Lawton, a pre-order bestseller published by Sutherland House, available everywhere June 24.