In a debate highlighting underlying legal tension, defense lawyers representing Tamara Lich and Chris Barber, prominent leaders of the “Freedom Convoy” protests, made an attempt on Monday to prohibit eight local Ottawa witnesses from testifying in court. The duo stand trial against criminal charges stemming from their involvement in the protests, an event marked by weeks of blockades along Ottawa’s city streets. The group was demonstrating against public health measures put in place to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lawrence Greenspon, attorney for Tamara Lich, repeated his argument before the court on Monday, claiming, “This is not the trial of the Freedom Convoy.” A sentiment he has continuously stressed throughout the first week of trial, it has now essentially become a mantra for the defense team.
However, the prosecution sees the case differently. As elucidated by Crown attorney Siobhain Wetscher, the trial is ultimately about the acts that transpired during the protest within the city and the roles Lich and Barber had in the event. The Crown is planning on calling five residents of Ottawa to act as witnesses and recount their experiences during the protest. Among them is Zexi Li, who has a class-action lawsuit filed against the protest organizers representing downtown Ottawa residents.
The prospective testimonies from these witnesses may cover the blockaded roads, endless honking of horns, idling truck engines, the suffocating stench of exhaust, indecency in public areas, and the crippling inability to leave home.
Additional testimonies that the Crown is expected to elicit include those from a women’s boutique owner, National Arts Centre employees, and public transit operators. They had initially planned to call a Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel employee, but have since dropped this plan.
Lich and Barber have admitted that the protestors’ actions disrupted public transit and lawful enjoyment and usage of properties and businesses. Greenspon asserts that these admissions render the testimonies of the nine witnesses unnecessary, as they are legally irrelevant.
He argues that the witnesses did not have a direct connection with Lich or Barber, who have denied playing any part in causing the disruptions. However, Siobhain Wetscher contests this, implying that Greenspon’s denial of the protest’s unpleasant nature doesn’t fully justify barring the testimonies from those directly affected by the event, which Crown claims was far from peaceful.
The Crown hopes to clearly exhibit how the protestors caused disruptions, incited fear, and put up obstructions when thousands of heavy-duty trucks descended upon the city in early 2022, in what was termed as a “siege” and an “illegal occupation” by Ottawa’s then-mayor.
Justice Heather Perkins-McVey clarified that whether the protest was peaceful or not won’t have an impact on the charges Lich and Barber face. Instead, it may act as an exacerbating element. Both organizers have been accused of mischief, inciting others to the same, intimidation, and hindrance of the police.
Moreover, Barber is facing an additional charge of inciting others to violate a court order that prohibited the use of horns during the protests, a decision made in response to Li’s lawsuit. Wetscher maintains that the Crown is well within its right to present evidence showing a correlation between Lich and Barber’s actions and words and the experiences of downtown Ottawa residents and workers.
Despite the testimonies likely to come, they will be limited in scope, focussing specifically on the act of the protest and not the personal impact it had on the lives of those testifying. Perkins-McVey, however, warned Wetscher of potential difficulties pinning the observations of Ottawa locals directly onto Lich and Barber due to the fragmented nature of the protests and varying motives among the protestors themselves, casting doubts about the weight the evidence might hold.