Into the Fray – Four voices on protesting, patriotism, and lessons learned from the occupation
People & Places

Into the Fray – Four voices on protesting, patriotism, and lessons learned from the occupation

This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the full print issue here.

A first-time protester who demonstrated against the convoy. A local supporter who found patriotism among the truckers. A business owner forced to close her downtown shop. Four residents share their unique experiences and personal reflections on the protests of February 2022.

Zexi Li. Photo by Remi Theriault/House of Common

The Resister – Zexi Li represents Centretown residents
Zexi Li has become a symbol of resistance after suing the freedom convoy. She is also a bubbly, energetic 22-year-old who suddenly became part of the public consciousness.

“I had a very difficult time accepting that at first,” says Li. Eventually, she realized she was able to give voice – and hope – to a population that felt left out. Li grew up in Toronto, spent her high school years in Montreal, and came to Ottawa at 17 to attend university.

When the convoy came to town, Li was one of the first to know – she can see the flag of the Peace Tower from her apartment window. During the day, she walked around to get a sense of how the scene was evolving. While convoyers stayed up late partying, she would toss and turn in bed. After fireworks were set off close to midnight, an unaffected dispatch agent reportedly told Li: “I don’t know if [police will] be able to stop them, but they’ll make sure that it’s safe.”

Then, one sympathetic officer set off the chain of events that thrust Li into the spotlight. They gave her the card for a community liaison officer who asked to meet Li and her neighbours. Li rustled up nearly 30 people to meet that officer, one of whom knew lawyer Paul Champ,
who connected with Li that same day. By Saturday they were filing an injunction to stop the honking. It was approved Monday, February 7.

Li tells me she decided to stand up because she doesn’t have kids, she isn’t disabled or elderly, she isn’t homeless. “I was not the worst off. In recognizing that, I realized that some of these characteristics, and who I am as a person, would allow me to speak for these people,” she says.

The fact that she got threatened online barely seems to phase her. She has no time for haters. Li and Champ have been joined by Union Local 613 and Happy Goat Coffee in their $306-million lawsuit, and they have no intention of stopping. – By Tracey Lindeman

Kristina Leaning. Photo by Remi Theriault/House of Common

The Counter-Protester – Kristina Leaning stands against the convoy
It began with a stern thumbs-down directed at the trucks on Bank Street. Lifelong Ottawa resident Kristina Leaning has seen her fair share of demonstrations in the capital city. She’s a busy woman who likes to ski and hike on the weekend; before this past February, she had never attended a protest.

“I was walking from Lansdowne back to my home, and I was so pissed off at these guys. How dare you take over our city and be so disrespectful?” If the officials weren’t going to do something, it would fall to people like her to let the convoy know they had overstayed their
welcome, thought Leaning.

As the convoy entered its third week, Leaning heard about a small group in Alta Vista planning to block the truckers as they drove through. “I was a bit late. Twenty people had already stopped them, so I joined in,” says Leaning. Physically blocking a convoy of trucks is a bold move. Aside from a moment of nerves when she heard convoy organizer Pat King might make an appearance, Leaning wasn’t scared. “I figured, this is Ottawa. This can’t happen.”

Leaning called friends to join her. The atmosphere was joyful, she says. By noon, she estimates, there were around 1,000 counter-protesters. “It was cathartic because we had just been putting up with so much, and it just felt really good to get it out.”

Counter-protesters wanted to give the convoy a taste of what they were doing to Ottawa. Despite the satisfaction, Leaning says it wasn’t a great feeling to stoop to the convoy’s level. She doesn’t blame the city for its slow response, even though she feels it had the ability to stop demonstrations from escalating. Shortly after the counter-protests, the Emergencies Act was invoked for the first time since its creation.

Leaning hopes life will return to normal. “There are still people downtown, people with flags, but that doesn’t bother me. Sure, you want to demonstrate? That’s fine, but to occupy? It’s a very self-centred and disrespectful thing to do.” – By Cate Newman

Sara Weiss. Photo by Remi Theriault/House of Common

The Supporter – Sara Weiss finds patriotism among the protests
Sara Weiss, 34, made multiple visits to protest sites, first standing on an overpass as the trucks entered the city through Kanata, then to the main outposts downtown. She came away convinced the Liberal government and the mainstream media were unfairly maligning the truckers by focusing on the actions of a few individuals who had been swiftly dealt with by convoy organizers. She says she never had much interest in politics. That all changed with the arrival of the convoy.

“My sister came over to my house. She said something big is happening in Canada. She got on YouTube and put on a couple of videos of these truckers coming from all over Canada to resist the mandates.” Weiss’ reaction was instant and prolonged. “I could not stop crying.”

The strong emotions continued at convoy sites. “I felt connected to people who stood for their country, stood up for their freedoms. It felt powerful and united.”

“You didn’t see any hate, you didn’t see any racism. You saw hugs, laughter, joy, people chanting for freedom,” says Weiss, who is married with two children and runs her own business as a life coach and motivational speaker.

Weiss still gets emotional describing the realization that she is not alone in doubting the safety of rapidly produced COVID-19 vaccines. “I’m not afraid of getting needles. It wasn’t that. It just didn’t feel right … and I’m someone who goes with what my soul says.”

Weiss eventually got the vaccine; she wanted to take her kids to events and enjoy playing team sports. “Getting the vaccine was not as big a deal as being forced to get it.” Weiss encourages others to do their research to make up their own minds. She says she’s ready to debate
anyone as long as the conversation stays respectful. “I had no intention of losing friends over this, but there were people who became verbally abusive to me. I won’t stand for that, and I unfortunately did lose a handful of friends.”

“There are people in Ottawa who are feeling very patriotic and want to stand for our freedoms. What that means long term I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out and be part of it.” – By Simon Gardner

Liz Mok. Photo by Remi Theriault/House of Common

The Business Owner – Liz Mok puts Moo Shu staff first
After long pandemic lockdowns, Moo Shu Ice Cream was set to open on February 1, the Lunar New Year. Then, the convoy rolled in. “We bought all the ingredients, scheduled all the staff, and then decided to close,” says owner Liz Mok.

While her shop is more than a kilometre away from Parliament, it’s near the highway – and gas stations. At first, there was reckless driving and people “shouting things from an uncomfortable closeness.” By the second weekend, things had escalated. One of her staff was assaulted while on their way to work. “As the day went on, everyone was feeling a little bit on edge.” When her manager asked if Moo Shu could close
for the rest of the weekend, Mok agreed. “It was hard because we had already come out of a lockdown being very financially strained.”

Pressure began to mount for business owners to speak out against the convoy. Mok says that it’s legitimate to want to know where a business stands politically, it’s important to remember the difference between a business’ opinions and that of its employees’.

In fact, before the pandemic, she used Moo Shu’s platform to speak out against a political issue. The consequential backlash was enough to make her staff feel unsafe.

“I think that it’s easy to say that people are staying quiet because they don’t want to lose business. Some people are, I’m sure.” Others, she suggests, are putting the safety of their staff before their politics.

When it comes to staff well-being, Moo Shu walks the walk: in February, it became a living wage employer, now offering paid sick days, some benefits, and year-round employment. “As we matured as a business, I knew that every cent that we made needed to compensate staff.”

Mok believes the convoy has opened people’s eyes to the gaps in our system. “For the first time for many Ottawans, they realize how fragile our safety is in the city, whereas a lot of marginalized people have already known that for a long time. I think people are going to be paying more attention now, and I think it’s going to be a good thing.” – By Nickie Shobeiry