For the better part of the last two weeks, a short phrase has lingered in the throats — or more accurately, at the fingertips — of people who live in Ottawa.

“We’re on our own.”

Since the start of a now weeks-long occupation by people protesting COVID-19 mandates and the Trudeau government, those exact words have been tapped out more than 40 times in Twitter posts from residents of Canada’s capital.

“We’re on our own” isn’t a call to action. It does not appear to be shared to bring people or ideas or solutions together.

It is about as far away as “we” could get from “we’re all in this together” — the prevailing, if inaccurate, political and public message of the pandemic’s earliest days.

The sentiment “we’re on our own” seems to have emerged quietly as residents saw hate symbols on display, Ottawa’s core taken over, people put at risk, a provincial state of emergency and city police describing themselves as overwhelmed.

At best, the phrase reads as recognition things are not as some expected them to be. A criticism that systems in place to ensure “our” safety failed. A surprise to those privileged to see a state’s structures as in place to keep them safe.

At worst, it reads as resignation.

“So basically, we’re on our own,” one person wrote as they shared an Ottawa Police statement on Jan. 30 that “due to safety concerns, management of the protest and traffic must take precedence” over “complaints relating to parking, idling, noise making and other inappropriate behaviour.”

Opinion: During this pandemic, the phrase “We’re on our own” is not a sentiment that immediately mobilizes solidarity, putting it in stark contrast to the message, “We’re all in this together,” writes @taudette. #emergencies #cdnpoli #onpoli

That sentiment appeared again and again in the days following.

After Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson described officers being outnumbered and swarmed, and said the police chief had to assess how or whether interventions might “throw gas on a fire.”

After a CTV reporter posted photos of a structure being built and fuel gathered by protesters in the core on Feb. 3. After the city’s police board asked for more help from the provincial and federal governments during a special weekend meeting on Feb. 5. After a provincial state of emergency was declared on Feb. 11 and little seemed to change.

As a researcher and journalist, I look at how people use social media to tell stories, connect and issue calls to action around common causes. Hashtags such as #cdnpoli (used to curate news related to Canadian politics) can channel information and make shared messages findable. In social movement or advocacy contexts, hashtags can build or renew connections.

Living in Ottawa, I first saw “we’re on our own” as an anti-hashtag, appearing randomly in my social media news feed, absent a pound symbol (#), not a point of connection or discussion.

I wanted to understand what such a sentiment, expressed publicly and seemingly without co-ordination, does. I used Twitter’s search tools and an Excel spreadsheet to find and gather 42 tweets that were posted between Jan. 30 and Feb. 13 including the phrase “we’re on our own,” and written by people who appear to live in Ottawa based on their profiles or the topics they discussed.

Since Jan. 30, “we’re on our own” was sometimes accompanied by hashtagged calls to defund the police or elect a new provincial government in Ontario, and sometimes put to the attention of decision-makers or city police.

But by itself, “we’re on our own” is not a rallying cry. It is an observation, a response, a criticism in a city where most have had enough. (A recent Abacus Data and spark*advocacy online survey of 500 Ottawa residents done between Feb. 4 and Feb. 7 found 67 per cent of respondents opposed or strongly opposed the protest, and “even four in 10 of those who support the convoy say it’s time for them to leave the city.”)

“We’re on our own” is not a sentiment that immediately mobilizes solidarity, putting it in stark contrast to the message, “We’re all in this together.”

Considering deeply uneven access to health care, housing, guaranteed income and child care, and different guidelines and advice between provincial and territorial jurisdictions, the notion we’ve all been living through and battling the pandemic together has been a troubled one from the start.

But two years ago, there was something aspirational in the collective ideal of being in “this” together. Something hopeful about imagining and making changes — even drastic ones — to centre each other’s health and well-being.

In March 2020, Canada’s National Observer contributor Courtney Howard suggested this could be a time for a “generational pivot,” for meeting the challenges of COVID-19 “with courage and unity” and “surg(ing) into a post-pandemic world” with renewed commitment to health and climate resilience.

If we could depend on each other to “flatten the curve,” to ensure hospitals weren’t overwhelmed and the lives of those most at risk were valued, what else could we do?

In hindsight, “we’re all in this together” hinged on mutual trust. Trust that collectively staying home and reorganizing “our” lives could meet shared goals. Belief that governments cared about “our” safety.

“We’re on our own” seems a wary expression of loss, even as trucks began to move out of residential areas and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergency Measures Act Monday to “end the ongoing illegal blockades and occupations across the country.”

Can such wariness be productive? Can it activate or empower people to place their trust elsewhere, or do something?

There are people in Ottawa who have taken it upon themselves to engage with, try to persuade, and sometimes confront the protesters. On Sunday hundreds of residents blocked would-be protesters from joining the convoy. City councillors have met constituents and responded to their fears. Rolling Stone reported on activists working to introduce chaos to protesters’ online organization, including by interrupting communications channels with a “porno-metal song about gay cowboys.” More than 13,000 people donated to an Ottawa homeless shelter after people there were harassed and a client and security guard assaulted.

Last week, 21-year-old Zexi Li’s lawsuit quieted the blaring horns of protesters in downtown Ottawa. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, she said, “I decided I’m going to channel all this hopeless, disappointing and sad energy into actually making a difference and standing up for what I believe in.”

