Whoa, Canada: Police criminalize food, fuel donations to Freedom Convoy protest

Judge issues 10-day injunction against honking following government worker's lawsuit seeking nearly $10 million from protest leaders and participants.

Updated: February 9, 2022 - 6:44pm

Canadian authorities are threatening to bring criminal charges against those who bring food and fuel to so-called Freedom Convoy truckers protesting the nation's COVID-19 policies, which are generally harsher than in the U.S., by demonstrating with their trucks in downtown Ottawa, the capital.

The effort is reminiscent of U.S. prosecutors going after an Arizona man who left water across the desert for illegal border crossers and Texas banning a Catholic ministry from transporting migrants to help them find long-term shelter, food and water.

An Ottawa government worker accomplished even more, even faster, as lead plaintiff in a $9.8 million lawsuit seeking class-action status against Freedom Convoy leaders and participants.

Zexi Li claimed that quiet periods are "almost as unbearable" as the trucks' honking because of her "anxious anticipation" of the honking returning. She convinced a judge Monday — three days after filing suit — to grant a 10-day injunction.

The Ontario Superior Court banned private use of "air horns or train horns" above Highway 417 in Ottawa, and gave police authority to "arrest and remove" anyone who knowingly violates the order. Named defendants are also ordered to share the order on their social media channels.

Ottawa City Councillor Catherine McKenney went so far as personally warning protesters on the street they could be sued if they didn't leave the next morning and sign a legal waiver she gave them. Li's lawyer Paul Champ also warned protesters they need legal representation.

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A public interest law firm representing "key leaders and organizers" in court and collecting affidavits from supporters is accusing the government of violating the Charter rights of demonstrators by arresting and ticketing them for peaceful demonstrations. 

In a clip made available by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said Jan. 31 that "no injuries, no deaths, no riots" had occurred in the first four days of demonstrations, "despite the fact that we have a global cause, national protest, tens of thousands of individuals from a wide variety of causes" protesting round the clock.

The police changed their tune the following weekend, warning that anyone bringing "material supports (gas, etc.)" to demonstrators could be arrested. 

"We are going to be interdicting anything that is supporting and enabling the ongoing demonstrations and occupations and unlawful behavior in the city," including fuel supplies and "any other supports," Sloly told 580 CFRA Monday.

Police arrested seven individuals overnight, issued 500 tickets and seized "large amounts of propane," the chief said. CTV News reported the arrests were for providing material goods.

While police dismantled a protest "encampment" through "peaceful negotiation," they were prepared to "forcefully" shut it down, Sloly told the radio show.

Claiming that targeted road closures reduced trucks and demonstrators in the city Sunday by 50%, he said: "Don't come to protest. If you do, do it lawfully." Sloly referred to his force's "surge and contain strategy" and mentioned unspecified "criminal code offenses."

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No fuel to keep warm

The Ottawa Police Service did not publicly specify the legal basis for arrests until a Feb. 9 "message to demonstrators," a day after Just the News asked for specific code provisions.

Police at first simply referred to its Tuesday update on demonstration information, which said 23 arrests have been made for "Mischief (Transportation of Gas)," resisting and flight from police, drug possession, disqualified driving, breach of probation and "Menacing," without corresponding code provisions.

Issued tickets now number 1,300 for violations including excessive noise, "Cellphone" and not wearing seatbelts. "A Public Order Unit was swarmed by demonstrators after officers came to the assistance of an officer seizing material meant to support demonstrators," it said.

The police have 85 ongoing criminal investigations and investigators estimate a quarter of "heavy vehicles" are housing families with children. "We are consulting with Children’s Aid Society to ensure the safety of these children remains a top priority," the Tuesday update says.

An undated clip from JCCF, however, shows an unidentified officer explaining why he's seizing fuel from demonstrators as "evidence."

"What's happening downtown is deemed to be mischief," and "the fuel is contributing" to that violation, the officer said, referring to Section 430(1)(c) of the Criminal Code. The provision criminalizes willful obstruction, interruption or interference "with the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property." 

The Feb. 9 police notice for the first time says demonstrators are committing "mischief to property" through the "unlawful act of blocking streets in the downtown core," which is denying others "the lawful use, enjoyment and operation of their property."

It warned demonstrators they could be arrested without warrants for simply "assisting others" and their vehicles seized, and they should consult "Part XVI of the Criminal Code" about bail factors. "Charges or convictions" could prevent them from crossing the U.S. border.

"The Ottawa police seem to be rebranding the exercise of the Charter freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly" as a crime, JCCF counsel Nicholas Wansbutter said in a Tuesday release, calling the seizures illegal and a violation of due process.

Police are actively endangering the "personal safety of the peaceful protesters" by preventing them from staying warm in their vehicles in Canada's severe winter, Litigation Director Jay Cameron said. 

The civil liberties group also went to Quebec City to provide free legal aid to demonstrators over the weekend. It said police banned a private parking lot owner from allowing demonstrators to set up portable toilets and canteens.

JCCF is not aware of any arrests for "providing material aid per se," staff attorney Hatim Kheir wrote in an email. "Two people have been arrested that may have been bringing gas but they were charged with obstruction because they refused to provide their ID."

It had complained earlier that CCTV cameras around the Ottawa protest had gone offline for a few days, leaving demonstrators with no objective evidence of their peaceful protests. Kheir said those cameras as of Tuesday "appear to be functioning."

The demonstrations are causing cross-border headaches for crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, which prompted investigation threats by Florida, Texas, West Virginia and Louisiana for blocking the main Freedom Convoy fundraiser from accessing $9 million in donations. 

GoFundMe had no qualms about fundraisers for Seattle's lawless Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, but then shut down and blocked fundraisers for Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, only rescinding the ban after his acquittal

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GoFundMe claimed Feb. 4 that the Freedom Convoy fundraiser was violating its terms of service because the demonstrations had "become an occupation, with police reports of violence and other unlawful activity." 

It would work with organizers "to send all remaining funds to credible and established charities" chosen by the Freedom Convoy, subject to GoFundMe approval, and pointed donors to a page where they could request refunds.

Citing "donor feedback" rather than threatened investigations, the platform reversed itself the next day, saying it will automatically refund donors.

The new Freedom Convoy campaign on Christian crowdfunding platform GiveSendGo, which claimed Feb. 5 it was under "heavy [distributed denial of service] and bot attacks," is approaching $7 million in just four days. Alternative social media network Clouthub is also steering donors to the campaign.

Another group has raised more than $500,000 in Bitcoin donations for the truckers as of Tuesday afternoon, while a D.C.-focused Freedom Convoy fundraiser is well under $100,000.

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