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In the winter of 2022, Ottawa’s downtown core was a noisy, angry scene. Now it is quiet – but the silence speaks volumes about the issues left unresolved

Wellington Street in Ottawa, as it looked on Jan. 28, 2022 – the first week of last year’s convoy protests – and this past Jan. 24. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press; Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

In Ottawa, Wellington Street has always been an odd duck.

It’s the home address of Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Supreme Court of Canada, among other notables on the world’s most earnest celebrity-sightings map. It has some of the touristy pomp you’d expect of an official promenade, but it’s also an ordinary commuter artery. And so it’s possible to see Justin Trudeau climbing out of a tinted-window SUV on his way into his office while being delayed getting to your own, all on the same block.

Not at the moment, though.

Virtually all of the other streets in Ottawa that were choked by the noisy tentacles of the convoy protest a year ago reverted to normal. But the main drag of Wellington in front of Parliament Hill still hovers in a state of tentative abandonment. City council has voted to reopen the street to traffic some time after March 1, while the city and federal government continue tussling over Wellington’s long-term future.

For now, traffic is kept at bay by concrete barriers, but they’ve been placed haphazardly enough for the occasional confused tourist or willful delivery driver to deke around. Signs warning that the road is closed perch on spindly 2x4 legs or loll half-buried in the snow.

A handful of protesters are often out there, still holding the line. Passersby ostentatiously ignore them or telegraph an unmeasurable but unmistakable current of recognition: Oh, you guys are still here.

It’s as if the big rigs and their drivers, the hot tub, the bouncy castle, the barbecues, the porta-potties, the stages and signs from last winter were all raptured – hoovered suddenly into the ether, leaving the empty street and the barricades as scar tissue.

It was exactly a year ago that the first trucks rolled into Ottawa to set up shop downtown.

What ensued was a protest so large and intractable that it surprised even its most enthusiastic participants, many of whom have come to view it as a transformative life experience.

Meanwhile, the convoy infuriated and antagonized residents of Ottawa and a majority of Canadians watching from further afield, who felt no sympathy for what appeared to be a mass, gleeful temper tantrum.

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A person leaves a counterprotest on Feb. 5 with a sign drawing attention to the constant truck-horn noise the convoys sent across downtown Ottawa.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Three weeks after it all started, the protest was shut down by the federal government’s unprecedented invocation of the Emergencies Act.

Next month, a public inquiry will table its final report examining whether that call was justified. This will help to answer what happened then, but what remains now of the convoy and the political, social and economic currents that fed it are what everyone has to live with.

The protest was ostensibly a backlash against the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers, along with other pandemic restrictions. But that was the cause of the uproar only to the extent that smacking your shin on a coffee table is the reason you melt down at the end of a long and stressful day. Most COVID-19 measures have since fallen by the wayside, but because they were never really the point of the unrest, everything else remains a live issue.

At a cabinet retreat in Hamilton this week, for example, Mr. Trudeau and his ministers were greeted by a farm-team version of the protest, complete with profane flags and fireworks.

So as visual metaphors go, the ghostly outline still visible in the desertion of Wellington Street is a pretty good illustration of what’s left behind – not just in downtown Ottawa, but in Canada at large – of the convoy, and the forces and fractures that led to it.

It’s gone, but it’s not over.

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The stretch of Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill remains closed to traffic nearly a year after the convoy protests occupied the site.Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Scenes from the Ottawa standoff’s final week in 2022: Protesters soak in a hot tub along Wellington on Feb. 17, and a man exits a truck on Feb. 19 as police move in. Justin Tang and Cole Burston/The Canadian Press
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Lloyd Crowe, co-owner of a farm in Picton, Ont., took part in the Ottawa protests until he was warned his truck licences might be revoked if he stayed.Alex Filipe/The Globe and Mail

Lloyd Crowe was in Ottawa for all of it. When the Public Order Emergency Commission was announced, he wrote a long letter because he wanted the inquiry to know just how monumental the protest was. “It was the most important three weeks of my life,” he says.

Mr. Crowe grows corn, soybeans and wheat on his farm in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. He and his wife, Dorothy, got vaccinated so they could see their grandchildren in the U.S., but they joined the protest because they didn’t like hearing about all the front-line workers who were “turned from heroes to enemies” for refusing to get the jab.

The convoy was overwhelming for Mr. Crowe – the headlights snaking behind his truck; the strangers offering food, money and encouragement; the sense that he and Dorothy were not the only ones upset about things. He chokes up immediately when he tries to explain, though he knows it won’t make sense to anyone who wasn’t there. “It was a little bit of heaven, a little bit of heaven on Earth,” Mr. Crowe says. “Because everybody was looking after everybody else. And it was just a lot of hugs – no masks. Hundreds of thousands of people, no masks.”