Resigned criticism may not work — or be intended to work — as a demand or call to action. But through acknowledging “we’re on our own,” can people find new opportunities for solidarity and community-building?

What should political leaders make of this sentiment?

This year, Ottawa residents will cast ballots twice, first in June to elect provincial representatives to Queen’s Park, and then in October for a new mayor and city council. How will potential candidates go about bringing together and winning over the deeply disappointed?

Trish Audette-Longo is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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Yes, the phrase "We're on our own" says so much. I empathize deeply with the people of Ottawa and what they have had to endure the last 2-3 weeks. It is not right. There has been a huge failure in policing. In hindsight, the big semi-trucks should never have been allowed to enter the downtown core- and certainly not allowed on Wellington in front of the Parliament Buildings.

There is something seriously wrong in our democracy when a small aggressive minority can infringe on the rights and safety of the majority of people in such a significant way. Shame on the conservative politicians who are enabling them.

There was an excellent interview with Wally Oppal, former attorney-general of BC, on CBC yesterday. He noted that our individual freedoms are limited in the case of national and public interest.

I'm so tired of the way the concept of freedom has been distorted by these protesters. Shame on them!

"In hindsight, the big semi-trucks should never have been allowed to enter the downtown core- and certainly not allowed on Wellington in front of the Parliament Buildings."

I completely agree. Oklahoma City 1995 crosses my mind every time I see the news showing rigs on Wellington, not 50 metres from the West Block that houses the temporary House of Commons -- which has been in session throughout the blockade. Ditto the Bank of Canada, the PMO and the Justice Dept.

When this blockade is done and the analysis is well underway I would hope that someone proposes a workable plan that pedestrianizes Wellington and a number of other connecting streets in downtown Ottawa. The parliamentary precinct should never be open to vehicular traffic again, with exceptions made for diplomatic, security and service vehicles under strict permit requirements.

Regarding security, there are many options for architecturally relevant gates and decorative barriers. Some security barriers are invisible until they are activated to rise out of the ground. All barriers must be truck-proof. Permanent gates that can be closed or opened in minutes and that use exemplary design principles (heritage stone, wrought iron, modernist-style steel structures, architectural concrete, incorporated art, etc.) could also be placed at the entry points to streets in the Central Business District, and in fact on all residential streets. In effect, a large swath of the CBD and all of the parliamentary precinct would feature pedestrian-only streets permanently locked off from onerous vehicular convoys or a lone wolf terrorist in a truck. The entire downtown could be sealed from approaching vehicles with a 15-minute warning.

Looking at a future vision for the area, there are opportunities for a large public square that accommodates all legitimate protests on foot, as well as concerts, small performances, cultural and arts events, a skating rink (complements the Rideau Canal), very cool stone columns and lighting, a massive crashing fountain and more. A beautifully rendered public open space using the best native materials, having great features and expressing a well thought out activity program and supportive infrastructure (electricity, potable water and so forth) can accommodate all events and last for ages. How about a design competition?

Where is Canada's Trafalgar Square?

While I agree with the author that “'We’re on our own' is not a sentiment that immediately mobilizes solidarity," I think it can empower individual resolve and action in its recognition that no one else is going to deal with this problem (quickly enough or adequately from our perspective).
As a regenerative farmer I have been going broke providing local food in an economics that depends on ever increasing exploitation and governments that see agriculture more for trade surpluses than for feeding people. Even the new federal measures for climate friendly agriculture are being co-opted by corporations with false solutions like Climate Shot and AIM4C.
When it seems the whole world is against you, it is important to find like-minded people and build community. A video game tag line says "we are all we've got", not in a sense of destitution or despair but in resolve and commitment. As someone who believes social media does humanity more harm than good, I would never hashtag anything because I think only a local response can provide real help or enduring solidarity -- everyone else is just noise (even if well-intentioned).

Yes, indeed. Everyone in a position of power and authority should be very wary of the ambiguity of the phrase "we're on our own". It can signify so many things that organizational structures are not accustomed to hearing. Passivity has been disrupted. Normally privileged people have had to reckon with the discontents of the disadvantaged or those who perceive themselves to be oppressed - even as they employ vigilante/extortionate tactics to bully themselves to the head of the line.

Police forces in this country have revealed themselves to be powerless when tasked with confronting people who look like themselves; who do not exist in their minds as "others", black, indigenous, terrorists...?

The RCMP has always concentrated its powers on the oppression of "others" the marginalized, the discounted - and gotten away with it because they are strongest in the parts of Canada most given to white privilege. Now these guardians of the white status quo are being asked to exercise their powers against the people they largely agree with - who have bought into the fiction that whiteness is a guarantee of impunity. Urban police forces are little better - perceiving their job as maintenance of the status quo. Protecting the respectable from the riff-raff.

If those "truckers" had been people of colour or immigrants, or indigenous; force, chemical irritants and rubber bullets and stun guns would have been employed long ere this.

I can just hear the whirling brains of the politicians, "elections, elections, ... is this the base I have to win over to win again? What excuse can I use to treat them as "the other", How do we preserve our reputation for peace, order and good governance? When our own kind resort to bullying, lying, parroting foreign disinformation?" Never, of course having resorted to such tactics themselves - promising one thing, doing the opposite or slithering out from under those promises.

Both sides in this confrontation are dealing with great internal conflict, the eternal haves and have nots.