Freedom Convoy organizer Chris Barber said Tuesday the anti-vaccine mandate protest that gripped Ottawa for weeks last winter was beset by "conflict" among different factions pushing their own agendas.
Claiming he only ever wanted to lead a peaceful protest against vaccine mandates, Barber told the Public Order Emergency Commission (POEC) inquiry investigating the convoy that he had nothing to do with a death threat directed at Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Someone threatened to "put a bullet" in Freeland's head the day after someone tied to Barber's group circulated flyers to the convoy that made inflammatory claims about her relationship with the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Barber told the inquiry — which is probing the federal government's use of the Emergencies Act to end the convoy protest that gridlocked downtown Ottawa for weeks last winter — that he "unequivocally" denounces such threats of violence.
He said he played no role in writing the flyers that cited Freeland and the WEF.
"I was purely here for the mandates. My job was truck safety, truck issues, making sure everyone was looked after. My main job was working with law enforcement," Barber said, speaking of his role as liaison with the police officers who were trying to maintain order.
Barber, a Saskatchewan trucker and small business owner, testified that he and Brigitte Belton, an unvaccinated Ontario trucker, were the first to pitch a cross-country drive to protest a vaccine mandate for cross-border workers.
Tamara Lich, a former Western Canadian separatist, then joined the team to help organize the trek.
This trio then "organically" aligned with other groups also keen to take on the Liberal government and its COVID-19 policies, Barber said.
A self-described "internet troll," Barber said he connected with these disparate groups through social media platforms such as TikTok — where he has tens of thousands of followers who flocked to his account during the worst of the pandemic as he attacked COVID-related policies.
"The word started to spread. It was completely organic — everything just fell right into place," Barber said. "A bunch of different groups came together and had input in the planning."
'We had a little bit of conflict'
The result, he said, was a "power struggle" between his group of mostly Western Canadian truckers and other elements like Canada Unity, an outfit opposed to mask mandates and vaccine passports. Canada Unity produced a memorandum of understanding (MOU) calling for the overthrow of the Liberal government.
The group's founder, James Bauder, called for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to be arrested and "charged with treason."
Barber said he never actually read the MOU and didn't support a movement to seize power in Ottawa.
"I believe I just ignored it. I have no clue what's in the document. I wasn't into that sort of thing," Barber said.
Barber said that had he known at the outset that Bauder and his organization would join the convoy while calling for the government's overthrow, he would have "promptly told them to go home."
Barber, who testified that he is vaccinated, said he only came to Ottawa to protest border restrictions — policies he said hurt his business because he employed unvaccinated drivers who couldn't travel to the U.S.
"I remember calling on Mr. Bauder and having him renounce the MOU part of the way through the convoy," Barber testified.
"There was too much highlight, too much spotlight on this document that we didn't have anything to do with."
"We had a little bit of conflict between Canada Unity and Taking Back Our Freedoms," he said, referring to a group led by former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Brian Peckford.
Barber said he also occasionally clashed with Pat King, a far-right organizer with a history of incendiary social media posts.
King, who amassed a large following on Facebook, encouraged people to flock to Ottawa to join the movement.
"Pat and I had a power struggle between each other — that was evident. It was a power struggle back and forth over control," Barber said.
Barber said the original convoy organizers felt "some concern" when the media reported on King's previous violent and racist comments. While he said he was bothered by some of the bad headlines King's comments had generated, Barber added he never actually asked King to leave the convoy.
Text messages tabled at the commission Tuesday show the convoy organizers were worried about losing King-aligned supporters if he was removed.
On Jan. 22, Lich told Barber they needed to have "a very frank discussion" with King. But Lich also said the anti-mandate movement needed King.
"We need him and I don't care about his past but it only takes one," she said. "We have to control his rhetoric. Not even threatening to throw snowballs at the parliament (sic)."
"I know he's had issues. I've got skeletons in the closet to (sic)," Barber replied.
'A bullet to the head'
Barber testified that all he wanted was a peaceful protest against mandates he perceived as unfair.
But Andrew Gibbs, the government of Canada's lawyer, tabled documents before the commission that showed the Barber-Lich faction disseminated "daily event and safety report" flyers to their contingent offering questionable information about Freeland and her ties to the WEF.
The WEF has been the focus of multiple bogus conspiracy theories throughout the pandemic.
The day after one flyer about Freeland was distributed among some in the convoy, she received a death threat from someone who signed the note as "Larry Jenkins."
The email said Freeland would "get a bullet to the head" for "lying about COVID-19."
That same day, police arrested a man in Ottawa who was wearing body armour and carrying a large knife and several smaller knives.
"Would you agree with me that when you start a fire and fan the flames, it can get out of control?" Gibbs asked.
Barber also was forced to account Tuesday for his past anti-Muslim and racist social media posts. He's also previously displayed a Confederate flag — a holdover from the U.S. Civil War that is often associated with racist and far-right elements — in his truck shop.
Barber said he's a changed man.
"I can honestly say that if anyone learned anything or grew during the convoy, it was me. I was a different person nine months ago. Coming out here and seeing the amount of love, all different colours, all different races ... it changed me," he said.
Barber said he also struggled to control a contingent of French-speaking protesters who set up at the intersection of Rideau and Sussex streets near Ottawa's Chateau Laurier hotel.
This group was known to have rowdy parties late into the night with a DJ playing music from a makeshift stage only a stone's throw from the Prime Minister's Office.
Barber said these protesters, most of whom came from Quebec, wouldn't agree to his demand to make room for emergency vehicles to move through the core.
Steeve Charland — a spokesperson for a group called Les Farfadaas, a name that roughly translates to "elf" or "leprechaun" in English — testified under oath Tuesday that his outfit was not behind this occupation.
But documents presented at the commission show police intelligence had identified the group as the French-speaking demonstrators at Rideau and Sussex.
Police described Les Farfadaas as an "anti-government, quasi-separatist" group opposed to public health measures. They were also identified as the group least cooperative with law enforcement.
Charland said he and his followers came to Ottawa to protest COVID-19 measures that had upended daily life.
"We want to be finally heard as a people," he said.
Charland was formerly a member of La Meute, French for "The Wolf Pack," an anti-immigrant, anti-Islam group.
Brigitte Belton, another convoy organizer, testified that she was confident the protest would lead to a meeting with the prime minister.
"I actually believed that the prime minister wouldn't run away and he would come and meet with us," Belton said.
"I believed that our voices would be heard, I believed that we were validated in our complaint, and that after two years [of the pandemic], maybe somebody would care."