Eventually, he got a warning that the truck licenses for the farm would be pulled if he didn’t leave, so he and Dorothy returned home to the winter quiet of their property. At their church, some people offered big hugs and thanks, while others – especially the older ones who still faithfully watch the evening newscasts – were appalled. Mr. Crowe understands why.

“I was never so disappointed in my life, to see the news reporting from the mainstream media that we were painted as such evil people,” he says. “I’m a 10th-generation farmer with over 20 grandchildren, you know, and it was pretty hurtful to hear the way we were talked about, and still are.”

To Mr. Crowe, it’s beyond question that the convoy was a success “worldwide.” But he had no interest in the idea of reviving it. What would be the point, when people have their freedom back? “I tell my wife that when my grandchildren look back and say, ‘How did you allow this to get to this point?,’ I will be able to say I did my part,” he says. “Because three weeks is a long time living in a truck. I would have stayed longer if we could have.”

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On his desk, Mr. Crowe keeps news clippings and a protest sign he purchased.Alex Filipe/The Globe and Mail

Jared Wesley and Feo Snagovsky are two political scientists at the University of Alberta who have spent the past decade studying the forces in their province that eventually gave rise to the convoy.

Prof. Wesley highlights three longer-term trends that formed the embers of the protest and are still smouldering now.

First, many people feel as if their way of life is being threatened by forces they can’t control (a globalized economy, oil prices, climate-change policies, among others) and that they’re falling behind.

Second is the rise of “tribalism,” which leads people to identify deeply with a group of people like them and see outsiders as enemies. Political and media elites encourage this by telling people that they are being left behind and that it’s someone else’s fault. And no central casting office could have sent a better target than the man currently occupying the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Everybody wants to be the hero in their own story,” Prof. Snagovsky says. “They want to be the freedom fighters fighting for our collective freedom from a tyrannical government. And that sort of narrative is much easier to justify when you have a cartoon, moustache-twirling villain, who I think they found in Justin Trudeau.”

The third factor is a collapse of deference to democratic norms, which leads some to dispute election outcomes or dismiss the winner as unworthy of basic respect or lacking the right to govern.

But even with those preconditions in place, the convoy needed one more crucial ingredient to catch on like it did.

“Opportunists like the convoy leaders have been fishing around for catalysts,” Prof. Wesley says. “The kindling’s been there, but they’ve been searching around for a spark, and the freedom pandemic provided that.”

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Harold Jonker of Jonker Trucking stands with the vehicle he took to the convoy protests in Ottawa.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

Harold Jonker, a truck company owner from Smithville, Ont., headed to Ottawa last year because he didn’t like people being required to get vaccinated for their jobs (he refused), and because he was tired of being told to be quiet about those concerns.

He signed up to lead a contingent of trucks from the Niagara region, and he was bowled over by the avalanche of calls and texts, and even the “dumb thing” of watching the GoFundMe fundraising account rocket to $10-million. “When you’re getting that much love, it’s amazing, right?”

But Mr. Jonker says it wasn’t until he got to Ottawa that he understood the full scope of things as he sees them now. “I remember saying to a guy after being there for a week, ‘You know what? I think this is bigger than COVID. This is not necessarily just about COVID, it’s about who’s controlling who and who’s telling who what to do.’”

His world view is underpinned by the narratives common to many convoy supporters: the World Economic Forum controls too much, COVID-19 numbers have been torqued, there is a global power structure being dropped on everyone from above like a net.

But there is something more grounded and specific in how Mr. Jonker processes the past few years, too.

One anecdote lodged in his mind is the moment he knew he was done. Mr. Jonker’s dad is in his early 70s, and when COVID-19 first appeared, they warned him that with a raft of health issues, he needed to be very careful. One day, Mr. Jonker and his wife drove two hours to visit, planning to sit on the lawn while his dad sat on the porch. At the end of their visit, his dad asked when the kids were coming. Mr. Jonker said the kids didn’t understand physical distancing, so they couldn’t.

“Do you know what he said? ‘I’m 73. I know where I’m going. I’m seeing my grandkids,’” Mr. Jonker says. “And that’s when it really hit me that yeah, there’s something not right.”

Over the past three years, pretty much everyone has lived a different and harder life than they expected to. And everyone, too, has lived some version of that moment Mr. Jonker can’t forget – or a much, much more heartbreaking one.

The pandemic forced everyone to absorb losses too numerous, too grinding, too heavy to even total up, for fear the sum will crush you flat.

In the face of all that, you can arrive at the idea that sometimes life is just very hard, and difficult to make sense of. Or, like Mr. Jonker, you can come to believe that things didn’t have to be this way, so someone must have done this. If COVID-19 is simply a bad cold, and someone’s been cooking the books to make it seem worse, and if there is some invisible but palpable force controlling and benefitting from all of this, then the past few years didn’t have to be what they were. And it could all have been stopped if someone had simply yelled loud enough.

