Organizers of last winter's Freedom Convoy protests in Ottawa want a court to release just over $450,000 in frozen funds to help pay for their participation in an upcoming public inquiry — after initially failing to request funds the group was entitled to from the inquiry itself.
The inquiry, officially known as the Public Order Emergency Commission, will begin on Oct. 13 to probe the federal government's reasoning for taking emergency measures to end the lengthy occupation of parts of downtown Ottawa. Protesters rallied against pandemic restrictions and clogged city streets with trucks and other vehicles, blocking access to neighbourhoods and main arteries around Parliament Hill.
In a motion filed this week in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice — which was first reported by CTV News — Tamara Lich, Chris Barber and other protest organizers stated they face "significant legal representation demands" from the commission. They also indicated their banner group, Freedom 2022 Human Rights and Freedoms, has no assets other than the money tied in escrow.
Those funds are part of the more than $20 million in donations raised by the Freedom Convoy during its nearly three-week stay in Ottawa. More than $5 million of that money was put in escrow pending the outcome of a proposed lawsuit. Ottawa residents and businesses are hoping to successfully sue the protest organizers for more than $300 million in damages.
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Group did not apply for available funding
The group had been granted "standing" in the inquiry — meaning, in part, that it can cross-examine witnesses — back in June. At that time, it could have applied for funding for support but did not, according to the commission.
In its motion, the group said that it anticipated funding would come from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), which has been associated with Freedom Convoy figures such as Lich.
"JCCF funding has decreased as a result of the end of public measures resulting from the pandemic," the motion said, adding that the group would be "significantly prejudiced [during the inquiry] without access to legal representation funds."
Now the group is instead seeking a hearing to state its case for receiving $450,400 from the funds in escrow to cover two lawyers for the inquiry and two lawyers to argue for the funds to be released. Just over $83,000 of that is earmarked for eight witnesses and clients' travel and hotel costs during the inquiry.
It's unclear which of the convoy organizers may testify during the inquiry. Lich and Barber each face criminal charges related to the protest and have been released from custody on bail.
A glimpse of what might come
The group's motion also offers a taste of what could come in the inquiry.
"The moving party defendants have identified thousands and documents, videos and pictures to which the commission counsel's document production demands apply," the motion said.
That includes 26 hours of videos.
The group is also opposing the participation of Paul Champ in the inquiry. Champ is the lawyer representing residents in the proposed lawsuit. He is also representing a coalition of Ottawa residents and businesses during the inquiry.
The group said Champ has made defamatory comments about them, including in a March 24 tweet referencing a man who said he regretted the money he spent to support the convoy.
"The respondents are also concerned that Mr. Champ, who is adverse in interest in this matter, will be participating in the Public Order Emergency Commission proceedings and will have a pre-emptive opportunity to cross-examine the Freedom Corp. participants in advance of any trial," the motion said.
Champ said in an email on Friday that the parties are meeting on Sept. 8 to discuss the proposed lawsuit, "where the defendants will have to try to convince the court to give them a motion date on an urgent basis" for the release of funds.
He said the group should instead apply to the commission for funding.
Funding for inquiries comes from the Privy Council Office, according to the commission.