A Tale of Two Demonstrations

On Sunday, nearly 1000 cars, vans, trucks and a few big rigs gathered in the huge parking lot at Pier 23 in south end Halifax. Possibly more than a few drivers got out of their vehicles to talk to other drivers. Given their anti-mask message, probably few if any of the drivers wore masks. There was a festive mood because the drivers were there to support the tens of thousands of demonstrators in at least six cities across the country, against federal and provincial Covid vaccine mandates. The demonstrators were also there to celebrate the one week shutdown of central Ottawa by their confreres.

The Halifax police knew and were very likely present, when cars assembled, and exited the Pier 23 lot after 1 pm. The Halifax Freedom Convoy snaked and honked its way through downtown streets to the north end.

Counter-demonstrators on foot near the Emera building on Lower Water Street carried homemade signs such as No Vax Pass, and Halifax Supports Vaccine Mandates . One clever sign displayed hearts and the words Looking for a Man Date. After only three minutes of blocking the road, police told 40 counter-demonstrators to get out of the way, so the convoy could get through.

Counter demonstrators hold up signs in Halifax, Sunday Feb. 6 (credit Nicole Munro, Chronicle Herald)

The convoy clogged Robie Street, near the CTV studios, despite Friday’s directive by the NS government which banned traffic blockades or disruptions throughout the province. No one was fined or arrested.

Free Palestine Covid-Safe Car Rally, May 2021

Compare this demonstration with one held nearly nine months ago in Halifax. On May 15, 2021 about 200 cars gathered in the parking lot at Saint Mary’s University for a Free Palestine COVID Safe Car Rally. Police gave out tickets of up to $2,000 to a handful of participants – drivers with their families — for allegedly breaking Covid health restrictions; tickets were also issued because the horn honking contravened a noise bylaw. Plus at least one man was handcuffed, and arrested suffering humiliation, injury to his self-worth, and a profound violation to his personal freedom.

Days before the event, organisers had called the police to clear the car rally with them. The police told them as long as they observed Covid regulations (that is, being masked and staying two metres apart), there was no problem.

Children of family in the Free Palestine Covid-Safe Car Rally, May2021. Boys are in dress shirts and the girl is wearing a Palestinian dress.

But there was a problem. The day before the car rally, a NS Supreme Court judge issued an injunction against anti-maskers who were planning to demonstrate on Citadel Hill on Saturday—without masks. The injunction was clearly directed only toward Freedom NS — the anti-mask group.

But why let a good injunction go to waste? Halifax’s police chief Dan Kinsella decided to extend the injunction against those at the car rally – who were there to protest the continued Israeli bombing of Gaza. More than 213 people, including 61 children, had been killed by Israeli airstrikes that very week. The car rally for Gaza was effectively broken up by the police.

Cara Zwibel, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s director of fundamental freedoms said,

“We’re concerned about the breadth of the injunction. … It really basically appears to prohibit all protest activity by anyone throughout the province until the state of emergency is over, which we don’t know whether it will be weeks or months… until that happens.”

1000 vehicles in local convoy get green light from Halifax police

But also to the point is the fact that probably 90% of the Freedom Convoy drivers were white. And at least 90% of the drivers and their families in the cavalcade were of middle-eastern descent. There were more than 1000 cars and their drivers and passengers, versus the May rally that was 80% smaller.

Race is playing a big role in the current car and rig convoys across Canada. Despite the fact that 20% of truckers in Canada are south-Asian, they are barely represented in the Freedom Convoy. There have been complaints to Ottawa police about racial slurs, taunts, and even assaults by the mainly white male protesters. Leaders of the Freedom Convoy have identified with white nationalists and are Islamophobic. Patrick King, one of the men behind the Convoy stated that men with first names “Ahmed” and “Mahmoud” are trying to “not only infiltrate by flooding with refugees, we’re going to infiltrate the education systems to manipulate it so there is less procreation which leads to less white people — or you know, Anglo-Saxon. Let’s say Anglo-Saxon, because when I say white, all the ANTIFA guys call up the race card.”

Back in Halifax, police gave a free pass to the Freedom Convoy. But they did nothing of the sort to the Free Palestine Covid-Safe Car Rally last spring. Do the police overly identify with the participants in the Freedom Convoy? The answer is likely yes. The Halifax police have a history of racial profiling, including in the Kirk Johnson case, and the recent Gyasi Symonds case. Both men took their complaints of police racism to the NS Human Rights Commission and won. Dr Scot Wortley’s report showed that Black people are stopped six times more often than white people in street checks by the police.

A month ago, a major report by academic and activist El Jones and members of the Board of the Police Commissioners’ Subcommittee to Define Defunding Police has put forward a report that questions how policing is done, and makes 36 recommendations which could lead to defunding some roles the police now take. The report lays out

“…a suite of reforms drawn from public consultation. In this way, our recommendations are designed to bring about a wholesale shift away from a reactive, enforcement-based model and towards a proactive, supportive model of community safety.”

El Jones and Subcommittee to Define Defunding the Police

But a couple of weeks later, the police chief asked for an additional $2 million from Halifax Regional Council to provide for another 26 sworn officers and 10 civilian employees. The Police Commission has already given it a green light. Councillor Becky Kent, who voted for the increase, said Halifax will still need a “healthy police department.”

The situation in Ottawa shows the police are out of their depth in figuring out how to control and to disperse a hostile, white male crowd.

But they sure know how to handle people of colour!

Featured Image: Convoy in Bedford Basin, by Arthur Lismer (Canadian). Painted in 1919, it is on display at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. To read more about the painting, and Lismer as a war artist read this (commons.wikimedia.org)

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