'Freedom Convoy' leader challenged over assertion the protest was never told to leave

OTTAWA — "Freedom Convoy" organizer Tamara Lich insisted she was never directly told to leave Ottawa during last winter's protests, when hundreds of vehicles blocked streets around Parliament Hill as Lich and others called for an end to COVID-19 mandates, even after the Emergencies Act was invoked.

During cross-examination at the Public Order Emergency Commission on Friday, Lich said that when police told protesters in a mid-February meeting to depart, she took it as a suggestion.

She and other organizers had testified on Thursday that police did not tell them to leave the city.

Ottawa police lawyer David Migicovsky showed Lich a police log entry from that Feb. 16 meeting on Friday, when officers wrote that they told her to "depart, and message this out to others." They later noted that, "All parties were upset and Lich was crying."

Lich said she remembers becoming emotional. "I think I said something to the effect of 'I can't believe that you're about to do this to your own people.'"

She told the commission she still felt those instructions were merely a suggestion to leave.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time in Canadian history on Feb. 14, arguing its temporary and extraordinary powers were needed to end blockades in Ottawa and at border crossings.

That decision came after weeks of what Trudeau called an "illegal occupation" of downtown Ottawa.

Paul Champ, a lawyer representing Ottawa residents and businesses, reminded the commission that the protest was deemed an unlawful occupation, that the city and the province declared states of emergency, local residents launched a lawsuit against the organizers and the court granted an injunction to stop protesters from honking truck horns at night.

"That wasn't a message that maybe it was time to leave?" Champ asked.

"We had a message, too," Lich replied, adding that after hearing "heartbreaking" stories during the pandemic, she felt the protesters' message was more important.

She did say that she would have left if the court had ordered her to.

"My understanding was that as long as we were peaceful and complied with the order we were permitted to stay," she said.

The commission also heard from two protesters Friday who made a point of joining the protest after the Emergencies Act was invoked.

"I rushed back to Ottawa to do what I could to protect the peaceful citizens of the of the protests," Chris Deering, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran, testified Friday.

He said he believed he was still entitled to be downtown Ottawa, though he knew police were warning people to leave.

"I'm a free citizen of this country. I'm a taxpayer. I'm a veteran. I'm a good person. And I felt I had the right to be there with my Canadian citizens to try to protect them," he said.

Deering was arrested using force near the National War Memorial during a massive police operation on Feb. 18. He was later released without charges.

Maggie Hope Braun also returned to Ottawa after Feb. 14 and was also arrested, but not charged.

"I don't believe that if a government passes a law, it means that we have to go against what we believe is right," she testified. "We still have a right to peacefully protest and assemble."

Both protesters spoke about how positive and peaceful their experience was in Ottawa before they were arrested.

In response, Emilie Taman, a lawyer representing Ottawa residents and businesses, played a 10 minute compilation of videos of loud horn honking, blocked streets, open fires, large collections of jerry cans of fuel and other scenes from the convoy protest.

Supporters in the hearing room gallery were heard softly laughing during the video, and one man made a honking gesture with his arm.

Friday's hearings also included "Diagolon" founder Jeremy MacKenzie, who took part in the "Freedom Convoy" and testified from a correctional facility in Saskatchewan, where he is being held on charges unrelated to the protests.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino flagged MacKenzie as a national security risk in February, saying people at the Coutts, Alta., border crossing blockade had "strong ties" to Diagolon, which he referred to as "a far-right extreme organization."

In intelligence reports released at the public inquiry, the RCMP described Diagolon as a “militia-like network with members who are armed and preparing for violence” and having supporters “akin to accelerationism” who wanted to overthrow the government.

MacKenzie said many of his supporters are firearms enthusiasts, but argued police forces were citing unreliable information provided by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.

"There is certainly not anything resembling a militia or anything to this extent," he said.

He said he knew one of the people who was charged in relation to the protests in Coutts but otherwise had no connection to the Alberta blockades, and had little interaction with convoy organizers in Ottawa.

MacKenzie's lawyer unsuccessfully applied to the commission earlier this week to allow him to testify in private or under a publication ban, citing upcoming court cases.

MacKenzie is facing assault and weapons charges in Saskatchewan and was charged with firearms offences in Nova Scotia in January. He's also been charged with harassment and intimidation in March after an anti-mask protest outside the home of Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre asked the RCMP to investigate MacKenzie after he talked about sexually assaulting Poilievre's wife, Anaida, during a livestream in September.

The public inquiry, which is required under the Emergencies Act, will hold hearings in Ottawa through to Nov. 25.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2022.

Laura Osman and David Fraser, The Canadian Press