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Ottawa community members step up for downtown neighbours amid convoy demonstrations

OTTAWA — On the Monday after the first weekend that trucks and demonstrators filled the streets of downtown Ottawa, Ellie Charters went for a walk in the area. "The vibe in Ottawa was eerie.

OTTAWA — On the Monday after the first weekend that trucks and demonstrators filled the streets of downtown Ottawa, Ellie Charters went for a walk in the area.

"The vibe in Ottawa was eerie. It was scary," said Charters of her two-hour walk in the downtown core.

She said she saw people walking around who looked like residents of the neighbourhood and were just trying to go about their day. "They to me looked very nervous."

That walk gave Charters the resolve to start Safety Walks Ottawa, a volunteer-run service that offers accompanied walks to people in the area affected by the convoy demonstration.

Ottawa organizers like Charters have stepped up to help their communities as convoy demonstrators have occupied Ottawa's downtown streets amid reports of harassment and, until a judge granted a temporary injunction this week, the constant din of horns honking.

Volunteers have been helping people get to work and accompanying seniors who want to get outside for a walk but don't feel comfortable in the current atmosphere, Charters said. 

Over 50 people have signed up as volunteers for the service, and though the requests fluctuate day to day, she said they provide around 25 to 30 walks daily.

"We have people that are that are requesting this for the next week and so on. So we're just gonna keep on going," Charters said.

The walks themselves are quiet affairs, she said, as many who request walks are afraid to speak up in front of convoy demonstrators. "There could be somebody with a Trump flag right behind beside you who's listening in or whatever," said Charters.

She said she is scared and has had a hard time sleeping through the night.

"I overwhelmingly just want this to end. I want it to end so badly," she said. "This is awful, what's happening in the city."

Marna Nightingale is a Centretown resident, but said she lives on the periphery and hasn't had to experience as much of the convoy activity as more central neighbours have.

On her way to meet a friend after the first weekend of noisy convoy demonstrations, Nightingale decided to buy her some earplugs as well.

"It made such a difference to her, just to have a 10-pack of foam earplugs," she said.

"I'm not going to organize a march, I'm not going to go and pick a fight with a Nazi downtown, but people need to sleep."

Her friend said she would share the earplugs with neighbours in her building, which gave Nightingale the idea to try to offer earplugs to "all of downtown."

She and a group of nine other volunteers started dropping bags of 50 earplugs in apartment building lobbies and shelters, and have given out at least 15,000 sets of earplugs so far.

On Friday, CBC reporter Catharine Tunney tweeted, "God bless whoever left earplugs in the lobby," along with a photo of two zip-lock bags of earplugs. Nightingale said she recognized the bags and knew it was their work.

"Especially the people who are living on the street or who are marginalized, I had people almost cry on me because they were so desperate for sleep," said Nightingale. "It was very clearly something that people really needed, was just the ability to get some rest."

Christian Wright said they decided to create a fundraising campaign to help marginalized people recover from the convoy protest, such as covering costs of rescheduling appointments, repairing damage to homes, and partially covering the cost of a therapy appointment.

Their reason for creating the fund was the "quickly overflowing feeling of frustration" with what was taking place downtown, said Wright.

From listening to the community on how the protest was affecting them, Wright said it showed that the demonstration was not just frustrating or inconvenient.

"People are missing work, they're missing paycheques, they're missing appointments," they said. "These impacts are rippling in ways that especially those who aren't marginalized might not realize."

"Someone who isn't visibly racialized or visibly transgender might not feel as unsafe walking to work in the current situation. They might be uncomfortable, but they might not actually fear deeply for their safety as we're finding many queer, trans, Black, Indigenous and racialized people are," said Wright.

Thinking about the disproportionate effect on the marginalized community of Ottawa's downtown is what motivated Wright to raise money to counteract some of the damages incurred.

Their fund raised over $4,000, and they had Kind Space, a place where the LGBTQ community can connect safely, administer the fund to affected community members.

"At the end of the day, I'm really proud of what we were able to do," said Wright. "We got like $4,000 out into the hands of individuals who have been affected directly by this."

Nightingale said the residents of downtown Ottawa are "not just sitting here and taking this." 

"We are showing up for each other. We are fighting back. They don't run this town, we do."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2022.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press