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'Freedom Convoy' organizers' criminal trial begins Tuesday

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OTTAWA -

As Tamara Lich was led away from supporters in handcuffs on the snowy streets of Ottawa in 2022, she threw a single phrase over her shoulder.

"Hold the line," said the petite figurehead of the "Freedom Convoy" movement as the officers at each of her elbows walked her to the waiting cruiser.

She was echoing the words shouted by of one of her supporters in a scene that was captured on video and circulated online the eve before hundreds of police moved in.

Officers spent the next two days dislodging protesters from the streets around Parliament Hill.

But that parting phrase, which would go on to become the title of Lich's recently published book, is likely to be at the heart of her criminal trial.

Lich and follow convoy organizer Chris Barber are scheduled to stand trial in Ottawa starting Tuesday for their role in the three-week protest that overtook the streets around downtown and sparked a national emergency declaration.

In the final days of the demonstration, as police began to order people to leave, organizers and supporters used "hold the line" as a rallying cry, as words of encouragement and as a salutation.

Lich and Barber stand co-accused of mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation.

Several of the charges hinge on whether Lich and Barber encouraged protesters to defy police orders by remaining in Ottawa after authorities ordered everyone to clear the streets and, if they did, whether that was a criminal act.

"We do not expect this to be the trial of the 'Freedom Convoy,"' Lich and Barber's lawyers said in a joint statement Friday.

"The central issue will be whether the actions of two of the organizers of a peaceful protest should warrant criminal sanction."

Lich told a federal inquiry last year that when she told supporters to "hold the line," she wasn't encouraging them to stay in the capital, but rather to "stay true to your values in the face of adversity."

The trial is expected to last at least 16 days, and is likely to include hundreds of social media posts by Lich, Barber and others, including videos that were livestreamed throughout the protest. Organizers used the live videos to document their experience and share thoughts and updates to supporters.

The court will likely also consider Barber's private text messages with Lich, which were obtained by Ottawa police and entered as evidence by the Crown during one of Lich's bail hearings last year. There is a publication ban on any messages regarding anyone other than Lich and Barber.

The "Freedom Convoy" was born out of a conversation between Barber, who owns a Saskatchewan trucking business, and fellow trucker Brigitte Belton on the social media platform TikTok, who had both been venting online about COVID-19 public health measures in early 2022.

They specifically wanted to find a way to protest vaccine mandates that were coming into effect for truckers who crossed the U.S. border and would be forced to quarantine for 14 days if they were unvaccinated.

The idea quickly gained traction and attracted support from Lich, who lives in Alberta and served as founding board member of the fledgling Maverick Party. She was also a previous supporter of the "Yellow Vest" movement that protested federal oil-and-gas policies, but which the Canadian Anti-Hate Network says was co-opted by far-right and extreme anti-Muslim groups.

As the number of organizers and supporters grew, so did the aims of the protest. By the time they arrived in Ottawa, stated goals included opposing all pandemic public-health orders and, for some, overthrowing the elected government.

Lich and Baber rode in the same truck as they travelled to Ottawa.

Since their arrests, they have not been allowed to speak to each other without a lawyer present. Their communications have been facilitated through Keith Wilson, who served as counsel to organizers during the protest.

"Chris and I kinda started off this together as a team and we feel like we have to finish it as a team," Lich told a crowd earlier this month at an event in Vernon, B.C., to promote her book.

The Crown hopes to establish that Barber and Lich worked together in lockstep, so that evidence against one of them will apply to both.

The demonstration in Ottawa gained international attention when demonstrators arrived in the thousands and refused to leave. Spinoff protests also blockaded several international border crossings between Canada and the U.S.

Big-rig trucks parked on downtown and residential roads, blocking traffic and blaring airhorns at all hours in what became a weeks-long winter block party, complete with fireworks, a live stage, bouncy castles and, famously, an outdoor hot tub.

Some local residents and politicians, meanwhile, described the protest as an "occupation" that left their community in a state of lawlessness. They lived with a constant chorus of airhorns, and some said they were afraid or unable to leave their homes.

Several businesses, including the nearby CF Rideau Centre mall, also shuttered their doors as a precaution.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2023.

Correction

This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled the given name of Brigitte Belton.

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