'Freedom Convoy' lawyers attempt to block Ottawa residents from testifying at trial

OTTAWA — The lawyers defending two of the most prominent organizers of the "Freedom Convoy" protests attempted to block eight local Ottawa witnesses from taking the stand Monday in a debate that underscores one of the central legal disputes in the trial.

Tamara Lich and Chris Barber are on trial for criminal charges related to their role in the demonstration, which blockaded Ottawa city streets for weeks last year as protesters railed against COVID-19 public health measures.

"This is not the trial of the Freedom Convoy," Lich's lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, told the court Monday, in a sentiment he's raised so often in the first week of trial that it has become all but a catchphrase for the defence team.

The Crown has an entirely different view of the case.

"This is ultimately a trial about what happened in this city" during the protest, and what role Lich and Barber played in that, Crown attorney Siobhain Wetscher said.

The Crown plans to call five Ottawa residents as witnesses in the case to describe what they saw and experienced during the convoy. That includes Zexi Li, who filed a class-action lawsuit against the organizers on behalf of people who live and work in downtown Ottawa.

If they're allowed to testify, the witnesses are expected to speak about the blocked streets, the constant sound of horns honking and truck engines running, the oppressive smell of exhaust, witnessing public urination and being unable leave their homes, the Crown said.

The Crown also intends to call the owner of a women's clothing boutique and employees from the National Arts Centre, and the public transit operator.

The Crown had planned to call an employee from the Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel, but has since decided against it.

Lich and Barber have already signed admissions that the "actions of certain individuals" who participated in the protest interfered with public transit and the lawful use and enjoyment of property and businesses.

"There's is absolutely no need to call these nine witnesses," Greenspon said, arguing their testimony would be irrelevant in a strictly legal sense.

The witnesses didn't have any direct interactions with Lich or Barber, and the organizers have not admitted to playing any role in the disruptions.

The admission did not go far enough to justify blocking the testimony of people directly impacted by the protest, Wetscher argued.

"I don’t think that Mr. Greenspon is in a position to admit that the protest is not peaceful," Wetscher said. The Crown has already alleged that the protest was "anything but" peaceful.

The Crown wants to show exactly how disruption, intimidation and obstructions manifested after thousands of big-rigs rolled into Ottawa in early 2022, blocking roads in what the city's mayor at the time called a "siege" and an "illegal occupation."

Justice Heather Perkins-McVey said the question about whether the protest was peaceful doesn't affect the charges Barber and Lich are facing, but could be an aggravating factor.

The two organizers face charges of mischief and counselling others to commit mischief, intimidation and obstructing police.

Barber is also charged with encouraging others to break a court order that banned horn-honking during the protest, which was part of an injunction issued in response to Li's lawsuit.

Wetscher argued that the Crown is entitled to call the evidence it sees fit to connect Lich and Barber's words and actions to the residents and workers from downtown Ottawa.

“The Crown maintains the best evidence will come from the civilians," she said.

The witnesses won't be allowed to speak about the impact the protest had on them personally, and Perkins-McVey said she would strongly enforce that as a gatekeeper if she allows them to give evidence.

"It’ll be a very tight gate. There will be lots of locks on that gate," she said.

Outside the courthouse, Greenspon said the trial will never end if the court allows that kind of testimony.

"This is going to be the 'Oh, woe is me, look what happened to me, how my life was impacted. Look how my business suffered,'" Greenspon said of the local witnesses anticipated testimony.

"If that evidence was to be called as part of the trial, then we're perfectly entitled as the defence to call a whole bunch of businesses that prospered during the 'Freedom Convoy' and a whole bunch of … downtown residents who had no problems at all with the 'Freedom Convoy.'"

Perkins-McVey said the court heard from the first witness, Ottawa police Insp. Russell Lucas, that the protest was fragmented and that different people protested for different reasons.

That will make it difficult for the Crown to pin the observations of Ottawa locals to the actions of Lich and Barber.

"I don’t know if this evidence is going to have the weight that you hope," she told Wetscher.

The debate was paused while defence attorneys craft their final argument on why the witnesses should be excluded. It is expected to resume later this week.

Later in the afternoon, the Crown continued to take the court through social media evidence complied by Ottawa police Sgt. Joanne Pillotte, whose testimony is scheduled to continue Tuesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2023.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press