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Convoy leaders' trial will settle criminal question — but debates will rage on

Tamara Lich and Chris Barber wait for the Public Order Emergency Commission to begin last November in Ottawa. The trial for the two leaders of the 2022 convoy protests is slated to get underway Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Tamara Lich and Chris Barber wait for the Public Order Emergency Commission to begin last November in Ottawa. The trial for the two leaders of the 2022 convoy protests is slated to get underway Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

When the highly anticipated trial of Tamara Lich and Chris Barber finally gets underway this week, there likely won't be much arguing about what happened or what roles the two infamous figures played during the 2022 "Freedom Convoy" protests in Ottawa.

That winter, the two led thousands of trucks and other vehicles to the capital. They rallied the protesters, and told them to "hold the line" when police tried to break up the honking crowds. They also raised millions of dollars for the movement.

Through every turn, Lich and Barber stood as leaders — documenting themselves in a barrage of selfies, livestreams and social media posts. Lich even published a book in April about her experience.

These facts won't be disputed.

What will be, however, is whether what they did was criminal. The legal consequences of this trial's outcome will be the stuff of many disputes to come — both on the national political stage and in smaller gatherings between friends and family.

Guilty or not, the judge's decision will almost certainly divide public opinion.

Tamara Lich supporters waved Canada flags and protested the fact she was in custody during a demonstration outside the Ottawa courthouse on July 8, 2022.
Tamara Lich supporters waved Canada flags and protested the fact she was in custody during a demonstration outside the Ottawa courthouse on July 8, 2022.

Lich's supporters waved Canadian flags outside the city's courthouse in July 2022 and protested the fact she was in custody. (David Richard/CBC)

Charges of mischief, obstructing police

Lich, from Medicine Hat, Alta., has spent the days ahead of her trial relaxing with friends and supporters in a cottage in western Quebec — apt, considering the criminal accusations against her might be seen as no big deal.

In one sense, this is true.

The charges against Lich and Barber include mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation — mostly misdemeanors in another judicial setting, and certainly not the kind of court matter that would normally captivate an international audience.

Still, jail time is a possibility, and at an earlier bail hearing Crown lawyers suggested a finding of guilt could lead to a sentence of up to ten years behind bars.

Freedom Convoy organizer Tamara Lich smiles as she stands with her lawyer Lawrence Greenspon outside the Ottawa Courthouse after being released from jail July 26, 2022.
Freedom Convoy organizer Tamara Lich smiles as she stands with her lawyer Lawrence Greenspon outside the Ottawa Courthouse after being released from jail July 26, 2022.

Lich smiles as she stands with her lawyer Lawrence Greenspon after being released from jail in July 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The legal ramifications may not end there. A slow-moving, $300-million lawsuit launched by Ottawa residents against Lich, Barber and others involved in the convoy looms over the group.

Lich, who will turn 51 during her trial, has already spent 49 days in jail spread across two stints: the first when she was initially arrested, then again after she was picked up on a Canada-wide warrant for violating her bail conditions.

That came about after she attended a gala last year in Toronto honouring her actions.

Barber, a 48-year-old trucker, was released shortly after his arrest and returned to his home in Swift Current, Sask.

Freedom Convoy organizer Tamara Lich appears in front of a judge for her bail hearing on Feb. 19, 2022. Lich, from Medicine Hat, Alta., was charged Thursday with counselling to commit mischief in connection with the Ottawa protests.
Freedom Convoy organizer Tamara Lich appears in front of a judge for her bail hearing on Feb. 19, 2022. Lich, from Medicine Hat, Alta., was charged Thursday with counselling to commit mischief in connection with the Ottawa protests.

Lich appears in front of a judge for a bail hearing on Feb. 19, 2022. (Lauren Foster-MacLeod/CBC)

'Mayhem' expected at Ottawa courthouse

A sizable crowd is expected to gather outside the Ottawa courthouse starting Tuesday, and staff are preparing for the courtroom to be full.

Melissa McKee, co-pastor at the Capital City Biker's Church, which became a hub during the convoy, said she's expecting "mayhem" on the first day of the trial.

McKee has continued to support adjacent movements. She's also regularly attended court proceedings to support lesser-known individuals arrested after the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act to clear out the convoy.

While those courtrooms were often empty, McKee expects Tuesday will be different.

"I don't think that's going to be the case for Chris and Tamara," she said. "I think it's going to bring as many people out that can make it. And I think that there will be protesters as well."

