Where has the so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ gone?

The United People of Canada, a new organization now operating out of a historic former church in downtown Ottawa, is very keen to talk about last winter’s so-called “Freedom Convoy.”

It is so keen, in fact, that TUPOC (as it calls itself) has booked two whole weeks of discussion to take place in August, in something billed as “The Freedom Convoy: A Community Conversation.”

“The last two years have seen great divide within Canada and throughout the world,” states the event notice. “The United People of Canada will be hosting a community conversation at the embassy in Ottawa to provide an opportunity for the community to come together on a mission of truth-seeking and healing.”

The “embassy” is what used to be known as St. Brigid’s Church, with a pending sale for nearly $6 million and in the process of being transformed into a headquarters for TUPOC. According to an article in the Irish Times a few years ago, incidentally, it is also the church Justin Trudeau attended as a child and where he received his confirmation ceremony.

This week, one of the major financial backers of the church intended purchase revealed himself to the Ottawa Citizen: Anthony Tony Cuzzocrea, described as “a 78-year-old investment adviser and financial planner from London, Ont.,” where TUPOC is also based.

Even if the sale is still pending, the doors of the church have already been painted bright red, and banners with the TUPOC logo — a white root-and-branch tree on a red background — hang outside.

What is The United People of Canada? Cuzzocrea told the Citizen his aim is to spread peace, love and understanding and TUPOC’s website is littered with similar lofty, if fuzzy, sentiments.

Frankly, it is much easier to get a clear answer on what TUPOC says it is not. William Komer, one of three registered directors of TUPOC, generously spent nearly an hour on the phone with me this week, making plain that his organization is not a Trojan horse for the “Freedom Convoy,” despite a series of small-world connections to some key figures from those strange few weeks in Ottawa.

“There seems to be an interest in creating an affiliation with the ‘Freedom Convoy’ where that doesn’t exist,” Komer says. “It does not exist. That’s correct. We’ve been quite clear.”

Komer is doing this call with his legal counsel on the line as well — Saron Gebresellassi, who Toronto residents might know as a lawyer, rights activist and one-time candidate for mayor in 2018. She now runs a boutique law firm whose website advertises her as “the people’s lawyer,” which is a neat coincidence, representing as she is an organization also calling itself an advocate for people.

Komer acknowledges that bringing a lawyer to an introductory phone call might seem a little defensive, but tension is still running high in Ottawa five months after a protest paralyzed the downtown and was only dispersed after multiple declarations of emergency by successive governments.

“We have had a lot of hate mail, and people, you know, sending us stuff,” he says. “There was a lot of what I would consider, from my perspective, harassing material online. Again, we have engaged with the police there. We know there were some poultry products that were thrown at the property.”

By that, Komer means that eggs have been tossed at the old church, maybe by random vandals, or maybe by people who don’t quite believe TUPOC is as distant from the convoy protest as it professes to be. Even a cursory glance at Twitter shows many Ottawa residents, especially those near St. Brigid’s, casting a wary, fearful eye on what’s happening at the church.

First, there’s this issue of its connections to Dwayne Lich, husband of the convoy co-organizer Tamara Lich, who was freed again on bail this week in her ongoing legal trouble over February’s occupation of the capital. Those connections between Dwayne Lich and the pending sale of St. Brigid’s were, in fact, mentioned in an Ottawa Citizen article, where Komer said Dwayne was a “supporter” of the organization.

True enough, Dwayne Lich hasn’t been shy about it, posting pictures of the organization’s logo as far back as March and even sporting some of the organization’s branded merchandise in social media posts.

Another TUPOC board member is Kimberly Walker, who put out a news release this week to squelch all of the talk about her being part of the convoy.

Walker said she was a “spiritual adviser” to Dwayne Lich but that’s where her links to the convoy end. “I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be in support of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ protest,” she said.

“Even if I did support the protest, which I did not, what does that personal belief have anything to do with the United People of Canada and its mission to restore and adaptively reuse surplus and underutilized institutional properties into vibrant and inclusive community spaces?”

