'Freedom Convoy' lawyer says protesters faced 'zero-sum' choices to end demonstration

OTTAWA — "Freedom Convoy" lawyer Keith Wilson says he encouraged protesters to remain in Ottawa after the Liberals invoked the Emergencies Act last winter, and that the group was only ever offered a "zero-sum" choice for ending the demonstrations.

Wilson testified on Wednesday about his involvement in the weeks-long protest at a hearing of the Public Order Emergency Commission, the public inquiry tasked with investigating the government's decision to invoke the act for the first time since it became law in 1988.

After the emergency powers were brought in on Feb. 14, police warned protesters who were demonstrating against the federal government and COVID-19 mandates that they would need to leave downtown Ottawa. Several hundred vehicles had been blocking the streets in front of Parliament Hill since late January.

But Wilson's opinion and advice were that police could not prevent a peaceful protest in the downtown core, even with the emergency powers.

The message from police and others that "any Canadian citizen was no longer allowed to walk in downtown Ottawa or hold a sign in front of their Parliament was not legally accurate and was against the Charter," Wilson testified.

"This emergency order from the federal government does not restrict Canadians' rights of peaceful assembly," Wilson said in a Feb. 15 TikTok video with convoy organizer Chris Barber, which was shown during the hearing.

He told viewers it looked like police were "gearing up," but one way to stop that from happening was for Canadians to "come to Ottawa as soon as you can get here and stand with the truckers."

On Feb. 18, police launched a major operation to end the protests.

The inquiry has learned that protesters also received advice from another lawyer, Sayeh Hassan. She told them that people who didn't comply with police limiting their right to protest during the emergency "could be arrested."

But a convoy spokesperson, Tom Marazzo, told the commission Wednesday that he took Wilson at his word.

A former military captain and computer sciences teacher who lost his job because of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Marazzo was a prominent figure early in the protest, appearing at several press conferences and livestreams to say that protesters wouldn't leave "until the job is done."

Commissioner Paul Rouleau repeated a line of inquiry he has pursued with other witnesses, asking Wilson whether there were discussions about how to allow the protest to continue lawfully, off of Ottawa's streets.

Wilson said no one with any police service offered that kind of option and the protest organizers never asked for it.

"We were always faced with this zero-sum with the police liaisons," he said.

Wilson said the only feasible exit strategy that he could see was a deal struck with city officials to move trucks out of residential areas, either to a rural area or onto the street directly in front of Parliament Hill.

He told the commission he believed if the truck drivers could show goodwill by moving the trucks, federal ministers might agree to meet with the protesters about their concerns.

The loose group of organizers even prepared a document laying out their demands for such a meeting.

More than 100 vehicles moved out of the residential area and 23 moved onto Wellington Street near Parliament before the deal fell apart, he said.

Pat King, who was part of the original "Freedom Convoy" organizing group, told fellow protesters that the deal between protest organizers and the city was a lie being spread by counter-protesters.

"Do not leave Ottawa, do not back your trucks out, do not leave the residential areas,” King said in a video shown in the hearing. “Stand your ground."

King told the commission Wednesday that the deal didn't seem credible to him.

He quickly found himself on the outs because of concerns about his violent and racist rhetoric on social media before the convoy to Ottawa began.

King testified there was an "absolute disconnect" between what he did and what convoy organizers were doing, despite communicating with some of them regularly. "I acted alone," he said.

That disconnect is part of why the deal fell through, Wilson said. He told the commission that because the movement was not centralized, controlling the entire group of protesters was "impossible."

In another instance, Wilson said he and his clients tried to get an independent group of truck drivers to clear an intersection east of downtown. But they were swarmed by protesters who misunderstood what was happening.

In a video shown in the hearing, a huge group of protesters blocked police, singing "O Canada." As the police left, one demonstrator shouted, "Hold the line."

During his testimony, Wilson was asked whether he was concerned he was encouraging demonstrators to put their own safety at risk by staying downtown after they were told to leave.

"I'm a Canadian and I never imagined that our government, our federal government, would use that level of force against non-violent, peaceful Canadians," he said.

It wasn't until Feb. 19, when most of the protest organizers had been arrested, that Marazzo called for everyone to leave.

He told the commission he was concerned about protesters' safety and there was no point in staying after it became clear they wouldn't be able to repel police.

"I was so disgusted," Marazzo said. "My advice to everybody was to depart the city of Ottawa and to peacefully withdraw."

A number of convoy supporters showed up to watch the testimony in the gallery Wednesday, under strict orders from Rouleau to remain quiet.

In the early evening, hearings were paused after an attendee began shouting while a lawyer representing Ottawa citizens and business owners questioned King.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2022.

Laura Osman and David Fraser, The Canadian Press