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'Messing the city up': Crown lays out 'Freedom Convoy' conspiracy argument

OTTAWA — The blockades and "occupation" of downtown Ottawa streets early last year were part of a conspiracy among "Freedom Convoy" organizers to gridlock the capital in protest against COVID-19 public-health measures, Crown prosecutors are alleging.
The Crown is expected to lay out its case for why evidence against one "Freedom Convoy" organizer should apply to another in the criminal trial of two of the protest's leaders. Tamara Lich and Chris Barber are co-accused for their role in the 2022 protest that blocked streets around Parliament Hill for weeks to oppose COVID-19 public health restrictions. Lich arrives to the Ottawa Courthouse in Ottawa on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — The blockades and "occupation" of downtown Ottawa streets early last year were part of a conspiracy among "Freedom Convoy" organizers to gridlock the capital in protest against COVID-19 public-health measures, Crown prosecutors are alleging.

The Crown argued Thursday in the criminal trial of Tamara Lich and Chris Barber that the conspiracy started on Jan. 29, 2022, when the two of them led a convoy of protesters into Ottawa.

That co-ordinated effort led to massive and disruptive demonstrations that lasted more than three weeks, prosecutors said.

Lich and Barber are accused of mischief, intimidation and several other charges related to counselling others to break the law. 

Prosecutors argue that Lich and Barber worked so closely together that evidence against one should apply to both.

Their common purpose was to pressure the government to end COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which both Lich and Barber publicly stated several times throughout the protest. 

They blocked streets and obstructed property to do that, Crown counsel Tim Radcliffe said.

The defence has asked the judge to dismiss the conspiracy allegation on the basis that the demonstration wasn't violent and that planning a protest isn't an illegal act.

But the Crown is looking to keep the conspiracy allegation in play until the end of the trial. 

On Thursday, Radcliffe pointed to several text messages Barber sent on the first day of the arrival of thousands of protesters, many of whom parked big rig trucks and other vehicles on the streets near Parliament Hill. 

"We are completely messing the city up," he wrote in one of the texts on the first day.

In a reply to another person's message the next day about gridlocking the city, Barber said: "It's already locked. We trainwrecked it."

Lich and Barber were not simply members of the crowd, Radcliffe argued.

"These two individuals, Ms. Lich and Mr. Barber, they're not ordinary protesters. They’re not ordinary members of the occupation. They are leaders of it," he said. 

Lich was repeatedly identified as the president of the corporation set up on behalf of the protest organizers. Barber was also publicly introduced on social media and at press conferences as a leader and one of the original organizers of the protest. 

Ottawa's mayor at the time, Jim Watson, also recognized Lich as the protest's president as part of a deal he struck with Lich, Barber and others to move trucks out of residential neighbourhoods. 

The court has heard that Barber was able to facilitate the movement of several trucks onto Wellington Street or out of Ottawa as a result of the deal.

The Crown intends to prove that both had influence over the crowd, and were working together toward the same ends. 

In the first few days of the protest, Lich texted Barber to let him know she had a call with the protest "command centre."

"They have a strategy to gridlock the city. I don't want to make those decisions on my own," she told Barber in the text on Jan. 30, 2022.

"OK," Barber responded. "I'll get dressed."

At a press conference days later, Lich laid out the group's demands for the federal government to abolish COVID-19 vaccine mandates. 

"Our departure will be based on the prime minister doing what is right," Lich said on Feb. 3, 2022.

The Crown is conceding that police directed many of the trucks to park on Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill when they first rolled into Ottawa.

But Radcliffe said the two organizers were also well aware that the group was under heavy scrutiny by police, who signalled after the first weekend of the protest that demonstrators had worn out their welcome. 

Messaging from police escalated over the course of the following weeks, Radcliffe said, and officers began warning protesters that they could be arrested if they didn't leave. 

"They stayed when they were unwelcome. They continued to do what the police said was unlawful," Radcliffe said. 

"Just because police say it was unlawful doesn't make it so," presiding Ontario Court Justice Heather Perkins-McVey said in response. 

Radcliffe played a 12-minute compilation video of police recordings from the protest that demonstrate the enormity of the demonstration that played out over weeks in Ottawa. 

"All of this, it doesn't happen by accident," he said, as images of blocked streets played across a large TV monitor in the courtroom. 

Lich and Barber's defence lawyers will have an opportunity to respond to the Crown's arguments. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2023.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press