Chris Barber, a Saskatchewan owner-operator who played a central role in organizing this year’s Freedom Convoy, appeared before the Public Order Emergency Commission on Tuesday, describing a grassroots protest beset by internal power struggles once it reached Ottawa.
It marked the 14th day of mandatory hearings into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act, which was used to freeze protester bank accounts and empower police to clear Ottawa streets after a standoff that lasted close to three weeks.
The self-described “internet troll” said he initially expressed anger with public health mandates through his social media accounts and was ultimately pushed to action when Canada announced that cross-border truck drivers would have to be vaccinated. But he is personally vaccinated.
Canada began to enforce its mandate Jan. 15, while corresponding U.S. rules were introduced Jan. 22. The Canadian rules have since been lifted, but the U.S. mandate remains in place.
“I trucked through the whole pandemic. I never stopped,” Barber said of the early days of Covid-19. Two weeks into the pandemic, he wondered if it was even worth it. “The restaurants were closed. Gas stations were closed. Bathrooms were closed. It was really tricky.”
But his focus shifted to another sort of action after connecting through TikTok with Brigitte Belton, an Ontario truck driver who first streamed her frustration about mask mandates when blocked at the Ambassador Bridge.
Birth of the convoy
Barber said she posed the idea of a slow-rolling convoy. And when he connected with Tamara Lich in mid January, Lich described work with the United we Roll convoy to Ottawa in 2019. When Pat King joined the cause, Canada Unity already had an identified route and planned stops outlined. Then several organizers participated in a Facebook Live meeting to discuss the convoy on Jan. 13.
“Everything just literally fell right into place,” Barber said, noting how the wheels began to roll weeks after organizers met.
Once the convoy began to travel through Western Canada, he was at the wheel of the lead truck, and was moved by the number of supporters, which he said included 500 to 2,500 vehicles at a time.
“Looking in the mirrors, it was incredible to see the lights behind you,” he said.
“Kids wanted to be truck drivers again, and I haven’t seen that since I was a child.”
Barber said the initial plan was for the convoys to converge at Major Hill Park and Confederate Park rather than downtown streets, but they were led down Sir John A. MacDonald Parkway by police and found other supporters parked on streets when they arrived.
“Parking all over the city was never why we came,” he said, noting police did the best they could.
“I don’t know how things went so wrong when we first arrived.”
Once the protests were established, though, Barber said different groups including Canada Unity and Taking Back our Freedoms became involved in a “power struggle”. But he insisted that convoy participants remained peaceful, and that he didn’t agree with a Memorandum of Understanding that called for the federal government to be overthrown.
“You put 200 truck drivers in a room and somebody’s going to get a black eye and a broken nose,” he said. “There was none of that … They were extremely well behaved. They listened to the rules of the road.”
Barber also said he did everything he could to get protesters to silence their horns in Ottawa, but the commission was then shown a video in which he was openly laughing about the sounds.
Confronted with his past racist social media posts, as well as a Confederate flag that he displayed, Barber admitted he had been wrong.
“I was a different person nine months ago,” he said. “It changed me.”
Hearings of the Public Order Emergency Commission continue.
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