A criminal trial opened on Tuesday for two Canadians who were key organizers of the trucker convoy that paralyzed the country’s capital, Ottawa, for nearly a month in early 2022, upturning the lives of many residents and creating economic hardship for local businesses and workers.
The 22-day protest, which began in response to mandatory vaccinations for cross-border truck drivers, blocked major roads around the Canadian Parliament and was among the longest and most costly anti-vaccine protests in the world.
It prompted copycat demonstrations along Canada’s border with the United States, including a blockade that disrupted billions of dollars in trade, and inspired similar protests in France and around the world. The Canadian protests expanded to include a wide range of grievances, sharply dividing the country over whether it was permissible speech or unlawful assembly.
In order to clear the streets, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked federal emergency laws for the first time in over 50 years, a step his critics charged was excessive and unjustified.
The defendants are Tamara Lich, a political activist from Medicine Hat, Alberta, who started an online funding campaign for the protest, and Chris Barber, a trucking company owner from Swift Current, Saskatchewan. The pair are the first members of a loosely connected and not always aligned group of organizers to be tried for their roles in a protest that had no clear central leadership.
Both Ms. Lich and Mr. Barber, were among those who spoke for the convoy protesters and face charges under Canadian law of mischief, obstructing police, counseling others to commit mischief and intimidation. Mr. Barber has also been charged with defying a court order banning the incessant honking of truck air horns and revving of truck engines, often in residential areas, during the first days of the blockade.
The prosecution asserted on Tuesday that their actions went well beyond freedom of expression and showed “flagrant” disregard for the law, contrary to what the defendants have alleged.
“This case is not about their political views,” Tim Radcliffe, a prosecutor, told the court in brief opening remarks on Tuesday. “Freedom of expression, like all other charter rights, is not an absolute right.”
But Diane Magas, a lawyer representing Mr. Barber, said that she will show that he was engaged in a “lawful, peaceful protest” and that he complied with police requests for assistance before his arrest.
Lawrence Greenspon, the lawyer for Ms. Lich (pronounced LEECH), suggest that the protesters’ rights trump any disruption or economic harms caused by the city’s downtown being noisily shut down.
“In a contest between constitutionally protected freedom of assembly and freedom of expression and property rights that are not constitutionally protected — there is no contest,” he said.
He also called the prosecution’s description of the protest as an “occupation” “inflammatory, inaccurate and insensitive.” But Justice Heather E. Perkins-McVey of the Ontario Court of Justice, rejected a defense request to ban its using during the trial.
Errol P. Mendes, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said that an inquiry into Mr. Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act received overwhelming evidence that protesters broke many laws.
“But they’re still saying that they did nothing criminal, that they were just exercising their freedom of association, freedom of expression,” Professor Mendes said. That argument, he said, will likely not be accepted by the judge.
Ms. Lich was previously active in a western separatist political movement and a small protest group in Alberta that adopted the yellow vests of French protesters.
She has spent 49 days in jail between awaiting bail and then after being briefly returned to jail for bail violations. Some legal experts anticipate that if she is convicted, she is likely to be sentenced to time served. The small number of protesters who were not leaders and who have appeared in court have received that sentence or a period of probation.
Mr. Barber was released on bail without spending time in jail.
About 230 people were arrested during the protests but it still remains unclear how many of them were charged.
Ms. Lich, who raised millions of dollars — most of which was either returned or ultimately seized — has continually defended her actions while awaiting trial, publishing a memoir about the blockade.
Such was the uproar over the protest that some reports anticipated a surge of spectators at Tuesday’s hearing. But outside the courthouse the number of supporters of the defendants started small and dwindled to a handful of people.
The trial is expected to last at least 16 days and hear from 22 prosecution witnesses. The verdict will be rendered by a judge.