Freedom, politics, control and money: the many motivations of the 'Freedom Convoy'

OTTAWA — Months before thousands of protesters rolled into Canada's capital with the "Freedom Convoy," gridlocking streets in protest of COVID-19 mandates, Canada Unity founder James Bauder had already staged a similar, but much smaller, protest in Ottawa.

Bauder's mini-convoy of fewer than 100 protesters, called the "Convoy for Freedom," arrived in October 2021 to flout public health rules in stores and restaurants and blockade streets in front of the prime minister and governor general's residences.

On Thursday, he told the commission investigating the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act that he delivered a "memorandum of understanding" to the Senate and the Governor General on that trip. His hope was that they would agree to work with his group to overthrow COVID-19 measures and ask the prime minister to step down for "committing treason and crimes against humanity."

"Had thousands vs. 100 shown up we would still be there and most likely the MOU would have gotten the much-needed pressure tactic we were seeking," Bauder wrote to supporters on his Facebook page in December.

Only a few weeks later, he was working with a loose group of organizers who had never met one another to bring a much larger crowd of protesters to Ottawa, Bauder told the public inquiry.

Overpowering the authority of the elected government was just one of the disparate goals of the demonstrators, the inquiry has heard during a week of testimony from convoy organizers.

They have said that some of the participants wanted to be heard, while others were looking for a larger platform, and others still wanted to get their hands on the millions of dollars donated to support the cause.

The Public Order Emergency Commission is tasked with examining the Liberal government's unprecedented decision to invoke the Emergencies Act to help clear protesters who were using vehicles to block the streets around Parliament Hill last winter.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared a public order emergency on Feb. 14, more than two weeks after protesters entrenched themselves in downtown Ottawa.

"Protesters have varying ideological grievances with demands ranging from an end to all public health restrictions to overthrow the elected government," the government cited as one of the justifications for invoking the act.

Bauder's memorandum, which he withdrew on Feb. 8, garnered about 400,000 signatures of support from the public, he testified. Bauder has been charged with mischief to obstruct property, disobeying a lawful court order and obstructing a peace officer in relation to the protest.

He was emotional during his testimony, breaking down in tears several times along with some of his supporters in the gallery.

Brendan Miller, a lawyer who represents some of the convoy organizers at the hearings, said Canada Unity has never called for any form of violence and never called to violently throw overthrow the government of Canada.

Several of the other organizers have testified that they did not ascribe to Bauder's memorandum, though at least one organizer signed it.

It wasn't the only example where convoy organizers were unaligned in their motives.

Another of the protest's spokespeople, Benjamin Dichter, told the commission earlier Thursday that even the lawyer representing a core group of organizers appeared to have his own agenda.

"There were many different groups, right? It wasn't just one group, and every different group had their own idea," he said, though he added that they all agreed on ending COVID-19 mandates.

He told the commission be believed the lawyer, Keith Wilson, may have had political motivations, though he didn't have any details.

"We were all converging on the idea of ArriveCan and the mandates, but he seemed to be representing another group that wanted to go in a different direction," Dichter said.

On Wednesday, Wilson, who represents Tamara Lich and other convoy organizers, testified that when he arrived in Ottawa during the protest it became clear to him several groups were jockeying for influence.

"What I observed and believed to be true is that some were trying to take control, because they saw the organic flat hierarchy, largely, of the convoy and wanted to make it more successful and felt they had the organizational capability to do that," Wilson told the commission.

"Other groups seemed to want to reshape the Freedom Convoy into their own event, branded theirs, and I got the distinct impression from some other that they were trying to get their hands on what, at that point, was $10 million in donations."

Tamara Lich, who is perhaps the most recognizable of the organizers, told the inquiry late Thursday that she joined the "Freedom Convoy" after failing to get a response from members of Parliament she emailed about ending COVID-19 restrictions.

"I was growing increasingly alarmed with the mandates and the harm that I was seeing the mandates inflict on Canadians," she said.

"I never, in a million years saw this coming and never had an agenda. I literally just wanted to help some truckers drive across Canada and stand in front of Parliament with some signs, that was literally what I had envisioned."

More organizers and protest participants are expected to testify, including Jeremy MacKenzie, the founder of the online group known as "Diagolon."

MacKenzie, who will appear virtually before the commission from jail where he is being held on unrelated charges, petitioned for a ban on the publication of his evidence on the grounds that his testimony could adversely affect on his defence against those criminal charges.

The petition was opposed by several other participants in the public inquiry, as well as a consortium of media outlets that includes The Canadian Press.

Commissioner Paul Rouleau has dismissed the petition and MacKenzie has been summoned to appear Friday. The commission is set to hold public hearings in Ottawa until Nov. 25.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2022.

Laura Osman and David Fraser, The Canadian Press