Questions swirl about group that's set up 'embassy' at St. Brigid's in Lowertown

·7 min read
William Komer, a director of an organization called The United People of Canada, says it plans to turn St. Brigid's in downtown Ottawa into a community hub where conversation can happen and all are welcome. (Dan Taekema/CBC - image credit)
William Komer, a director of an organization called The United People of Canada, says it plans to turn St. Brigid's in downtown Ottawa into a community hub where conversation can happen and all are welcome. (Dan Taekema/CBC - image credit)

The doors of St. Brigid's have been painted red and banners bearing a white tree insignia hang on either side.

It's a striking visual that's captured the attention of community members and left some with questions, including about possible connections to this past winter's Freedom Convoy.

A director for the group flatly denied any link with the protest that shut down part of downtown Ottawa for three weeks this past winter, saying it's not associated with the convoy and anyone who says otherwise is spreading misinformation.

But one of the organization's directors has shared posts about the convoy on social media and a second described herself as an adviser to Dwayne Lich, the husband of convoy leader Tamara Lich, during her bail process.

Sylvie Bigras, president of the Lowertown Community Association, said getting clear answers about the group that's begun working out of the former Catholic church at St. Patrick and Cumberland streets isn't easy.

"Their messaging is very unclear as to who they are and what their objectives are."

Group calls building The Embassy

The tree logo hanging at St. Brigid's represents The United People of Canada (TUPC), which describes itself online as a "diverse, intergenerational fraternal organization." In social media posts it refers to the building as The Embassy.

The group has been advertising weekly barbecues as a chance to check out what they're up to. When CBC visited on Sunday about 10 people were present, including several wearing hats with the TUPC logo.

William Komer, a director of the board, said the organization was founded this year and began looking at acquiring St. Brigid's in the past few months to adapt it into a community event space where everyone is welcome to "dialogue."

"There needs to be a lot of healing in our communities," he said, adding he wants to set up a site where people can gather to debate issues, whether they agree or not.

Komer suggested a model where people could use a key fob to access a co-working space, visit a café or even access the site as a "24/7 community safe space."

Dan Taekema/CBC
Dan Taekema/CBC

"We're in a due diligence process right now with the current owners," he said when asked about the status of the building. "It's under a contract of purchase and sale agreement."

An online real estate posting for the address at 310 St. Patrick St., was still active as of Monday morning, with an asking price of $5,950,000.

Land registry documents show a numbered company traced back to Patrick McDonald, one of the investors who bought the church after it was deconsecrated in 2007, still owns the property.

CBC has attempted to contact McDonald since Friday, but he has not responded.

Asked where the organization found funds for a purchase of that size, Komer said the main funding source is through community bonds and added more information would be shared online later.

TUPC's website also offers visitors an opportunity to donate or buy a range of products with the organization's logo, from $45 water bottles and hats to $250 high-top sneakers.

We're also not Nazis, racist, misogynist, or whatever else. - William Komer, The United People of Canada

"Some people have speculated, 'Oh did some Freedom Convoy funds get used to purchase a building here?' I can say for a fact that is not the case," Komer said.

"I don't know what did or didn't happen with … that stuff but this is completely funds that we're raising privately through community contributors."

The biggest contributor so far gave because of the "good work we're doing in the community," Komer said, but he declined to say more about them because he hadn't talked to donors about sharing their names with the media.

"I wouldn't be at this time comfortable talking about who they are, given like all the hate that's being spewed about our organization right now."

Organization has retained legal counsel

Commentors on Reddit and Facebook have posed questions about the organization online. Komer said some have even gone further than suggesting a connection to the convoy.

"We're also not Nazis, racist, misogynist, or whatever else is defamatory, libellous writing online, that we understand is both a no-no civilly and potentially criminal culpability for individuals."

Komer said the organization has retained legal counsel that is ready to intervene if necessary.

I would say at this point our community here in Lowertown is concerned and trying to get more information. - Sylvie Bigras, Lowertown Community Association

Corporate filings for TUPC show it was founded as a not-for-profit on March 24 and lists three directors: Komer, Kimberly Ward and Diane Nolan.

In a video posted on March 7, following Freedom Convoy leader Tamara Lich's bail hearing, a woman who identified herself as Kimberly Ward described herself as an adviser for Dwayne Lich, Tamara Lich's husband.

"This is just the start of something that's so beautiful for Canada," she says in the video, asking people to pray for the couple. "Know that they stood for most of us."

Komer confirmed the woman in the video is the same Kimberly Ward who sits on the TUPC board.

Posts shared on Nolan's Facebook page include several associated with the Freedom Convoy and the movement it's inspired, such as the Canadian Convoy Rally Song.

Diane Nolan/Facebook
Diane Nolan/Facebook

Asked about those posts and how some could see Nolan sharing them as affiliating TUPC with the protest, Komer said he did not agree.

"Whether somebody does or doesn't personally support something doesn't mean an organization's affiliated with that thing," he said.

"To draw that conclusion would be inappropriate, and to make such statement would be false in this case."

Dwayne Lich shares photos wearing logo

Nolan has also shared information about TUPC and photos of its gear being made that were first posted by Dwayne Lich.

Pictures of Dwayne wearing a TUPC hoodie, including two where he poses with his wife, can be seen across his Facebook page, along with images at and inside St. Brigid's.

Dwayne Lich/Facebook
Dwayne Lich/Facebook

During a February bail hearing for Tamara Lich, her husband told the court he didn't believe in blockades, but also said he didn't see anything wrong with the protest equating it to a large traffic jam or parked cars in a snow storm.

"I don't see no guns. I don't see anything criminal as far as I can see," Dwayne Lich said at the time, and also questioned whether the Emergencies Act was implemented legally.

Asked about Dwayne Lich's role with TUPC, Komer said he believes drawing a connection between Tamara Lich's activities with the convoy and her husband's connection to the organization might be "marital status-based discrimination."

"I'm not aware that this individual who it's a fact is married to Tamara Lich has ever supported the Freedom Convoy, not to my knowledge," he said.

Komer said he was in Ottawa himself during the convoy as part of a documentary film group, adding what he saw during the protest differed from the public narrative.

While people were saying the convoy was "sieging" Ottawa, "in my personal opinion perhaps … the convoy was sieged by others," Komer said.

Asked if he considers himself a convoy and freedom movement supporter, Komer did not answer directly.

He said he believes people should be able to have a conversation about COVID-19 mandates and mandatory vaccinations but doesn't believe the best place for the conversation is the streets of Ottawa.

"I think a building like this might be a better place for that, right?" he said, pointing to St. Brigid's.

Community 'concerned,' trying to learn more

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury said the situation shows the "risk" of having a privately owned heritage property with close community ties go on the market.

Wounds left by the convoy on Lowertown and the ByWard Market are "fresh," he added, and said he's seen the "angst" questions about TUPC have caused on social media.

Dan Taekema/CBC
Dan Taekema/CBC

Bigras, the community association president, said her staff have been on "a fact-finding mission" about the group and its plans.

Those efforts have included speaking with police and Fleury's office. A vice-president of the association also visited the building on Sunday but no one was there, she said.

The church is a beautiful property and the association would be glad to see it occupied, but it's in "wait-and-see" mode now, according to Bigras.

"I would say at this point our community here in Lowertown is concerned and trying to get more information."

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