The truckers’ protest made news all over the country and even internationally as people sought to understand how a protest – initially dubbed as one for freedom – escalated to an occupation. Although it’s impacts were at first significantly underestimated, it became apparent after several days of protest that it would pose much more than a mere nuisance for Ottawans. With protesters firmly entrenched in the downtown core, weeks of hardship, pain and fear ensued for local employees and residents, especially women and other vulnerable populations. Ottawans soon realized that this supposed protest for freedom would, in fact, cost them theirs for (at the time) an unknown length of time. The effects of the protest were not felt equally: Women are more likely to work in retail, accommodation and food service industries, which were hit especially hard during the protests. The protests caused businesses in the area such restaurants, retail stores and even the largest mall in the city, to close as customers couldn’t access buildings and staff did not feel safe getting to and working at their place of employment. Whether it be the incessant honking that could be heard from almost anywhere, large crowds of people refusing to move or their reported harassment and use of hateful language (which is not surprising considering some of the protest leaders’ history), people did not feel safe accessing local businesses. Indeed even journalists reported actions such as being spat on and being told by protestors to kill themselves. Those that owned and worked for local businesses suffered doubly as they not only had to operate under these conditions simply to keep their businesses afloat but also endured a loss of income at a time where some COVID-19 restrictions were poised to be eased. It has been reported that the truckers’ occupation cost the city about $36 million with more reckoning to come.
The protests also particularly affected people living with disabilities, who faced additional barriers due to restricted mobility within the city. For example, it was widely reported that one woman was unable to get food as grocery stores could not deliver in the area due to blocked streets and traffic. Thankfully, a neighbour was able to get her groceries and deliver them to her. Others faced challenges in accessing important medication and mental health supports, a resource of particular importance given the extra stress downtown residents were forced to endure.
And of course, those living in the shelters in the area had to face these protests as well. We know Shepherds of Good Hope had protesters harass volunteers and clients and demanded free food. At Cornerstone Housing for Women Shelter, women staying there ended up re-triggered by the aggressive situation with at least one woman having to go the hospital. This kind of loud and intimidating atmosphere deprived people already going through struggles and relying on these shelters to be their safe space of their ability to feel safe both inside and outside of shelters.
Everyone living downtown had to face all these issues with no break as they could not simply leave the area. Residents had to find strategies to cope with the noise, harassment and just the overall sheer disregard protestors had for folks living downtown. Some people were able to come together and help each other out, but the fact remains that people suffered when they should not have had to. Recognizing the threat to residents’ safety and well-being, including some of our own clients, WISE released a statement to demand that the city take measures to ensure the safety of Ottawa residents and do what it had to do to end this occupation.
Thankfully this costly siege has come to an end following an unprecedented action by numerous police forces. However, although the protesters may have left, lasting effects, both financially and relating to the mental health of residents, remains. There has, however, been some positive outcomes such as a march of solidarity to “say no to hate and yes to community care and solidarity” hosted by Community Solidarity Ottawa and Canadians United Against Hate to bring attention and accountability to the siege. It has also been acknowledged by many city officials that policy change is needed to ensure future protests do not become occupations that threaten the safety of locals.
We at WISE believe that when we make communities safer for women and other vulnerable groups, it will be safer for everyone. The city of Ottawa has launched an inquiry to examine how the protest was allowed to devolve into an occupation that held locals hostage for over three weeks. Thought will need to be given as to how we can implement additional security measures to protect our city against future occupations all while providing space for peaceful and lawful protests. We need to ensure that our city keeps safety a priority for all and continue to support each other and move forward together.