OTTAWA – “The world was watching us,” and "we had the legal right to a peaceful protest," a Saskatchewan trucker who headed the Freedom Convoy testified at the inquiry Tuesday.
Chris Barber, who has owned and operated the independent trucking company CB Trucking based in Swift Current, took the stand on day 14 of the Public Order Emergency Commission.
“We were told by the lawyers on a daily basis that we were a legitimate protest, we were allowed to be there, we were doing the right things. And the last thing I wanted to do was wreck that for the people that we were trying to represent and there was a ton of support all across the country, all over the world, really."
Barber spearheaded the Freedom Convoy with fellow Ontario trucker Brigitte Belton to protest the federal government’s cross-border vaccine mandate that came into effect Jan. 15, and meant that unvaccinated truckers would no longer be allowed to cross the border. He said Belton and other independent truckers were going to lose their livelihood because of the vaccine mandate.
“That was the last straw,” Barber – who is vaccinated – told the inquiry.
“The federal overreach had gone too far. It was very frustrating.
“People’s parents were dying in hospital beds alone, there were mental health issues. My 16-year-old unvaccinated daughter was bullied at school. She had to play her clarinet in a separate room.”
Barber – who was never politically active previously - said the industry wasn’t losing drivers prior to the federal government’s COVID-19 restrictions. He said they forced 35 to 40 per cent of Canadian truckers off the road, not the 10 per cent that the government claimed.
“Freight was backed up on both sides of the border.”
Barber said all that he and the truckers wanted was for the federal government to listen to them.
“I primarily wanted the government to listen to our concerns.”
During the vaccine restrictions in Canada, truckers weren’t able to go into restaurants to eat or use their facilities.
“We were not allowed to enter restrooms. I had to eat in my truck. Bathrooms were closed. It was really tricky.”
Barber said there weren’t any specific leaders and the movement spread and grew on social media with hundreds of thousands following the organizers.
Tamara Lich, who is involved in the grassroots Alberta movement to separate from Canada, didn’t promote any political agenda, said Barber, adding that he would have fought that.
“Tamara Lich called me on my cell before Jan. 10 and said she had experience with convoys and was part of the 2019 United We Roll tour that saw truckers from Alberta protest in Ottawa, said Barber.
Barber led the approximate 2,500 vehicles in the West convoy into Ottawa, which started in British Columbia, he testified.
Thousands of people stood along highways and overpasses to get a glimpse of the convoy headed to Ottawa.
“People stood in -30 degrees just to get a chance to see us come through.
“It [convoy] was 25 kilometres long. There were a lot of tears and emotions from the overwhelming support.”
Barber told the inquiry that the truckers had a code of conduct and ethics that all participating in the convoy were expected to follow.
“Safety was our number one priority.”
The truckers had road captains from each province and organizers were in daily contact with police.
“Law enforcement is to be respected,” was the message to participants, said Barber.
He said the truckers wanted the mandates removed, had public support, and didn’t want another Jan. 6, U.S. event.
“We had the public support,” said Barber, and if protesters “acted like [expletive]” they would lose that support.
Overwhelming support for truckers
The RCMP told the convoy that there were too many people wanting to see the convoy in Winnipeg and it would be unsafe for the truckers to go into Winnipeg so they continued east.
“In Winnipeg the Hutterites came with a food trailer. The RCMP said the number of people there was too great and we couldn’t go in. The Hutterite trailer followed us to Canora and fed us. It was cold.”
The Ontario Provincial Police Service led the West convoy east into Ontario.
“Marty met us at the scales at the border of Manitoba and Ontario,” said Barber.
Arriving in Ottawa
When the West convoy led by Barber arrived in Ottawa, truckers who arrived early had already taken up the staging area where they were to park.
They were all semi-truck operators “from my home province,” said Barber.
He ended up parking on Wellington.
“We were never asked to move by police,” testified Barber.
He admitted that the horn honking was annoying and said he did try to get the truckers to stop honking their horns.
“It was loud but it was peaceful.
“It was all peace, love, and unity; after two years of lockdowns people got to live again. There were a lot of tears, hugs, and laughter. It changed me. It humbled me."
Barber testified that Ottawa residents came down saying they had to see it for themselves because the media wasn’t portraying the Freedom Convoy properly.
He said businesses in downtown Ottawa told him that they hadn’t made as much profit in the last two years as they did the three weeks that the protesters were in Ottawa. He added that truckers were mopping floors at Tim Horton’s because staff was too busy.
Barber was arrested at the protest in downtown Ottawa in February. His personal and corporate bank accounts were frozen. He testified that a Saskatchewan businessman stepped up and helped some of the truckers financially.
After Barber and Belton started the convoy through social media platforms, many groups and individuals wanted to participate and help.
“A whole bunch of us came together as a group,” he added. “It was perfect timing.”
Barber admitted that there was a power struggle between some groups who joined the movement.
Pat King had a large social media following and helped promote the convoy. Barber said that King was asked not to continue to Ottawa after organizers learned that he had previously posted on social media suggesting the prime minister was going to “catch a bullet.”
Barber said he talked to King who told him that the media had twisted the facts and King had actually made that reference when talking about an Indigenous protest. Barber said he took King at his word.
Another concern was the involvement of James Bauder and Canada Unity which had a memorandum of understanding that wanted the Governor General and Senate to force Trudeau and provincial governments to end all COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions.
Barber said he didn’t read the MOU and didn’t pay attention to its contents.
Saskatchewan has standing at inquiry
The Saskatchewan Government has standing at the inquiry into the Liberal Government’s use of the Emergencies Act.
Lawyer Mike Morris, who represents the province, gave opening remarks at the EMA in Ottawa on Oct. 13. He said that the Saskatchewan Government was concerned that resident’s rights may have been unnecessarily infringed by the feds invoking the Emergencies Act.
Morris testified that the Trudeau government didn’t discuss with Saskatchewan if the Emergencies Act should be invoked.
“The call was not so much about consulting as it was about telling.”
On Feb. 14, to stop the trucker and freedom convoy protests, the Liberal government declared a public order emergency under the Emergencies Act. This was the first time in Canada’s history that the Emergencies Act had been invoked.
Ontario Justice Paul S. Rouleau is presiding over the inquiry, which is expected to wrap up on Nov. 25. Justice Rouleau’s final report with findings and recommendations must be tabled in the House of Commons and Senate of Canada by Feb. 20, 2023.
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