OTTAWA — It's a sunny July day at an outdoor hockey rink outside North Bay, Ont. An acoustic guitar player belts out a ballad about freedom. An adoring crowd sings along.
Tamara Lich, mounted on the back of a brown and white horse and waving a large Canadian flag, enters the arena.
"Love a grand entrance," the 50-year-old says enthusiastically with a wide smile and a laugh, getting hoots and whistles from supporters gathered to hear her speak, as seen in a video posted on social media.
To her fans, Lich is a proud Canadian, a lioness of the movement behind the "Freedom Convoy" protests and the target of a justice system that won't abide her anti-government beliefs. For the combined 49 days she spent in jail, first after her initial arrest during the 2022 demonstrations and again following an alleged bail breach last summer, she was in their eyes a "political prisoner." It's a title she, too, has embraced.
To the Crown, Lich is a nefarious actor who deliberately helped lead blockades that tormented residents, defied police orders, shuttered businesses and pushed the country to a state of national emergency.
For that she faces charges of mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation. She is scheduled to face her first day in court on Tuesday, along with fellow protest organizer Chris Barber.
Lich's counsel, prominent Ottawa criminal defence lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, has said his client's case should not be about the convoy itself.
But those three weeks in early 2022 are exactly the lens through which millions of Canadians have come to judge Lich. Though she has become a right-wing folk hero to some, she remains a figure many others would rather forget.
Lich declined an interview request through her lawyer. But she hasn't been shy to speak publicly.
In the spring she released a book titled "Hold the Line," referring to the phrase she shouted to supporters as someone filmed her arrest on the final day of the Ottawa protest. Amazon currently lists the 220-page read at the top of its bestseller list in the category of Canadian history.
The book also appears to have had an effect on the coming proceedings.
A court document shows Moiz Karimjee, the assistant Crown attorney who was the senior prosecutor for many of the bail hearings related to the convoy, was reading the book while preparing for the trial. The document says he recused himself from the case after discovering the book mentioned him by name about 60 times, "some of them defamatory."
Lich has been travelling across North America for a promotional tour that has included book signings, fundraisers and online interviews. That included a two-hour conversation with right-wing commentator and host Jordan Peterson, who boasts an international following of millions.
Appearing on his podcast, Lich addressed the endless honking residents were subjected to while big rigs took over downtown Ottawa. She said it frustrates her to hear complaints about it, and "some level of disruption" was needed. She added she believes protesters have not been given enough credit for the lack of physical violence that broke out.
"If we had been there with an agenda to take over Ottawa and overthrow the government, we could have done it," she said.
No violent takeover was attempted, but some far-right actors attached themselves to the demonstrations. During testimony at a public inquiry last fall into the federal government's use of the Emergencies Act to quell the protests, Lich distanced herself from a faction within the convoy protest that stated an aim to remove the Liberals from power.
The broader goal that seemed to unite thousands of protesters across the movement was to demand the elimination of all COVID-19 public health restrictions, particularly mask and vaccine mandates.
Convoy participant Bethan Nodwell said that seeing Lich appear on Peterson's show this summer only increased her legitimacy as a public figure who is now in the "big leagues" of what supporters call the "freedom" or "patriot movement."
"She has become a very beloved member of the freedom movement," Nodwell said, noting that the fact she is a woman and handles things in a "feminine way" sets her apart. "She has represented us so well. She doesn't lose her cool. She doesn't lose her temper."
In her book, which right-wing website Rebel News helped her publish, Lich retells the story of how she came to help with the logistics of getting a convoy of big rigs to Ottawa in the dead of winter.
She recounts relying on the skills she developed while co-ordinating work crews in Alberta's oilpatch. She had already helped bring a group of truckers to Parliament Hill a few years earlier to protest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's environmental policies, which is when her political activism took root.
While the convoy was being organized, Lich also saw the need to raise money. Within days, the GoFundMe page she created raised $10 million for convoy participants, though the company would shut it down days after the convoy's arrival in Ottawa.
Lich has told audiences this summer that the legal bills for her court battle are being provided by The Democracy Fund, a civil liberties charity focused on helping those who opposed COVID-19 restrictions. The charity is using crowdfunding for the $300,000 it estimates is needed.
Lawyer Keith Wilson said he became aware of Lich because of videos she livestreamed from the cab of Barber's truck on their way to Ottawa. He could tell that people would gravitate toward her, said Wilson, who acted as counsel for organizers throughout the protest and still assists Lich today.
"If you look at her, you can tell she's listening very carefully to what you're saying," he told The Canadian Press. "She just has a compassionate character that allows people to be comfortable in their most vulnerable ways."
That charisma is what led Wilson to introduce her as "the spark that lit the fire" of the protest movement at the convoy's first press conference in Ottawa.
Lich writes in her book she did not set out to become the "face" of the convoy, but it happened when she was thrust into the role of addressing reporters.
She did not even know what a media advisory was, Wilson recalled. "She was capturing a sentiment and articulating a sentiment that seemed to be held by a lot of people, including myself," said Wilson.
Lich has spoken at length about the need for hope and how she saw the convoy as a demonstration of unity. She told the public inquiry last fall that she had no idea how many people would show up, and she couldn't control what protesters did when they arrived.
Still, she emerged from the crisis with a bigger profile than many other organizers, including Pat King and James Bauder, who are also facing criminal trials. And her prominent role meant many viewed her as a key figure in orchestrating the chaos faced by local residents and police.
During one of her bail hearings last summer, the court was presented with a text message Lich sent to Barber shortly after the protest got underway, after she had spoken to members of its "command centre."
In it, she said individuals had "a strategy to gridlock the city," and added: "I don't want to make those decisions on my own."
At the time, justice of the peace Paul Harris referred to the message as evidence of Lich's decision-making power during the blockades. He suggested in a July 2022 decision that he believed she ought to remain in jail until her trial based on his opinion she "continues to pose a risk for the protection and safety of the public."
Harris's decision was later overturned on review, and Lich was allowed to return home to Alberta.
During her testimony months later at the inquiry, Lich was asked about the text message and said gridlock was not something she had advocated for.
Supporter Kathy Morrison said she was surprised to receive a long letter back from Lich after writing to her following the protests. When Lich made a stop in Morrison's city of Campbell River, B.C., she said she jumped at the chance to help with book sales and meet her hero.
"She gave me hope," recalled Morrison. "I was unvaxxed. … She was light in a very dark time."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2023.
Stephanie Taylor and Laura Osman, The Canadian Press