Canada: legal challenges threaten to derail truck blockade leaders’ trial

<span>Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The trial of two protest leaders who encouraged a truck blockade of Canada’s capital is facing mounting delays as legal arguments threaten to derail the closely watched case.

Early last year, the month-long “Freedom Convoy’” protest paralyzed Ottawa after hundreds of large vehicles blocked key thoroughfares. Initially meant as a challenge to coronavirus public health measures, the protests soon morphed into a broader collection of political grievances against the governing Liberal party.

As the standoff dragged on and inspired copycat blockades in other parts of Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergences Act, granting the federal government sweeping powers to declare the blockades illegal, tow away trucks and punish the drivers by arresting them, freezing their bank accounts and suspending their licenses.

The leaders Tamara Lich and Chris Barber were arrested in the final days of the protest. The pair, who called on demonstrators to “Hold the line” amid a looming crackdown from police, were charged with mischief, counseling others to commit mischief, intimidation and obstructing police.

The trial began in early September and was initially scheduled to last 16 days. But repeated challenges over the admission of certain evidence and the scope of witness testimony means that timeline will be impossible to meet. So far, only three of the prosecution’s 21 witnesses have completed their testimony. The judge overseeing the case is now considering extending the trial into November.

On Tuesday, Ottawa’s manager of emergency and protective services testified that city officials had braced for a “worst-case scenario” as the truckers approached the national capital. Kim Ayotte, who oversaw bylaw enforcement and fire and paramedic services at the time, visited the protest zone repeatedly and exchanged a series of text messages with Barber as it became clear that many protesters were refusing to leave.

But Ayotte had to vacate the courtroom five times throughout the day while lawyers debated the line of questioning put to him. He was also asked to return to the stand with contemporaneous notes after initially appearing empty-handed.

At the outset of the trial, the prosecution said Barber and Lich “pressured decision-makers” to achieve the political aims, including the end to pandemic health orders.

“This case is not about their political views,” crown prosecutor Tim Radcliffe told the court. “What’s at issue … is the means they employed, not the ends.”

The prosecution has argued that because Barber and Lich worked together, the evidence presented to the court should apply to both defendants.

But for weeks, the defence has debated how wide a net the prosecution can cast in its reliance on social media posts and videos from the Freedom Convoy 2022 Facebook page. They argue much of the evidence is irrelevant if it wasn’t posted directly by Lich or Barber.

On Tuesday, Barber’s lawyer Diane Magas threatened to seek an application to have the charges withdrawn because of the delays. A provision of the Canadian charter requires a defendant be tried in a reasonable amount of time.

“We have an obligation, if there’s going to be an issue, that we raise it at the earliest opportunity so that the Crown can respond appropriately,” Magas told reporters.

Under legal parameters known as the Jordan framework, a delay of greater than 18 months after arrest is “unreasonable”. But it is unclear how this might apply to Lich and Barber’s cases because much of the delay has been the result of challenges lodged by the defence.