Simultaneous demonstrations in January and February last year snarled trade at critical U.S.-Canada border crossings and spurred copycats from New Zealand to the Washington Beltway. The spectacle of trucks and crowds in the streets making downtown Ottawa virtually impassable last year drew international attention — and support and money from some in the United States.
In the aftermath, authorities have also come under scrutiny. The city’s police chief resigned during the protests. A public inquiry this year found that the response to the protests was marred by failures in policing and finger-pointing over jurisdiction among officials at all levels of government.
Lich and Barber are among the most prominent of the 140 people who were charged in Ottawa, and their case is likely to draw national attention because of what it might portend for other defendants and the movement more broadly.
Mischief can encompass activity ranging from erasing computer data to torching a building. Offenders face life sentences in cases where they endanger others, analysts said, but most who are convicted don’t serve time or are sentenced to time served.
“On the legal side, it’s kind of a boring case, a banal case,” said Joao Velloso, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. “But the stakes are high on the public opinion and political side because while other protesters already pleaded guilty a long time ago, they didn’t … and trials provide a stage” for their narrative.
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Lawyers for Lich and Barber said they don’t “expect this to be the trial of the ‘Freedom Convoy.’”
“The central issue,” they said in a statement, “will be whether the actions of two of the organizers of a peaceful protest should warrant criminal sanction.”
In an opening statement Tuesday, prosecutor Timothy Radcliffe said lawyers for Lich and Barber would argue that the pair were exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. But in urging people to come to Ottawa, controlling where they parked their vehicles and calling on them to “hold the line,” he said, they had “crossed the line” and committed crimes.
“This case is not about their political views,” Radcliffe said, according to local media. “What’s at issue here is the means they employed, not the ends.”
The protests began in late January 2022, when hundreds of big rigs and other vehicles rolled into Ottawa and jammed downtown streets, including the main drag in front of Parliament, for nearly three weeks. Authorities here called it an “occupation” — a description lawyers for Lich and Barber disputed in court on Tuesday.
Their spark was rules imposed by the United States and Canada that barred unvaccinated truck drivers from crossing the border, but they attracted a range of anti-government activists, far-right figures and opponents of pandemic measures more broadly. Many truckers were vaccinated and opposed the protests.
Ottawans complained of the disruption caused by round-the-clock honking and the noxious fumes of idling vehicles. Some said they were harassed for wearing masks. Several downtown businesses, including a large shopping mall, closed for weeks out of security concerns.
The blockade inspired similar protests at several U.S.-Canada border crossings, including the Ambassador Bridge, which links Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, a critical corridor for the movement of cars and car parts. Several factories were forced to idle or scale back production.
At a blockade near the border in Coutts, Alberta, police raided trailers and found firearms and a large quantity of ammunition. Four men were accused of conspiring to murder Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers.
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To clear the demonstrations, Trudeau became the first prime minister to invoke Canada’s Emergencies Act. The 1988 law, which is intended for use when no other law can respond to a national emergency, gave authorities power to create no-go zones and temporarily freeze bank accounts without a court order.
The act requires a public inquiry be convened to determine whether the threshold for its invocation was met. Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Paul S. Rouleau, the inquiry’s commissioner, concluded that the use of the powers was “appropriate,” but said he reached the finding “with reluctance.”
“The state should generally be able to respond to circumstances of urgency without the use of emergency powers,” he wrote in February. “It is regrettable that such a situation arose here, because in my view, it could have been avoided.”
Rouleau blasted the police for a series of “failures” that “contributed to a situation that spun out of control,” and allowed “lawful protest” to descend “into lawlessness, culminating in a national emergency.”
Lich and Barber were among the more than 70 witnesses who testified before the inquiry, but it was not clear whether they would take the stand in their own trial. The proceeding is expected to last 19 days — long, Velloso said, for a mischief trial.
Lich, a former regional coordinator for Wexit (“Western Exit”), a movement pushing for Alberta to separate from Canada, had previously organized rallies against the Trudeau government’s climate change policies and played a key role in fundraising for the convoy. She told the inquiry that her parents owned a pilot trucking business that was impacted by the cross-border vaccine requirement and that she lost her job in 2022 in part because of the pandemic.
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Barber operates a trucking business in Saskatchewan. A self-described “internet troll” who once displayed a Confederate flag in his Swift Current shop, he told the inquiry that he was vaccinated against the coronavirus, but had lost drivers to the vaccine requirement and opposed other pandemic measures.
Barber was released in February 2022 on a $100,000 bond. Lich was released in May of that year but arrested again in July and charged with breaching the terms of her bail conditions. She was released after a judge overturned a lower court decision that would have seen her held until trial.
In their testimony before the inquiry, both sought to cast the convoy as peaceful and to distance themselves from its controversial figures. But Rouleau wrote that he didn’t accept that they lacked knowledge of actual or potential harassment or violence, and found that they “remained reluctant to sever all ties” with those who advocated violence or the removal of Trudeau from office because they had large numbers of followers whom they considered part of the movement.
Several defendants charged in the protests have had their days in court.
In one case, Tyson Billings, a participant nicknamed “Freedom George,” pleaded guilty last year to one count of counseling to commit mischief and had the other charges against him withdrawn. He was sentenced to time served and six months of probation.
In another, Artur Pawlowski, a pastor who gave a speech encouraging demonstrators to continue their blockade of the border crossing in Coutts, Alberta, was found guilty this year of mischief and breaching a release order. He has not yet been sentenced.
David Romlewski, a man who approached several police officers clearing an Ottawa street during the protests, questioned their legitimacy and refused to leave the area when asked, was found guilty of obstructing a police officer but not guilty of mischief charges.
In a 2022 decision, Ontario Court Justice Robert Wadden wrote that there was “no doubt” that convoy demonstrators committed the offense of mischief, but he could not conclude based on the footage of the body camera that Romlewski was wearing at the time of the incident that he did, too.
“The fact that someone has come into the area of the protest and committed his own crime does not necessarily make him a party to the entirety of the mischief caused by the convoy, even if he shares the same political view of the protesters,” he wrote.
An earlier version of this article misstated the year in which Canada’s Emergencies Act took effect. It was 1988, not 1998.