On January 22, 2022, a protest movement made up of truckers in big trucks and their supporters, calling themselves the “Freedom Convoy”, descended on Ottawa, the capital of Canada. Although driven by a variety of agendas, the main intent appeared to be to protest vaccine mandates and remove the democratically elected Prime Minister. The trucks blared horns, shot off fireworks, drove on sidewalks and engaged in what Ottawa police described as “extremely disruptive and unlawful behavior”. The protest lasted one month and one day. The epicentre of the protest was located directly along Parliament Hill, but effectively shut down the entire downtown core. The offices of the Hansard editorial team that produces the debates of the House of Commons and committee proceedings was surrounded by the protesters.
Covid-19 pandemic restrictions in Canada…
The Covid-19 pandemic had been reshaping Canadian lives and society for nearly two years and, understandably, people were getting increasingly worn down by successive lockdowns, the near-constant obligation to wear face masks, requirements for physical distance or isolation, the unavailability of socialising forums such as restaurants and bars, the strong push for Covid vaccination and the additional rights granted to those individuals flashing a vaccine passport QR code on their smartphones.
In Canada, a federation, public health measures are a shared responsibility between the federal Government based in Ottawa and each of the 13 provinces and territories that make up the world’s second-largest country. The federal Government has jurisdiction over such matters as international travel, cross-border transportation and overall health standards such as vaccines, among others, whereas provinces and territories can edict more specific requirements for the venues they regulate, such as gyms, restaurants, shopping malls, places of worship or other public spots.
By the time the “Freedom Convoy” rolled in, provincial public health Covid-19 measures had been inconsistent and unsynchronised throughout the country, no doubt adding to the frustrations of those who had chosen to come to the nation’s capital to voice their discontent.
… and on Parliament Hill
In March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, most House Administration staff switched from on-site work to telework. This included the Parliamentary Publications Branch transeditors and editors, responsible for preparing and publishing the daily Hansard and committee proceedings. Each person was provided with a laptop, two computer monitors and external peripherals such as a headset, enabling them to work efficiently from their home. While the requirement to telework was lifted a few months into the pandemic, many House Administration employees still telework to this day. A growing number of them are returning to the office, however.
A year and a half later, in autumn 2021, the Board of Internal Economy of the House of Commons required all parliamentarians and all political and administrative staff to be fully vaccinated by 22 November 2021 to access Parliamentary Precinct premises, whether they teleworked or worked on site. Exceptions were made for individuals on medical grounds only. All teleworking or on-site employees unable to provide a proof of vaccination or a valid medical exemption had their access card revoked and were suspended from work. This happened to some transeditors, which created some logistical difficulties for management. Solutions were found in the form of on-call part-time resources and new hires. The vaccination requirements ended on 20 June 2022.
Throughout the pandemic, parliamentarians were able to participate in House and committee proceedings either in person from Parliament Hill premises, while wearing a mask, or remotely from either their Ottawa office or their riding, without a mask. All staff on Parliament Hill premises were also required to wear a mask. The masking requirement ended on 23 June 2022.
The “Freedom Convoy” and its impact on Parliament…
Ottawa has a reputation as a quiet institutional city where nothing fun ever happens – a boring capital. The “Freedom Convoy”, however, shattered that myth: never had downtown Ottawa residents seen, heard, smelled or felt so many big trucks up close, nor heard so many loud and sometimes aggressive protesters. Some Members of Parliament, feeling too insecure to walk up to their offices in and around Parliament Hill, hitched a ride there in federal police cruisers.
During its occupation of downtown Ottawa, the “Freedom Convoy” was front and centre on everyone’s mind and agenda. Some Members of Parliament espoused the purpose of the convoy and even mingled with its members for photo ops. As a result, they were accused of lending legitimacy to the protesters and angered other parliamentarians and a good portion of the local residents. The diverging viewpoints fuelled many heated exchanges between Members of Parliament during the televised Question Period and other proceedings. The tension in the Chamber was always palpable, even to administrative and procedural staff, adding to already heightened stress levels.
… and on transediting and editing staff
Covid masks hid faces and mumbled speech, complicating the work of interpreters, floor staff, transeditors and editors alike. Employees who usually rely on the video feed to confirm what they think they have heard could no longer do so. Interpreters skipped whole sentences. Transeditors made more reporting errors because they could no longer rely on video feeds or interpretation for clarification. Editors had to pay extra attention to the work of transeditors to ensure that the final product, whether daily Hansard or committee proceedings, was as accurate as possible and as flawless as usual.
During the “Freedom Convoy” occupation, transeditors and editors were also exposed to stress, tension and negativity, all day, all week. Those days could be long too, when an emergency or a take-note debate was called, with Members of Parliament and parliamentary staff often working until midnight or beyond, transeditors finishing an hour after them and editors yet another hour later. Taking additional breaks to cope with the stress was not an option, unfortunately, given the tight schedules required for Parliamentary Publications.
Stress and fatigue sometimes made it difficult for transeditors and editors to remain objective in their reporting. However, House Administration staff are always expected to be non-partisan and they adhere with vigour to this expectation. When required to clarify an intervention, synonyms were carefully chosen, substitutes were chosen for non-parliamentary language, poorly constructed sentences were corrected, obvious factual errors were rectified, tone was respected and the in-house style guide was strictly adhered to, resulting in a factually correct and authentic historical account of all that was said in the Chamber and in committees.
The end result
Finally, on 23 February 2022, the downtown core, “Freedom Convoy” members were sent home by a joint force of police officers from across the country, gathered in Ottawa under the authority of the Emergencies Act that the Government had invoked for the first time ever a few days earlier.
Although many “Freedom Convoy” members lost a lot of money during their protest, some losing their jobs, others having their truck or big rig confiscated and a few being arrested, all was not lost for the convoy. Indeed, a few federal vaccine requirements were later loosened, and several provincial public health mandates substantially relaxed. Although many of these measures were planned prior to the protests, the protesters were able to use them as examples for achieving success.
Lessons were learned in Parliament, as well, by the Parliamentary Protective Service, the Members of Parliament and staffers. The internal alert system had been fully put to the test and had passed brilliantly, but additional measures are currently being contemplated, including the permanent closure of the street in front of Parliament to vehicular traffic and the issuing of panic buttons to Members of Parliament.
In addition to liaising with the Parliamentary Protective Service on the closure of the above-mentioned street, the Ottawa Police Service is updating its procedures for dealing with similar protests. It tried some of its new approaches at the end of April 2022, when a “Rolling Thunder” group of motorcyclists tried, but failed, to duplicate the disruption of the “Freedom Convoy”.
Only time will tell whether the 2022 “Freedom Convoy” was a blip or a harbinger of a less polite, more unruly Canada the world may yet get to know. What is known is that Hansard and the members of its team were consummate professionals throughout, met their deadlines and maintained their reputation for excellence.
Richard Maurel is a Senior Editor with the Parliamentary Publications Branch of the House of Commons in Ottawa, Canada.