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Some of the protesters and supporters from the Ottawa convoy protest gathered at Herb's Travel Plaza and a nearby lot in Vankleek Hill, Ont., on Feb. 21, 2022.James Park/The Globe and Mail

At a truck stop about an hour east of Ottawa on Monday afternoon, Shawna Sparkes and Paul Maich showed off a collection of thank-you letters and cash given to them by strangers during the convoy protest against pandemic restrictions, which shut down the capital city’s centre for three weeks.

The two friends had joined the crowds near Parliament, sleeping some nights under a tent in the back of their pick-up, until a police crackdown pushed demonstrators out of the downtown core this past weekend.

Now, Ms. Sparkes and Mr. Maich find themselves among a scattered group of truckers, farmers and other protesters. Starting on Sunday, they and a few others gathered at the truck stop outside Vankleek Hill, a town in eastern Ontario. They said they want to maintain the community they discovered together during the protest, but they aren’t quite sure how to do so.

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Friends Paul Maich, left, and Shawna Sparkes show off some of the letters they received from supporters while they took part in the Ottawa protests.James Park/The Globe and Mail

“It’s just this outpouring of love and support,” Ms. Sparkes said. “There’s a feeling that this is a big thing that’s unfolding.”

But what will happen next – how and whether a disparate group of people from across the country will stay united – is unclear, even to the protesters.

Among the convoy in Ottawa were truckers, farmers, business owners, families, people forced to retire for not getting COVID-19 vaccines, and people who were vaccinated but who are opposed to mandates. They came from small towns and cities, and from every province. Many protesters now speak of the safe space they found in the capital, where they could express their views about “the jab” without feeling judged.

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They say they experienced the demonstration as peaceful and friendly, even though for weeks residents of Ottawa’s Centretown neighbourhood were subjected to long spells of loud honking, truck-jammed streets and bonfires. Many businesses, including the city’s largest shopping mall, closed because of safety concerns.

Protesters interviewed by The Globe over the weekend disavowed the presence, during the first week of the protest, of swatiskas and the Confederate flag. But signs comparing vaccine mandates to the persecution of Jewish people by the Nazis remained to the end.

By Monday, Ottawa police said they had arrested 196 people and charged 110 with offences ranging from disobeying a court order to weapons possession and assaulting police.

Floriant Giroux, a truck driver from Hawkesbury, Ont. who joined the protest – without his rig – for two weekends, said the anger seen in Ottawa was the result of “people feeling squeezed” and needing to vent.

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Floriant Giroux, a truck driver from Hawkesbury, Ont., joined the protest – without his rig – for two weekends.James Park/The Globe and Mail

While the demonstration was ostensibly about vaccine and mask mandates, protesters interviewed by the Globe over the past three weeks often spoke of broader issues, including a deep distrust of government and the media, and a genuine fear that the country is becoming less free.

A Manitoba farmer, for instance, wept when he spoke of the future facing his 18 grandchildren, comparing the erosion of individual choice to a dog whose chain is being shortened one link at a time. A truck driver from Quebec cried when he described having a falling out with an old friend over vaccine mandates.

A 24-year-old actress from Vancouver, who said she got vaccinated only to keep her job, broke up with her boyfriend when he didn’t support her flying to the Ottawa protest. This was another experience many protesters shared: a trail of broken relationships and lost jobs in defence of the freedoms they believe are being stripped away.

“There’s nothing that can shake the ground I am standing on,” said Kailyn Kersey, a single mother from Truro, N.S., who was checking out of her hotel on Sunday after coming to Ottawa for the final weekend of the protest.

Ms. Kersey has refused to get vaccinated or wear a mask. But she said the issue is bigger than a single protest or political dispute. “This is about power. It’s about control,” she said, her eyes tearing up as she spoke. “It’s a really scary world that we are moving into, and I want to protect my children’s future.”

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Jenna Wozney joined other protesters at at Herb's Travel Plaza.James Park/The Globe and Mail

Almost every demonstrator who spoke to The Globe over the course of the protest repeated misinformation or well-travelled conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines, often citing posts from social media. They frequently referred to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “a dictator” and “tyrant.”

Much of the anger people feel now, Mr. Giroux said, is focused on the Prime Minister’s refusal to communicate with protesters, and the federal government’s decision to trigger the Emergencies Act to bring the blockades to an end.

Ms. Sparkes said she is concerned that Canadians are losing the ability to bridge divides with open debate.

“There’s such a resistance to gaining perspective from either side,” she said. It’s hard, she conceded, to find common ground when people believe an issue is “a question of life and death.”

“Then everything gets skewed and relationships get torn. If you don’t see eye to eye on that, then you are the opposition, and that’s that.”

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The Vankleek Hill gathering took shape after a police crackdown pushed demonstrators out of Ottawa's downtown core this past weekend.James Park/The Globe and Mail

Some of the protesters who spent Sunday at the truck stop in Vankleek Hill moved on to a private property nearby. Most of the people parked in the dozens of big rigs, camper vans and other vehicles at that location refused to be interviewed. Those who did speak alluded to plans for next steps for the convoy, but refused to disclose them. The Globe was asked to leave the property about half an hour after arriving.

For his part, Mr. Maich is planning to return home eventually, and then sit down with his MP. He believes it’s time to turn from protest to political action.

“Let’s just wait for the dust to settle, and see where we go from here,” Ms. Sparkes said.

As she was speaking, a man walked over. “I want to thank you for what you’ve done,” he said, reaching out to shake her hand.

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