Plans for the “community conversation” on the convoy are still pretty fluid. No agenda or speakers’ list has yet been distributed, although Komer says he will be fully transparent as the logistics come together. Basically, he appears to be hoping this will be an air-clearing exercise, where participants will get a chance to vent their views for and against the convoy. Not that TUPOC is associated with the convoy — as he mentions several times.

Komer, nonetheless, sounds like he’s in the “for” camp — saying he happened to be in Ottawa at the time, making a documentary, and he didn’t see any of the negative things the media were reporting. At one point in our chat, he muses about the word “siege” and who was really besieged in February — was it the city’s residents or the convoy? At another, he goes off on a tangent about how coins have more than two sides and how the convoy discussion has to be three-dimensional.

As we talk, I realize it’s easy to disavow any direct connection to the convoy, because no one is really sure what that convoy was all about and more importantly, what it is now. It was never a movement with a fixed structure or hierarchy. It was a demonstration. It was a truckers’ blockade. It was a street party. It was a hostile occupation of quiet residential streets. It was Canada Day, turned upside down like the flags on so many of those trucks — a celebration of something vaguely resembling patriotism, but with an ugly underside of insurrection and dark talk of unseating a democratic government.

All of that still lurks in and around Ottawa in particular and politics writ large. The convoy and its vague cause has simmered inside the federal Conservative leadership race, where the front-runner has boldly attached himself to the convoy’s anti-vaccination mandate message and posed for photos with convoy fans and participants. So is the convoy a political party now, too? Or is it simply a marketing brand for fed-up Canadians, complete with its own merchandise, logo and slogans?

Certainly, whether the convoy is a cause or a result, the anti-Trudeau anger seems more virulent now. Just this week, a pub in Charlottetown, P.E.I. was forced to take down social-media photos of a Trudeau visit because of the blowback it received.

“So within a few hours, we had thousands of comments, we were getting hundreds of private messages, we are now getting phone calls to the brewery and all of these comments are extremely negative, vulgar, there is a lot of profanity being used, sexualizing our staff,” Jared Murphy, co-owner of the pub, said in an interview with CBC.

This, unfortunately, has become all too commonplace.

Several weeks ago, Trudeau was on a day trip outside of the capital and popped in at a doughnut shop a half-hour away from the city, in Manotick, Ont. It also happens to be in the riding of Carleton MP Pierre Poilievre, that front-runner in the Conservative leadership race.

Like with anything Trudeau does in this age of post-convoy rage, the pit stop turned into a polarizing event. Angry commenters cursed the prime minister online and rained down abuse at the shop that innocently served Trudeau an ice cream cone.

I took a drive out to the shop a few days later. I’m not naming it here, for fear of unleashing another round of vitriol, but it was an interesting visit. The owner who had posed with Trudeau in the social-media post was nowhere in sight, but the employees talked about how taken aback they were with the abuse in the wake of his visit.

I said I understood; we’d all lived through the convoy. That’s when one of the employees smiled, put her hand on her heart, and said how much she’d loved the convoy, and had even taken her family to participate in the adventure. Isn’t it funny, she said, how a few months later, she, an anti-vaxxer, would find herself beaming at Trudeau as he picked out a cone in the shop.

“There’s two sides to everything,” she said, cheerily packing up six delicious doughnuts for me. I’ve tried to get the owner to talk to me, but my messages have gone unanswered. That’s how deeply the convoy rage and paranoia still roll around this city.

Emphatic as The United People of Canada may be about its distance from the convoy, the questions are still going to be asked, as they were at Tamara Lich’s bail hearing this week.

It is remarkable, in fact, how much the convoy has embedded itself in Canada’s political culture in less than a year. Canadians got a taste — a teaser, if you like — in those protests that dogged Trudeau’s campaign in last summer’s election campaign. Months later, it burst into full-blown blockades in Ottawa and at border crossings.

No fewer than three post-convoy inquiries are underway: the formal commission, headed by Justice Paul Rouleau and due to start hearings later this year; a special parliamentary committee; and an informal “people’s commission” spearheaded by Ottawa residents.

And then there are the two weeks of “community conversation” being hosted at the old St. Brigid’s church. Two weeks seems like a long time. But given how much the convoy continues to haunt Canada’s capital and its politics, maybe it’s not nearly enough.

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