A fruit fly-infested courtroom with shoddy technology, an annoying fluorescent light flickering in the corner and a fluctuating crowd of “Freedom Convoy” supporters have been part of the scene for the first eight days of the highly anticipated trial of Tamara protest leaders. Lich and Chris Barber.
Outside the courthouse, a dedicated group of supporters of the two leaders of the protests that blocked large swathes of downtown Ottawa in February 2022 gather daily with signs that say things like “Free Tamara.”
Unsurprisingly, there hasn’t been much debate about what happened or the role the two played in organizing what became known as the “Freedom Convoy”: their actions were well documented, often by themselves in their own social networks, which exploded. in popularity as protests grew.
But that hasn’t made the trial any less controversial.
Like the convoy itself, there is a significant gap between how the protest was and is perceived and whether Lich and Barber’s actions are criminal.
Lich and Barber ‘crossed the line’: Crown
During opening statements at the Ontario Court of Justice in Ottawa, Crown lawyer Tim Radcliffe said the case is not about Lich and Barber’s political views, but about how they “crossed the line” in committing the crimes. of which they are accused.
Crown lawyers argue the protest was anything but peaceful and have spent the first two weeks of the trial presenting evidence to prove it: videos and posts from the convoy with police witnesses walking the court through that material.
In sp. Russell Lucas, the incident commander who managed the convoy impacts, told the court the number of people and vehicles in the city center “exceeded expectations”.
Protesters were allowed to park on Wellington Street in front of Parliament, he said, because “that’s where they wanted to be, that’s the epicenter.”
But he said police soon realized the protesters weren’t going away.
Resources were “very scarce” and crowds were becoming more “volatile” as the convoy was delayed by officers who were likely to be “overrun” in attempts to take some coercive action.
In a news conference presented to the court on February 14, Lich promised that the protest would remain peaceful even as the federal government was preparing to use the Emergency Law to clear the streets.
“No matter what you do, we will hold the line,” Lich said in the video.
Crown prosecutors are relying on the videos to show that Lich and Barber had control and influence over the protest in their capacity as leaders.
The videos are used as examples of cases in which Lich appears to be encouraging his followers to stay in Ottawa despite police telling them to leave.
That includes when Lich again told protesters to “hold the line” as police led her away in handcuffs on Feb. 17, three days after the Emergency Law was invoked.
The next morning a major police operation began to completely clear the streets of protesters.
A video filmed on the eve of her arrest shows a tearful Lich predicting her pending arrest while describing the expectation of being sent somewhere on “three squares a day.”
In the video, she tells her followers to “keep fighting the good fight” and encourages them to come to Ottawa and “stand with us.”
In another video taken from Barber’s TikTok account, he told truckers to “grab the horn switch” and “let it run as long as possible” if police tried to evict them.
In another TikTok video posted on February 9, he tells his followers that if a trucker is arrested and ordered to leave town, he will be replaced “by three new truckers.”
Defense shows the ‘other side’ of the Freedom Convoy
Lich and Barber maintain that the protests were organized to end COVID-19 mandates, and defense attorneys are presenting their own videos showing a more peaceful side of the convoy.
Despite the disdain felt by Ottawa residents and others who followed them, the reality is that for many, the protests evoke only positive memories: a downtown filled with peace, love and unity, including bouncy castles, barbecues pork and street hockey.
And while prosecutors can point to instances where Barber and Lich urged their followers, the two were also consistent in telling their followers to remain peaceful.
In a video, recorded while Lich was on his way to Ottawa, he tells his followers that being violent or threatening “is not our mandate.”
“This is about your rights and freedoms, and we’re not here to be violent or anything like that,” he said.
In another, he tells his viewers that anyone caught breaking the law or promoting violence will be reported to the police.
Diane Magas, Barber’s attorney, said presenting those videos was to show the judge the circumstances and context.
The defense is also trying to show that the popular refrain “hold the line” could be interpreted differently by different people and did not necessarily act as a call to supporters to continue protesting.
Magas showed a video of former Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford speaking about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Peckford is the only living prime minister who participated in the agreement to repatriate and update the Canadian Constitution in the early 1980s, and he came to Ottawa supporting the protesters.
He uses the phrase “hold the line” in a speech given during the truckers’ protests.
“We are going to argue that there are inferences of legal protest behind those words of the former prime minister,” he said.
Defendant in court every day
Barber and Lich have sat in court every day behind their team of lawyers.
They face charges including mischief, advising others to commit mischief, intimidation and obstructing police for their role in the weeks-long protest.
Lich, dressed impeccably each day in a unique style, is more likely to interact directly with and support her attorneys as they discuss strategy during breaks. She spends most breaks smoking cigarettes near her hired security, her husband, and occasionally a follower of hers. From Medicine Hat, Alta., Lich will turn 51 this week.
She has already spent 49 days in jail spread over two periods: first when she was initially arrested, and then again after she was detained on a Canada-wide warrant for violating her bail conditions.
Barber, sporting an endless supply of plaid shirts, arrives each day with his wife and obediently watches the proceedings, sometimes taking notes in a notebook. Barber, a 48-year-old truck driver, was released shortly after his arrest and returned to his home in Swift Current, Sask.
The trial expects more delays
Prosecutors are expected to present about 22 witnesses and hours of video as part of their case. Originally scheduled to last 10 days, the Crown is still working on selecting its first witnesses after eight days of hearing and additional hearing dates will likely be needed.
More police officers, city leaders and people who lived and worked downtown during the protests could end up testifying.
But at times the trial has nearly ground to a halt as lawyers argue over things like the admissibility of evidence or whether certain witnesses will be able to testify.
The judge-only trial was originally due to conclude in October after 16 days, but is likely to take longer.
The trial continues Monday for the ninth day.