Andrew Lawton: The Freedom Convoy’s ‘who’s in charge here?’ problem

‘We didn’t authorize a press conference. Who authorized the press conference?’

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When reporter Andrew Lawton arrived in Ottawa to cover the Freedom Convoy last January, he was repeatedly struck by the divergence between what he saw on the ground and what he read in media coverage of events. In part because they were not talking to mainstream media, protesters and organizers were often missing or even misrepresented in their own story. With exclusive access to some of the major players in the convoy, he set out to write fairly and accurately about the protest and the events leading up to it. Second of two excerpts.

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Convoy spokesperson Benjamin Dichter had an unenviable task. He had to inject message discipline into a disjointed group with a hostile media looking to exploit any weak links. He started each day at 6:30 a.m., scanning social media and convening colleagues to see what issues were trending. He arranged several press conferences similar to the one on the convoy’s first weekend in Ottawa—with no mainstream media allowed—but spent much of his time trying to kibosh other press conferences various people and groups were holding, purporting themselves to represent the convoy. Some days, the messages of these competing conferences were as muddled as the cacophony of horns on Wellington Street.

“Inevitably every day, about 8:00, 8:30, we would find out, oh, there’s a press conference,” said Dichter. “Great. We didn’t authorize a press conference. Who authorized the press conference? So we spent an hour trying to figure out who authorized the press conference, where it’s coming from.”

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Dichter broke his ankle a week into the Ottawa protest, confining him to a wheelchair with his leg in a cast. Stuck at his hotel, he wasn’t always looped into discussions taking place at the Swiss and Arc hotels. He came to view press conferences that weren’t scheduled by him as sabotage, either intentional or unintentional. The line between groups trying to help the movement rather than co-opt it wasn’t always clear. Tamara Lich, a prominent convoy leader, and others felt people were coming out of the woodwork to get a piece of the $10 million the convoy had raised.

A sore spot for numerous organizers was a Feb. 3 press conference at the Marriott featuring Lich. It was announced a day earlier, assembled by a group called Taking Back Our Freedoms. There was one problem, however. Lich only learned about it when the press release announcing it went out. She had no connection to the group, which stationed itself in the Arc Hotel and inserted itself into the convoy’s organizational team.

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Unlike the official Freedom Convoy press strategy, which eschewed mainstream media, the Taking Back Our Freedoms press conference was open to anyone, including the reporters who had been publishing stories about the convoy’s supposed association with white supremacy, racism, and so on. Lich didn’t want to do it, but felt trapped because it had already been announced. She had only a few interviews under her belt, and no experience dealing with hostile media. To assuage her concerns, Taking Back Our Freedoms offered her some last-minute media training and arranged to have other people participating in the press conference to back her up. Even so, she felt it was minimal for what was expected of her at the press conference, which she thought was inadvertently setting her up to fail.

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Taking Back Our Freedoms executive director Roy Beyer said he and his team, which included media consultants, had, in fact, discussed the press conference with the Freedom Corp board, including Lich. He said she never expressed any concerns about not being ready and that it wasn’t until after the press conference he learned she felt like she had been, in her words, “thrown to the wolves.”

Fortunately for Lich, Keith Wilson had just arrived. The Edmonton lawyer was a godsend so far as she was concerned. “I don’t know what I would have done,” she said. “I didn’t even know what to expect.”

When Wilson learned of the press conference, alarm bells went off in his mind. He took charge of the conference and introduced Lich to deliver a prepared statement, which was crafted by Lich with a lawyer and a doctor. Unfortunately, Wilson said, it sounded like it was written by a doctor and a lawyer, and required a hasty rewrite moments before the organizers had to leave for the press conference. Lich nervously read the statement, in which she pointed out how many countries around the world had removed all restrictions and reiterated the convoy’s call for provincial and federal governments to end all mandates and restrictions.

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“We will continue our protest until we see a clear plan for their elimination,” she said. “Let me assure the people of Ottawa that we have no intent to stay one day longer than is necessary. Our departure will be based on the prime minister doing what is right—ending all mandates and restrictions on our freedoms.”

After Lich’s remarks, Quebec road captain Joanie Pelchat read a translated version in French and security lead Danny Bulford, the former RCMP officer, spoke about the peaceful nature of the protest and the open lines of communication between protesters and police. Wilson opened the floor to questions about the GoFundMe campaign. The first question, based on the premise that Ottawa residents were “terrified,” was a demand to know when the convoy would leave Ottawa (even though Lich had just addressed that in her statement). After answering the second question, which was about the funding, Wilson ended the press conference and led the organizers out. Reporters hounded Lich all the way to the stairwell but Wilson had warned her and the others beforehand to keep walking no matter what.

