“Freedom Convoy” organizer Chris Barber’s arrival in Ottawa in January wasn’t what he expected, he told a public inquiry Tuesday.
He believed he would be led to one of two staging areas at parks near Parliament Hill, where he and a convoy of like-minded supporters would protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
He was surprised to be escorted by police in his big-rig truck — outfitted with an expletive-laden decal aimed at Trudeau — right onto Wellington Street, which was already crowded with trucks.
“I don’t know how things went so wrong when we first arrived,” Barber told the commission investigating the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act in an effort to end the protests.
He said it would have been better if the trucks were led off the main streets in the first place.
“Occupying or parking all over the city was never part of why we came,” he said.
Barber, 47, is the first of several organizers who will take the witness stand at the public inquiry this week.
The Public Order Emergency Commission is tasked with determining whether the government was justified in triggering the never-before-used Emergencies Act on Feb. 14. It is holding public hearings in Ottawa until Nov. 25, and has so far heard from Ottawa residents and business associations, city officials and police.
Barber, who runs his own trucking company in Swift Current, Sask., was greeted with a smattering of applause from spectators when he entered the public hearing room.
He told the inquiry the purpose of the protest, at least initially, was to get the federal government to listen to truck drivers’ concerns about COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truck drivers who cross the border between Canada and the United States.
The organization of the protest came together quickly after he was contacted by a fellow truck driver, Brigitte Belton, he told the commission.
“It was completely organic, everything completely fell into place,” he said.
Belton got in touch with other like-minded people, including James Bauder, who ran an organization called Canada Unity. That group was already planning a convoy to Ottawa, and had a route mapped out and at the ready.
After that, Barber said the plans came together quickly through social media.
Within two weeks, thousands of trucks and protesters arrived in downtown Ottawa, where they ultimately blockaded city streets for nearly a month.
Barber is a self-described internet “troll” who admitted to posting racist, anti-Muslim memes online. He also displayed a Confederate flag in his businesses. He said those flags are still there in his garage, but not on display.
He was arrested on Feb. 17 and charged with mischief, obstructing police, and counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation. He’s co-accused with fellow organizer Tamara Lich, and their trial is expected to take place next year.
—Laura Osman and David Fraser, The Canadian Press