“There was people locked up afraid – they thought they were the only crazy people out there that were thinking there’s something not right here,” Mr. Jonker says. “And when they seen how many people were on those bridges or how many people came there, they were like, ‘Wow, I’m not alone.’”

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Harold Jonker says being at the convoy changed his view of the world.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

After Mr. Jonker finally left Ottawa, as he got close to home, he exited the QEW highway and saw several kilometres of people lined up in the darkness, honking and waving. He has 13 children, ranging in age from five to 23, and there they were all perched on the roof of his van. “It made me bawl,” he says.

The reaction from the West Lincoln town council, where he was a part-time councillor, was less enthusiastic.

The integrity commissioner determined that Mr. Jonker had violated the code of conduct, and council voted to suspend him without pay for 30 days and to compel him to repay the gifts of food he received during the protest.

In response, Mr. Jonker filed a lawsuit with the help of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, seeking to remove the financial penalties on the grounds of flaws in the investigation and a violation of his freedom of expression.

He ran for re-election in October, finishing third of four candidates in his ward. Mr. Jonker is still thankful he was part of the protest, and he’d do it again.

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A man walks with his dog along Wellington Street on Feb. 17, before the convoys left.Carlos Osorio/Reuters

As for where all of this goes next for the rest of us, even research partners who share an office wall can see the world very differently.

To Prof. Snagovsky, the only way out is for political elites including party leaders and media commentators to recognize the corrosive effects of the short-term strategies they deploy to chase votes, clicks and views.

“Until political elites start giving the mass public different cues, I don’t think we’re going to go anywhere,” he says.

Prof. Wesley laughs and says that he disagrees – and that this is why they’re good research partners.

It’s one thing to say elites need to change, but they operate based on incentives, he says, and in a democracy, it is citizens who control those carrots.

The two professors know from their research that people don’t like conflict in politics; they like compromise and other nice “boring stuff.” Prof. Wesley argues that people need to act like that’s the case, in order to change the incentives.

“I don’t think that voters are providing the right cues to politicians, and even to media that are covering it,” Prof. Wesley says. “I think it starts with, first of all, recognizing when tribalistic behaviour is happening and punishing elites that engage in it.”

Where the two professors line up again is on how futile it is to wag your finger at anyone and explain the ways in which they’re wrong – no matter how wrong they seem to be.

“I think one consequence of the culture – but also a consequence of a desire to change their minds – is we often either write those people off, or vilify them or tell them they’re stupid,” Prof. Snagovsky says.

“Calling out people for things that you find objectionable, particularly in public, makes them retrench.”

Prof. Wesley adds that research from social psychology tells us that you can’t convince anyone of anything unless you really understand what they already believe and why. They might not consume the same news you do or trust the same set of fundamental facts, he says, but there’s still the classic advice from Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

“That’s what I think we’ve lost,” Prof. Wesley says.

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Parliament Hill's Centre Block looms over a deserted Wellington Street.Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

But that particular street is not a one-way.

Understanding what led to the convoy is crucial to living with what’s left of it without this country cannibalizing itself. But that does not mean listening only to the people who were driving the trucks or carrying the flags. It includes everyone who was – and is – furious at those people. It means people who still recoil and wonder, “Is that..?” when they see a pickup displaying a Canadian flag. It’s everyone who had to tell their parent that no, the kids couldn’t come visit, and who was nearly broken by it. It’s everyone who was so isolated that they couldn’t even feel it any more, and who heard the protesters rave about how beautiful it was to be together.

Seeing things clearly means recognizing that everyone lived the same terrible few years, and no one wanted it this way, no matter how they reacted to it.

“I think a lot of people have had a hard time in the last three years, but we do need to move forward and fix, right? We always have to keep fixing,” Mr. Jonker says. “We always got to strive to get better.”

When he’s training a new driver, he always tells them that if they make a mistake, they should just be honest about it, because otherwise they can’t learn.

“The same in life, right?” he says.

Convoy protests: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel podcast

A year after tens of thousands of people descended on Ottawa, some in their big-rig trucks, a lot has changed. Ottawa reporter Shannon Proudfoot discusses what some of the participants of the convoy think about it now, and whether another version of this protest could pop up again. Subscribe for more episodes.

By the time the trucks left downtown Ottawa, hundreds had been arrested, the local police chief quit and the federal government had invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time. The Decibel looks back at the tumultuous events. Subscribe for more episodes.

More coverage

The photos that defined the convoy protests

Texts, e-mails, documents: 30 hours leading up to the Emergencies Act

What we learned at Emergencies Act inquiry after six weeks of testimony


Gary Mason: Make no mistake – the Alberta government has been hijacked by the Freedom Convoy

Frank Graves and Michael Valpy: To avoid future convoy protests, we need an economy built on hope

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