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The Feb. 3 press conference provided a valuable lesson for the organizers, but controlling the message and streamlining communications remained a challenge. On Feb. 9, I learned that pastor Henry Hildebrandt, who’d been holding Sunday services on the flatbed stage, would be part of a “convoy press conference” alongside People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier, Ontario member of provincial parliament Randy Hillier, and COVID-dissident doctors Paul Alexander and Roger Hodkinson at the Ottawa Marriott hotel. Both Hodkinson and Alexander are on the Taking Back Our Freedoms advisory board. Knowing Hildebrandt had been a convoy mainstay, I assumed this press conference was official, or at least as official as anything convoy-related could be. I sent an innocuous message to Dichter to confirm the location. It was the first he had heard of the press conference. Soon after, he sent out a release advising media of a press conference his group was hosting at the Sheraton at the same time, which forced the other group to postpone its event to later in the day.

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Hillier was a particular thorn in the side of the organizers—many of whom shared unflattering comments about him. One said he was the “biggest source of all the problems.” Several accused Hillier of trying to co-opt the convoy, and ultimately casting it in a bad light by straying from the focus of pushing for an end to vaccine mandates and vaccine passports through the democratic system. On the first weekend in Ottawa, Hillier removed one of the barricades on Parliament Hill that parliamentary precinct security had in place to control pedestrian traffic flow. At another point, he tweeted side-by-side photos of jerrycans of fuel beside missile heads with the caption “LET. FREEDOM. RING.”

“What a dipshit,” Dichter said of Hillier. “He’s trying to get the protesters in trouble. Intentionally. There is Randy Hillier. That’s what he really is.”

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Dichter’s attempts at controlling the media availabilities had limited success, and the problem wasn’t just from external groups, but also people inside the convoy’s organization. Just a day before the Hillier event, Dichter felt blindsided by an impromptu press conference hosted by Tom Marazzo. Marazzo came to Ottawa to provide organization and logistical support for the convoy. He called himself a volunteer rather than an organizer, and according to Dichter, said he wanted to remain a ghost, working away behind the scenes. Fed up with people seeking the spotlight in Ottawa, Dichter was relieved. Until, that is, he saw Marazzo at a boardroom table flanked by Chris Barber, Brigitte Belton, Tamara Lich and several road captains, speaking on the convoy’s behalf on a Facebook live stream. “I’m willing to sit at a table with the Conservatives and the NDP and the Bloc as a coalition,” Marazzo said. “I’ll sit with the governor general. You put me—put us—at the table with somebody that actually cares about Canada.”

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Marazzo’s comments were widely interpreted in the media as seeking to oust Justin Trudeau and replace the government with some sort of junta involving convoy organizers and opposition parties. CTV said Marazzo was now the “face of the… Freedom Convoy.” Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino accused the convoy of making “extreme statements… that would seek to incite the overthrow of the government through violence.”

Marazzo later told me he must “eat a bit of responsibility pie” for the statement, which he lamented did not come across as intended. He never sought to be a spokesperson, but said he was urged to make a public statement by some of the volunteers operating out of the secondary operations centre at the Arc. Morale was at a low point after a week-and-a-half of protest, with little progress at the federal government level. Instead of listening to the truckers, the feds had continued to vilify them. The strategy of only engaging with politicians in a position to immediately scrap mandates and passports was failing. Marazzo was exasperated and wanted to “get the ball rolling” by putting the convoy’s concerns to anyone who would listen who might be in a position to do something.

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“I didn’t care what party came into the room and said, ‘Look, I’m here on behalf of my party. What’s your concern? I’m here to help. Maybe I can go back and convince the government or somebody else in Parliament to send some sort of a delegation,’” he said.

Marazzo never envisioned—or even thought possible­—politicians forming a coalition with convoy organizers. His comment, however clumsily expressed, was a call for opposition parties to work together to hold the government accountable on the vaccine matters.

However well intentioned, it didn’t go over well with Dichter and Dagny Pawlak, who were leading the media team. The next day, they sent out a press release stating only four people were authorized to speak for the convoy—the two of them, Barber, and Lich. The implication was that Marazzo didn’t speak for the convoy, but this was a hard sell given both Barber and Belton had appeared with him.

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Pawlak’s name on that short list caught a lot of people by surprise. Even though she had been working with the convoy since the first weekend, she hadn’t been a public spokesperson. When people Googled her and saw her connections to the Liberal party, including a photo of her with Mendicino (the minister tasked with shutting down the convoy), conspiracy theories started swirling. She had previously worked as a field organizer for the Liberals, but became disenchanted with them after the 2015 election and moved on. This was no Liberal party infiltration of the convoy, just an evolution in views. Pawlak was surprised by the online backlash. She had spent the last two years active in anti-lockdown events near her hometown, and no one in Ottawa had made an issue of her Liberal past. Fellow organizers affectionately called her “Deep State Dagny.”

Tamara Lich was more widely accepted as a spokesperson, but Belton, whose early persistence with Barber made the convoy a thing, resented how much of the limelight Lich occupied. Belton doesn’t think Lich is a bad person, but insists the convoy was always supposed to be about the community rather than an individual, and that the fame got to Lich’s head.

Excerpted from The Freedom Convoy: The Inside Story of Three Weeks that Shook the World, by Andrew Lawton, a pre-order bestseller published by Sutherland House, available everywhere June 24.


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