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Freedom Convoy trial expected to pivot to social media barrage

Protest got more volatile as protest went on, police officer testifies during trial of Lich, Barber
Tamara Lich makes her way back to the courthouse following a brief break on the first day of the trial for “Freedom Convoy” organizers Lich and Chris Barber, Tuesday, September 5, 2023 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The criminal trial of “Freedom Convoy” organizers Tamara Lich and Chris Barber is expected to resume today with a deep dive into a mountain of social media evidence police amassed during the protest.

Lich and Barber are facing charges related to their role in organizing the protest against COVID-19 health restrictions last year that blockaded city streets for weeks with big-rig trucks and encampments.

The Crown is expected to call Ottawa police Sgt. Joanne Pillotte, who collected social media videos throughout the weeks of protest from organizers, demonstrators and local residents.

The court also expects to hear more testimony from Const. Isabelle Syr, who served as a liaison between police and protesters during the Freedom Convoy.

She told the court Wednesday she was overwhelmed by the volume of information that was coming into their office about the convoy before it arrived, but they were still taken by surprise about how many protesters arrived and how long they stayed.

She first reached out to Chris Barber before the convoy arrived in Ottawa to try to get “concrete information” about how the protest would unfold, and was passed on to another organizer, Chris Garrah. She had nearly daily contact with Garrah thereafter.

She told the court the amount of information that was coming in about the protest before it arrived in Ottawa was overwhelming.

The longer “Freedom Convoy” demonstrators blockaded Ottawa streets in protest of COVID-19 public health restrictions last year, the more volatile the relationship between police and protesters became, an Ottawa police officer testified Wednesday.

Insp. Russell Lucas was called as a Crown witness on the second day of the trial to testify about his role in co-ordinating the police response to the convoy.

Thousands of people and big-rig trucks gridlocked Ottawa for three weeks to protest COVID-19 public health measures and the federal Liberal government, which eventually invoked the Emergencies Act.

Lucas, who served as an incident commander during the protest, told the court that though the number of trucks and protesters was much greater than police anticipated but the participants were initially co-operative.

For the most part, he said they followed directions when police attempted to direct traffic as the vehicles arrived.

But as the days passed, he said, police were more likely to be swarmed by the demonstrators when trying to enforce the law.

“There was a lot of yelling and screaming at them,” Lucas said.

Lucas recalled one example when police responded to protesters setting off fireworks near the National War Memorial. He said he watched events unfold on traffic cameras and listened over the radio, and felt he had to send in more officers to ensure the safety of those already there.

Lucas said it also became more difficult to keep emergency lanes open as the protest went on.

Lucas confirmed to Barber’s lawyer Diane Magas that those situations never became violent.

Lich and Barber are co-accused of mischief, counselling others to commit mischief, obstructing police and intimidation for their role in the three-week demonstration.

Barber faces an additional charge of counselling others to disobey a court order.

The Crown’s case rests on its assertion that Lich and Barber orchestrated the blockades on Ottawa roads in order to put pressure on the government to change its COVID-19 policies, and that they encouraged their supporters to remain in the city after police ordered them to clear the streets.

The Crown also asserts that the protest was “anything but peaceful.”

Lucas told the court the Ottawa police had initially put together a plan that would accommodate roughly 2,000 vehicles on Wellington Street in front of Parliament and along several parkways.

Instead, more than 5,000 trucks arrived on the first weekend of the protest in late January, Lucas told the court. “Obviously, the event exceeded our expectations.”

Roughly two-thirds of protesters left after the first weekend, he said, but the problem for police was that the footprint of the protest remained the same.

Big-rig trucks blocked Wellington Street and spilled onto other streets around downtown, including residential roads.

At that time, police resources were stretched very thin, Lucas said.

Teams of officers had tried to negotiate with protesters to clear traffic lanes and shrink the footprint by moving trucks toward Parliament Hill, “but that never happened,” he said.

He said instructions came down from senior command after the first weekend of the protest “not to give the protesters an inch,” which made the task of negotiating much harder for officers on the ground.

“Because they didn’t have any negotiating power,” Justice Heather Perkins-McVey concluded during Lucas’s testimony.

Lucas gave similar testimony to a federal inquiry into the Liberal government’s use of the Emergencies Act during the protest.

Lawrence Greenspon, Lich’s lawyer, asked Lucas about the police decision to allow trucks to park in front of Parliament Hill in the first place.

“My understanding is this plan to have the truckers park on Wellington Street was something that you felt, and still do feel, was the best way to mitigate the impact on the core of the city,” he asked.

Lucas agreed. Earlier in his testimony, he said his ultimate goal was to uphold protesters’ Charter rights while easing disruptions to local residents and businesses.

In his cross-examination, Greenspon asked Lucas about negotiations Lich had with the city to move trucks off residential side streets and onto the street in front of Parliament Hill.

Lucas said he didn’t have direct knowledge of those discussions but noted that police put out a final call Feb. 15 for trucks to leave the area or face enforcement.

Magas asked if he was aware that Barber had tried to help move the trucks closer to Wellington, but Lucas was not.

Lucas said police were ordered to begin enforcement on the outside of the protest and work their way toward the centre on Parliament Hill, to “see how close you can get to the campfire without getting burned.”

Outside of the courthouse, Greenspon said it was clear there were efforts by protesters to try to reduce the size of protest zone.

“The response from the chief of police to any movement in that direction was, you heard it, ‘not one inch,’” Greenspon said outside of court.

“So far the evidence we’ve heard is quite clear that it was a very peaceful demonstration. The only incidents that were pointed to were incidents where police had some problems.”

Lich and Barber listened quietly from the front row of the courtroom as Lucas delivered his testimony, where they were surrounded by more than 20 supporters and members of the public.