In theory, we’re all supposed to be treated equally under the law. But as we just saw with the behaviour of the truck convoy protesters and the Ottawa police’s response to them, it’s a much different story in practice.
After all, while these protesters can apparently break all manner of laws with impunity — from parking illegally and violating noise bylaws to harassing people and vandalizing property — that same courtesy isn’t always extended to people protesting different causes.
You might think after the protesters shut down the capital for the weekend, forcing some businesses to close and many residents to shelter in place, the local authorities would take a harder line with them. But after the organizers — and I use that term loosely — announced their intention to remain in the city and continue disrupting traffic, the Ottawa police effectively waved a giant white flag.
“We urge all residents to avoid travel to the core,” they tweeted. “Police have avoided ticketing and towing vehicles so as not to instigate confrontations with demonstrators.”
They’ve yet to do much of anything about an alleged assault against a homeless person at the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter and apparently decided not to pursue an incident that involved a local service industry employee.
As Ottawa lawyer Paul Champ tweeted, “My 16-yr-old works at Tim Hortons at Bank and Cooper. When he told a patron he must wear a mask to be served, the guy threatened to stab him (but didn’t brandish weapon). Supervisor called police and guy fled. OPS said they wouldn’t follow up on complaint bc assailant was gone.”
It’s not clear whether the Ottawa police are taking this ultra-permissive approach because they sympathize with the protesters or they’re just scared of them. The images and videos circulating of police being chummy with protesters, including one where an officer gives the thumbs up and says, “The truckers have been getting their point across … they can’t ignore all of this,” certainly suggest some degree of bias.
Their stance towards the protesters was so obviously one-sided that it even attracted the mockery of The Beaverton, which tweeted: “Ottawa Police declare protest peaceful so long as public avoids it for their own safety.”
Ottawa’s police are hardly the only law enforcement agency that’s taking a conspicuously conciliatory approach towards this particular group of people. In Coutts, Alta., a convoy of truckers blockaded a major border crossing — ironically, preventing the very flow of goods that many conservative politicians said the federal vaccine mandate would negatively impact. And what did the RCMP do? Nothing. As of Monday night, police had reportedly "negotiated" with organizers to let some people stranded by the blockade leave the border crossing.
Opinion: #Ottawa police waved a "giant white flag" when confronted with white protesters, a marked departure from how police usually treat other racialized protest groups, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #cdnpoli #policing #racialjustice
“Extensive efforts have been taken to engage with all stakeholders in the hopes that a peaceful resolution can be reached,” it tweeted.
One can only assume the response would be different if it wasn’t a group of mostly white truckers doing the obstructing. Up at Fairy Creek, for example, the RCMP took a decidedly different approach to protesters, who included a mix of Indigenous land defenders and mostly white settlers, blockading a road last summer. According to the police version of events, “There was pushing and shoving and OC (pepper) spray was deployed when the crowd failed to comply with police directions and became aggressive.”
But according to a spokesperson for one of the protest groups, “There was no aggression … it was the RCMP who decided to attack and to attempt to take out protesters one by one, dragging them on the ground, cutting off their backpacks, you know, leaning on them full body so that they couldn’t move.”
Meanwhile, a 2019 Guardian story revealed the RCMP was apparently prepared to use lethal force to clear the Indigenous-led blockade of a natural gas pipeline project on Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia. “Use as much violence toward the gate as you want,” the RCMP commanders instructed their officers at the time.
The police response in Calgary to ongoing anti-vaccine protests offers another window into the disparity in how police forces treat different communities. Some officers have hugged anti-vaccine protesters and made videos in support of their cause, and certainly haven’t done much to disrupt or discourage their protests, which have cost local taxpayers an estimated $2 million already.
That same police force seemed more than happy to dismantle a homeless tent camp near the city’s drop-in centre, one that wasn’t far from where the anti-vaccine protests routinely take place.
There’s nothing wrong with police taking a less confrontational approach to their jobs and trying to de-escalate any potential conflicts. If anything, we need more of that. But when that approach is applied unevenly or unequally, it undermines trust and damages credibility — especially if it reinforces existing concerns about a bias among the police against certain communities.
As Lord Hewart, the former chief justice of England, said in a landmark 1924 case: “Justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done.”
It’s time for Canadians to see that scofflaw anti-vaccine protesters are held to the same standard as everyone else, and that our rights and freedoms aren’t being infringed upon by theirs. It’s time for police to send a message that they won’t treat people differently on the basis of how they look or what they’re saying.