A fruit-fly-infested courtroom with shoddy technology, a nagging fluorescent light blinking in the corner and a fluctuating crowd of "Freedom Convoy" supporters have been part of the setting of the first eight days of the highly-anticipated trial of protest leaders Tamara Lich and Chris Barber.
Outside the courthouse, a dedicated group of supporters for the two leaders of protests that blockaded large swaths of downtown Ottawa in February 2022 gathers each day with signs saying things like, "Free Tamara."
As expected there hasn't been much debating what happened, or the roles the two played in organizing what came to be known as the "Freedom Convoy" — their actions were well-documented, often by themselves on their own social media feeds that exploded in popularity as the protests grew.
But that hasn't made the trial any less contentious.
Like the convoy itself, there is a significant wedge between how the protest was and is perceived and whether the actions of Lich and Barber are criminal.
Lich, Barber 'crossed the line': Crown
During opening statements at the Ontario Court of Justice in Ottawa, Crown lawyer Tim Radcliffe said the case is not about Lich and Barber's political views, but instead how they "crossed the line" in committing the crimes they're accused of.
Crown lawyers are arguing the protest was anything but peaceful and have spent the first two weeks of trial introducing evidence showing as much: videos and posts from the convoy with police witnesses guiding the court through that material.
Insp. Russell Lucas, the incident commander managing the convoy's impacts, told the court the number of people and vehicles in the downtown core "exceeded expectations."
Protesters were approved to park on Wellington Street in front of Parliament, he said, because "that's where they wanted to be, that's the epicentre."
But he said police soon realized protesters weren't going to leave.
Resources were "stretched so thin" and crowds were becoming more "volatile" as the convoy lingered with officers more likely to be "swarmed" in attempts to take any enforcement action.
Chris Barber, third from right in plaid, walks into the Ottawa Courthouse Sept. 5, 2023, the day his trial began. (Francis Ferland/CBC)
In a Feb. 14 press conference shown to the court, Lich promised the protest would stay peaceful even as the federal government was preparing to use the Emergencies Act to clear the streets.
"No matter what you do, we will hold the line," Lich said in the video.
Crown prosecutors are relying on the videos to help them demonstrate Lich and Barber had control and influence over the protest in their capacity as leaders.
The videos are being used as examples of instances where Lich appears to be encouraging supporters to stay in Ottawa despite being told by police to leave.
That includes when Lich again told protesters to "hold the line" as she was being led away in police handcuffs on Feb. 17, three days after the Emergencies Act had been invoked.
A major police operation to clear the streets of protestors entirely began the following morning.
A video filmed on the eve of her being taken into custody shows a tearful Lich predicting her pending arrest as she describes an expectation of being sent somewhere with "three squares a day."
In the video she tells her supporters to "keep fighting the good fight" and encourages them to come to Ottawa and "stand with us."
In another video taken from Barber's TikTok account, he told truckers to "grab that horn switch" and "let it roll as long as possible" if police tried to dislodge them.
In another TikTok video posted on Feb. 9, he tells supporters that if a trucker is arrested and ordered to leave the city, they will be replaced "with three new truckers."
A court sketch of Ottawa truck convoy organizers Chris Barber, left, and Tamara Lich, right, from their appearance Sept. 5, 2023. (Lauren Foster-MacLeod/CBC)
Defence showing 'other side' of Freedom Convoy
Lich and Barber maintain the protests were organized to end COVID-19 mandates, and defence lawyers are introducing their own videos showing a more peaceful side of the convoy.
Despite the disdain felt by Ottawa residents and others who followed along, the reality is that for many, the protests invoke only positive memories: A downtown core filled with peace, love and unity — bouncy castles, pig roasts and street hockey included.
And while prosecutors are able to point to instances of Barber and Lich urging supporters on, the two were also consistent in telling their followers to remain peaceful.
In one video, recorded as Lich was making her way to Ottawa, she tells her supporters being violent or threatening is "not our mandate."
"This is about your rights and freedoms, and we're not here to be violent or anything like that," she said.
In another, she tells her viewers anyone caught breaking the law or promoting violence will be reported to the police.
Diane Magas, counsel for Barber, said presenting those videos was to show the judge circumstances and context.
The defence is also trying to demonstrate the popular refrain "hold the line" could be interpreted differently by different people, and didn't necessarily act as a call to supporters to continue protesting.
Magas showed a video of former Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford, who talks about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Peckford is the only living first minister who was involved in the agreement to repatriate and update the Canadian Constitution in the early 1980s, and came to Ottawa supporting protesters.
He uses the phrase "hold the line" in a speech given during the trucker protests.
"We're going to be arguing that there's inferences of lawful protesting behind those words for the former premier," she said.
Tamara Lich, centre, and her lawyer outside court. (Francis Ferland/Radio-Canada)
Accused in court each day
Barber and Lich have sat in court each day behind their team of lawyers.
They are facing charges that include mischief, counselling others to commit mischief, intimidation and obstructing police for their role in the weeks-long protest.
Lich, dressed impeccably each day with a unique style, is more likely to directly engage her counsel and stand with her lawyers as they discuss strategy during breaks. She spends most of the breaks smoking cigarettes near her hired security, husband and occasionally a supporter. From Medicine Hat, Alta., Lich will turn 51 this week.
She's already spent 49 days in jail spread across two stints: the first when she was initially arrested, then again after she was picked up on a Canada-wide warrant for violating her bail conditions.
Barber, in an endless supply of plaid shirts, arrives each day with his wife and dutifully watches the proceedings, sometimes jotting notes into a notepad. A 48-year-old trucker, Barber was released shortly after his arrest and returned to his home in Swift Current, Sask.
Trial expecting further delays
The prosecution is expected to introduce around 22 witnesses and hours of video as part of its case. Originally scheduled to take 10 days, the Crown is still working its way through its first few witnesses after eight days of sitting and it's likely additional court dates will be needed.
More police officers, city leadership and people who lived and worked downtown during the protests could all end up testifying.
But at times the trial has ground to a near-halt as lawyers argue over things like the admissibility of evidence or whether certain witnesses will be able to testify.
The judge-alone trial was originally set to wrap in October after 16 days, but it is likely it will take longer.
The trial continues Monday for its ninth day.