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Convoy protest organizers Tamara Lich and Chris Barber during a break at the Public Order Emergency Commission hearing on Nov. 1, in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Convoy protest organizers were aware of incendiary comments from one of their leaders, but wanted to keep him in the fold because of his social media following, the Emergencies Act inquiry was told Tuesday, as the first organizer to testify maintained the Ottawa protests weren’t disruptive.

The organizer, Chris Barber, told the Public Order Emergency Commission on Tuesday that he was not concerned by posts and videos made by fellow organizer Pat King in which Mr. King had incited violence against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal government and referenced bullets.

Documents presented to the commission show that other convoy leaders were aware of at least some of Mr. King’s incendiary comments before they arrived in Ottawa. The leaders discussed finding a way to get Mr. King to stop making the comments but they also didn’t want to lose the massive following Mr. King brought with him. During the protests, Mr. King had more than 300,000 followers on Facebook.

On Tuesday, commission lawyer John Mather asked Mr. Barber whether the concern among the convoy leaders was that if Mr. King wasn’t participating, his supporters wouldn’t either.

“That would have been a good guess, yes,” Mr. Barber replied.

Tuesday marked the beginning of about a week of testimony from convoy organizers and others involved with the protests. The commission has already heard from police officials, as well as City of Ottawa leaders and residents. It is tasked with assessing whether the federal government erred when it invoked the Emergencies Act in response to the protests in Ottawa and at several border crossings.

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Most convoy protesters arrived in Ottawa on Jan. 28, and parked big rigs, pickup trucks and other vehicles in front of Parliament Hill and in surrounding neighbourhoods for more than three weeks. Many also engaged in around-the-clock honking during the first week.

When Mr. Barber rose to testify on Tuesday, a round of applause broke out. Justice Paul Rouleau, who is leading the commission, had to repeatedly caution against audience interaction. A contingent of convoy supporters was present at the hearings. Outside, a handful of protesters held signs and waved flags that directed expletives at the Prime Minister.

Mr. Barber, who owns and operates an independent trucking business, was one of the original organizers of the trucker convoy that travelled to Ottawa in January. He emphasized that his purpose was to protest the federal vaccine mandate for crossing the border.

His testimony contained several contradictions. While Mr. Barber said he did not see anything “disruptive” during the protests, he said he was personally “annoyed” by the honking. Mr. Barber also said he did everything in his power to stop the honking, but the commission heard that Mr. Barber had made posts on social media egging it on. He testified he wasn’t involved in dealing with the money that was fundraised, but also said he was given envelopes of cash to hand out to truckers and that his name was added to the bank account holding donations.

When Mr. Mather, the commission counsel, told Mr. Barber the commission has heard the protests involved excessive noise, harassment, and unsafe conditions, including open fires and propane tanks, Mr. Barber replied he “never encountered a single episode of that.” But he did acknowledge there were fires for keeping warm and propane tanks for heating things.

Mr. Barber and another organizer, Tamara Lich, have been charged with several offences for their role in the protests. He told the commission that three of his bank accounts were frozen in relation to the protests, including a personal account that remained unusable for 3½ months. (The Emergencies Act gave the government extraordinary temporary powers, which it used to allow banks to freeze protesters’ accounts without due process, among other things.)

The commission also heard Tuesday about Mr. Barber’s large online following, primarily on the social media app TikTok, where he had been making what he referred to as “angry” posts about COVID-19 mandates.

Presenting himself as a changed man as a result of the protests, Mr. Barber distanced himself from some of his previous social media posts – comments he conceded were “racist” and “anti-Muslim.” When asked about a Confederate flag that had once been displayed in his shop in Swift Current, Sask., Mr. Barber said he’s since zip-tied it together. It’s now not displayed “in the correct manner, out of respect for …” he said, trailing off.

The commission also heard about social media posts by Mr. King, in which he repeatedly incited violence during the protests. “Trudeau, someone’s gonna make you catch a bullet one day,” Mr. King said at one point, followed up with a message to the rest of the government that someone’s going to “do ya’s in.” In another video, Mr. King said “the only way that this is going to be solved is with bullets.”

When asked whether he was concerned by Mr. King’s posts, Mr. Barber said he was not, adding, “He explained to me that it was taken out of context and edited to make him sound worse than it was.”

Mr. King is scheduled to testify on Wednesday.

According to a timeline of events, presented by a lawyer representing the convoy organizers, they repeatedly discussed Mr. King’s role, including considering sending him home four days before the convoy arrived in Ottawa.

Similarly, texts released through a separate court case show on Jan. 22, Ms. Lich told Mr. Barber: “We need him and I don’t care about his past but it only takes one.”

“We have to control his rhetoric. Not even threatening to throw snowballs at the Parliament,” she added.

By Feb. 17, the other convoy leaders distanced themselves from Mr. King, saying in a press release that he did not speak for them.

Mr. Barber also testified there was some conflict with a group called Canada Unity. In December, 2021, the group released a “memorandum of understanding,” which, in part, proposed overthrowing the government. Mr. Barber said that he and Ms. Lich asked the group to renounce the document, which Canada Unity eventually did.

After Mr. Barber, Steeve Charland, a spokesperson for a Quebec-based anti-lockdown group called the Farfadaas, gave his testimony. He testified that his group parked across the river from Parliament Hill, in Gatineau, and would walk into Ottawa to join the protests. Police linked Farfadaas members to a faction of the protests that they viewed as a more volatile and aggressive. But Mr. Charland told the inquiry he doesn’t control what members of the group do and that he wasn’t based in that area.

He also told the commission that Mr. King contacted his group to ask for help finding a safe place to stay when he arrived in Ottawa because the organizer was receiving death threats. Mr. Charland provided few specifics, but said he connected Mr. King to people who helped him.

Brigitte Belton, an unvaccinated truck driver from Ontario, also testified. She said that she created the idea for the convoy along with Mr. Barber. She explained the federal vaccine mandates left her unable to do her regular cross-border routes. Ms. Belton told the commission that she left the protest zone before the police moved in and was never arrested, although her bank accounts were frozen.

She also said she only planned to come to Ottawa for 24 to 48 hours, but that was based on the expectation Mr. Trudeau would meet with the protesters. She suggested that because he did not, they stayed longer. She testified that she wrote 32 letters to politicians to try to raise her concerns before she kick-started the convoy.

“We weren’t there to disrupt the citizens. We were there to have our government finally hear us after two years,” she said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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