How Ottawa residents took care of each other when no one else did

Zexi Li says she begged the city for help.

But after her complaints went unheeded for days, the 21-year-old resident of downtown Ottawa decided to take matters into her own hands – and stand up to the hundreds of disruptive, anti-government protesters occupying the streets outside her home.

“Of course, I recognised the very obvious concern for safety and what putting my name in opposition to these people would do, but I know the kind of person I am,” Li told Al Jazeera. “I knew I had the ability to take this on.”

Li is the named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against members of the so-called “Freedom Convoy”, which landed in Ottawa in late January to protest a cross-border vaccine mandate for truckers. Convoy participants and organisers, who included some white nationalist and far-right activists, occupied the streets of Canada’s capital for three weeks, demanding an end to all coronavirus curbs in the country and the fall of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.

The lawsuit successfully secured a court injunction ordering the truck drivers to stop honking their horns, a tactic they used for days in the heart of the city, sowing a sense of fear as local, provincial, and federal authorities did little to remove the group from downtown.

That widespread feeling that authorities had failed to prepare for the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa – and to quickly respond when it became clear participants sought to stay and were making life difficult in the city centre – pushed many local residents to act.

Li says she was motivated by a love for her community, which was being subjected to levels of noise that often reached above 100 decibels inside peoples’ homes – a level she described as “torturous” – and was even louder on the street. Prolonged exposure to anything above 70dB can cause hearing damage, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The police and really even the city gaslit all of us residents, saying that their operation was successful, that this [occupation] was peaceful, that there was nothing wrong with what was going on,” Li says. “I wanted to help. I just so desperately wanted to help my community, my neighbours, because I love them.”

Mutual support

Li was not alone. As the trucker occupation of Ottawa dragged on, forums and message boards sprung up online, and people offered to walk each other to or from work safely, to fetch groceries, or to bring elderly neighbours to medical or other appointments.

Roisin West, a local community organiser and experienced cook, began preparing and delivering daily meals for residents too afraid to leave their homes, alongside a makeshift group of other volunteer chefs and drivers.Meal requests have been coordinated through Instagram and local community groups, West explained, and clients came from all sectors of society – though many requests came from those most fearful of venturing outside, such as racialised people, disabled people, or members of the LGBTQ community.

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