Melissa McKee, co-pastor at the Capital City Biker’s Church that became a hub for people during the “Freedom Convoy,” and who has continued to support adjacent movement.
Melissa McKee, co-pastor at the Capital City Biker’s Church that became a hub for people during the “Freedom Convoy,” and who has continued to support adjacent movement.

Melissa McKee is co-pastor at the Capital City Biker’s Church, which became a hub for protesters during the multi-week demonstrations. (CBC)

A friend of both Barber and Lich, McKee says the two co-accused are feeling optimistic ahead of their trial.

They're expected to have the support of not only those who participated in the convoy, but also the backing of various libertarian and civil liberties groups — some of which are raising money for the defence team.

Trial of the convoy?

Superior Court Justice Andrew Goodman has called the Crown's case "very broad" and noted the offences against Lich and Barber can be charged in many different ways, with several paths to a conviction.

But Ontario Court Justice Heather Perkins-McVey, who is overseeing the matter, is committed to not allow the focus to be lost to fanfare or scorn.

The trial is expected to sit for at least 16 non-consecutive days. Barring any delays, it will likely wrap in October.

The lawyers for Lich and Barber are countering any narrative suggesting the trial is a proxy trial for the convoy in general.

"We do not expect this to be the trial of the Freedom Convoy. The central issue will be whether the actions of two of the organizers of a peaceful protest should warrant criminal sanction," reads a joint statement from Lawrence Greenspon and Diane Magas, who are representing Lich and Barber, respectively.

A protester walks through an encampment near Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, shortly before being arrested on Feb. 17, 2022.
A protester walks through an encampment near Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, shortly before being arrested on Feb. 17, 2022.

A protester walks through an encampment near Parliament Hill shortly before being arrested in February 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The Crown will likely focus more on the ways in which the two allegedly broke the law.

It'll fall on the prosecution team to try and prove Lich and Barber played a role in creating the incessant honking that accompanied the convoy's arrival in Ottawa. They'll also have to make the case that, as leaders, Lich and Barber raised illegal money to fuel an illegal unrest, ignored police orders and refused the leave even after the government invoked the Emergencies Act.

Some of these arguments have already been made and won at the Public Order Emergency Commission last November — specifically that when law enforcement told protesters to leave, they didn't.

Lawyer Lawrence Greenspon and Tamara Lich attend the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa Nov. 3, 2022.
Lawyer Lawrence Greenspon and Tamara Lich attend the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa Nov. 3, 2022.

Lich and Greenspon attend last November's Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Convoy supporters doubt justice system

McKee said she's anxious about the trial, but also optimistic.

The pastor said she believes convoy leaders are being made out to be "sacrificial lambs" in a justice system she feels is failing Canadians.

"Even if you don't like these people, and you're against the Freedom Convoy, the precedent that's being set for all Canadians, that should be something that we're all paying attention to," she said.

Danny Bulford, a former RCMP officer who quit the force during the COVID-19 pandemic and became a spokesperson for the convoy during its stay in Ottawa, says Barber and Lich have become catch-all targets for those who oppose what the protesters represented.

"I don't know what grounds ever existed to pursue criminal charges against Chris and Tamara," said Bulford, who was arrested himself but released shortly after and isn't expected to face further prosecution.

"I know. I tried my very best to operate within the confines of the law."

Danny Bulford, a former RCMP officer who was on the prime minister's security detail and quit after refusing to get vaccinated for COVID-19
Danny Bulford, a former RCMP officer who was on the prime minister's security detail and quit after refusing to get vaccinated for COVID-19

Danny Bulford is a former RCMP officer who was on the prime minister's security detail and quit after refusing to get vaccinated for COVID-19. He says Barber and Lich have become catch-all targets for those who opposed the protests. (CBC)

An exoneration of Lich and Barber in the judge-alone trial will likely be viewed by their supporters as a clear win for the entire entourage of truckers and protesters who occupied the streets of Ottawa for nearly four weeks.

"It seems like what rules the most right now is the court of public opinion," said Bulford. "I think a lot of government policy is formulated that way. I think the police and the courts conduct themselves based on what they see as the popular public opinion."

Bulford worries a guilty decision will lead to a deeper divide among Canadians, and a "much deeper mistrust of the current existing legal system from the people that already feel disenfranchised, that supported the convoy."

"If we have a favourable outcome from the trial, I think that will help recover some of that mistrust."