Many in Ottawa are likely tempted to put far behind us the chaos that descended upon the city in February after the “Freedom Convoy” trucks rolled into town. But for the communities that were turned upside down, it isn’t that simple. When the Rolling Thunder motorcycles arrive or when protesters return for Canada Day, many relive the agony of blaring horns and hate-filled taunts endured during those three long weeks, and are terrified it’s going to happen again.
Far from leaving it behind, we must all understand what happened more fully, learn from what was a traumatic experience for thousands of residents, and commit to the changes needed to avoid it happening again. That’s why the Ottawa People’s Commission on the Convoy Occupation, launched at the end of June, matters so much. We are humbled to have been asked to serve as the three commissioners who will steer this important process and hear first-hand from people about their experiences. Hearings will be held in the fall, but written submissions can be received anytime.
Some may ask why such a commission is necessary. After all, a special parliamentary committee has been holding hearings for three months and the Public Order Emergency Commission, overseen by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Paul Rouleau, is getting underway. Those are both legally required because the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act.
But the parliamentary committee has been dominated by questions on whether Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino misled Parliament about police agencies asking the government to invoke the Act. And Justice Rouleau’s mandate is limited to assessing whether the Trudeau government’s unprecedented decision to use the Emergencies Act meets strict legislated criteria.
Additionally, the City of Ottawa’s auditor general is carrying out an “independent evaluation of the city’s response to the Convoy Protest.” That review, also limited in scope, will include just two “virtual public consultations” of two hours each — those are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday this week — and an online survey that is open until the end of July.
Each of the above reviews is necessary and welcome. What’s become clear, however, is that scant attention is being paid to genuinely understanding the wide-ranging and devastating impact of the trucker occupation on the safety, health and well-being of the people who live and work in the neighbourhoods that were taken over by the convoy.
An honest and comprehensive understanding of what happened at the community level is essential to any assessment of how governments responded to the protest. That assessment, in turn, should shape the institutional, legal, policy and operational reforms that must be adopted going forward.
During the months ahead, we aim to hear from hundreds of people who will share deeply personal accounts of harm and fear, and also of remarkable resilience, solidarity and community support. Some we may hear from individually, others in community gatherings and other settings. Some will be public, others in private. We will work hard to ensure that the space for people to come forward is welcoming, respectful and safe. We will endeavour to reach out and build trust with people whose experiences have been overlooked to date. We will give people the time that is needed, and the respect they deserve.
Our work will, very simply, be guided by human rights. In fact, in many respects the People’s Commission itself is a human rights requirement, ensuring that marginalized groups have an opportunity to be heard and to influence legislative and policy reform.
The commission ardently champions the right to peaceful protest. The three of us certainly do. It is a cornerstone of our democracy, essential to upholding all other human rights, and is of particular importance for individuals and communities traditionally excluded from power.
The right to protest must, at the same time, respect other crucial rights, including equality, the right to be free from racism, homophobic and transphobic hate, discrimination and misogyny, and to be protected from acts or threats of violence. The right to protest must also not interfere with the enjoyment of fundamental rights such as access to food, health care and peaceful living in one’s home.
That may be considered by some as setting limits or restrictions on what protesters can do. We do not see it that way. Instead, we see the right to protest as being integral to the protection of human rights as a whole — everyone’s rights. That is what this commission will explore.
The commission’s progress, details about how to come forward and share your experience, and invitations to contribute to our work, are available at www.opc-cpo.ca.
Leilani Farha, Alex Neve and Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah are the commissioners of the Ottawa People’s Commission on the Convoy Occupation.