When thousands of protesters against Covid-19 restrictions arrived in Ottawa last month, it would have seemed unimaginable that they would take over parts of the Canadian capital with little resistance.
To their own disbelief, the right-wing protesters soon controlled the streets outside parliament, brazenly flouting the law in the belief nothing could or would stop them.
This weekend, however, the blockade ended in incredulity, accusations of betrayal and questions over the future of the protest movement.
On Friday and Saturday, hundreds of officers conducted one of Canada's largest police operations, working to clear Parliament Hill and the surrounding area of trucks, camper vans and structures that had blocked roads for nearly a month, in protest of coronavirus-related public health restrictions and, in general, the government of prime minister Justin Trudeau.
Deploying riot squads, mounted units and armed vehicles, police cleared large parts of the area. By Sunday morning, more than 191 had been arrested and 57 vehicles had been towed. Protesters remained in some areas but Wellington Street, in front of Parliament Hill, was empty.
A sense of normalcy was on the horizon for residents of Ottawa but police warned the operation wasn’t finished.
"We are in this until it is over," interim chief Steve Bell said, as officers worked to end the "unlawful occupation".
The rapid dismantling of the blockades stood in stark contrast to weeks of bold protest as truckers flouted bylaws, blaring horns at all hours.
Even as police threatened to break up the blockades and Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act, many protesters were unfazed, arguing police didn't have the authority to break up the protests. Key influencers in the movement, including Pat King, repeatedly reinforced this message.
"King told protesters the warnings from police weren't official because they didn't have signatures on them or that the city didn't have a police chief so no one could give the order," said Kurt Phillips of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. "And he was telling this to people who don't really understand how government works."
But in the waning days of the blockade, amid reports some leaders had their bank accounts frozen, defiance gave way to uncertainty. The night before the police operation, some drivers left the city after trucking companies, fearing ruin, ordered them home.
Still, even as police swarmed the area on Friday, many protesters expressed disbelief that arrests were possible.
“You can’t do this. You can’t do this. You have no right,” pleaded one woman as a line of police pushed towards a blockade on Rideau Street. Another broke down in tears as protesters were hauled off.
As footage of arrests and scuffles spread, on the secure-messaging site Telegram groups supporting the truckers reacted with shock and scepticism. One user claimed the officers were with the United Nations, part of a common conspiracy theory which holds that Canada's government is linked to globalist networks.
“If they had this many officers, there would be no crime in the city,” the user wrote. A number of police forces, including the Ottawa city police, the Ontario provincial police, the Royal Canadian Mounted police and the Sûreté du Quebec, participated in the operation to clear the streets.
Others were told, often by protest leaders and organisers, the police supported their movement.
"They honestly believe that all of Canada supports them. And so it's shocking to them to learn they aren't seen as heroes," said Carmen Celestini, a postdoctoral fellow with the Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University, adding that many believed police officers were on their side.
“And now they’ve realised that’s not true.”
Police arrested nearly all protest leaders who called on demonstrators to "hold the line". But the perceived ease with which some handed themselves over sparked a sense of betrayal. One user on a Telegram group accused Tamara Lich, the lead fundraiser, of having ties to the financier George Soros.
“A lot of patriotic Canadian[s] were duped into believing this [convoy] was real,” the user wrote.
Benjamin Dichter, a protest leader, called on supporters to stand their ground but left Ottawa before he could be arrested. His decision prompted one Telegram user to call him a "globalist operative subverting the freedom convoy".
“Influential figures were really pushing disinformation to keep the protesters there,” said Celestini.
“But even though they told supporters to ‘hold the line’, they really didn’t have a plan for what to do when arrests occurred. The leaders knew that they would have an escape plan and that they’d be okay. But their decision to leave their supporters out there to face the consequences helps you see their character.”
The conspiracy theories and populist anger underpinning the truckers’ moment are unlikely to disappear. Experts said supporters will likely try to spin the result of the barricade as a victory or the catalyst for a bigger war. Furthermore, mainstream and fringe politicians have started vying for influence among the movement’s supporters.
“There are a number of politicians looking to use this as a springboard,” said Phillips, warning of a “disruptive force” in Canadian politics.
False rumours of a woman killed by a police horse have spread throughout Canada and into the US, amplified by far-right figures. Celestini worries such misinformation, rapidly spread by live streaming and encrypted chat networks, will be a problem.
“We’ve been ignoring people like this for decades. But now we’re seeing the fruits of how we ignored and dismissed people who believed these things,” she said. “The distrust that people have in institutions will remain. And that leave a real possibility for something similar to fester or grow.” – Guardian