Brigitte Belton was never in any of the headlines and, when the “Freedom Convoy” press conferences were given, she flanked the speakers instead of taking the mic herself.
But in what may come as just one little-known fact of many in the story of the convoy’s origins, there’s no doubt the 52-year-old from Wallaceburg, Ont., was among the first to get the headline-grabbing protest rolling — and that she helped keep it going.
She says it amazes her how the movement she started talking about to the selfie camera in the cab of her truck eventually spread to a surge of sentiment that has seemingly come to define populism in Canada today.
“I have never in my life protested ever,” Belton told the Star. “I never thought there was something so serious that I needed to risk my job. Risk my criminal record.”
After the convoy, Belton was not arrested or charged. She remains defiant and sees the work of the convoy as unfinished.
“Am I going to go back to Ottawa? I can’t say I won’t at this point,” she says.
The whole movement raised and lost more than $10 million twice, pulled together a cacophony of populist sentiment from across the country, and subjected the nation’s capital to blaring truck horns and street occupations for a month before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time in its history. Police arrested 230 people and laid 118 charges related to the event.
By the time bank accounts were frozen and police swept in to clear Ottawa streets of the remaining protesters and vehicles, observers all over the country were left wondering how much of it even had to do with its initial, advertised mission — getting rid of vaccine mandates for truckers and everyone else — and how much of it had become a meeting ground for all manner of quasi-organized anti-government agitating.
The convoy was surely about different things to different people. Three of its organizers, who all came to the movement with different backgrounds and goals, agreed to speak to the Star.
They are Belton, who along with Chris Barber is the reason the convoy was a trucker protest to begin with; James Bauder, who stage-managed the routes across Canada and sees the whole thing as part of his “Canada Unity” movement; and Tom Marazzo, a former military man who tried to take a leadership role when things started to get heated.
Together, they painted an image of a movement marked by massive organizational challenges and a load of internal strife. The organizers agreed that they wanted COVID-19 mandates, including the requirement that truckers be vaccinated to cross the border into Canada, gone for good. But beyond that, ideas clashed and tensions flared within the inner apparatus of the convoy about what they were there for and how far they should go to accomplish their aims.
They came together, but never fully coalesced, and while most plan to continue the work of the convoy they have disparate views of what that work is and how to pursue it.
Chapter one: The truckers
Behind the scenes, Belton quietly embodied some of the movement’s roots while watching as it mushroomed into a populist coalition far beyond her — or anyone’s — single grasp. She represented, at least in its earliest days, everything the convoy was said to stand for.
Belton is a trucker. She’s unvaccinated and unable to do her regular work crossing the U.S. border because of it. Through the pandemic and before it, she has been no fan of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and lays blame for the mandates on him more than any other politician. She remained out of the spotlight while disparate groups with different agendas hitched their trucks, RVs and tractors to the convoy coalition.
Even though she calls the attempts to keep so many disparate groups on the same page “one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Belton said she’s proud of what she views as the convoy’s best parts.
“The best thing that came out from Ottawa was I was no longer alone,” she said. “I’ve been told I’m a horrible person for not taking a vaccine that I didn’t believe in. I saw that I wasn’t alone in that.”
Although Belton was not clearly a spokesperson for the movement, every other organizer who spoke to the Star recognized that she and Barber together formed the core of the committee organizing the actual truckers who came to protest.
(The Star reached out to Barber, who was arrested at the Ottawa protests and released on bail the next day. He faces four charges related to the protests, including counselling mischief and to obstruct police. Barber declined to comment for this story, citing court conditions for his bail, but he suggested the Star reach Belton.)
Here’s the untold story of how the beginning of the convoy came about, from Belton’s perspective.
When she complained about the impending trucker vaccine mandate to the couple of hundred people she usually reached on her TikTok account in January, a sympathetic trucker from Swift Current, Sask., named Chris Barber messaged her and they formed a friendship.
With Belton’s story and Barber’s rising TikTok fame (he made deadpan, self-described “trolling” TikToks about trucking life and his dislike of Trudeau’s government), the pair started sharing the idea of a truck convoy to protest mandates. On Jan. 1, Belton started sharing what looked like a standard-sized poster reading “CONVOY TO END MANDATES” on her own TikTok, with Barber promoting the idea, too. They wanted to target roads along the border with slow rolling trucks, starting Jan. 23.
As that idea gained attention on TikTok, others took notice.
“When we started this, you have to remember, it was Chris and myself,” Belton said. “Then there was Canada Unity that came in, then there was Pat King that came in with his friends. And, you know, I mean before you know it there are a thousand groups within the one group.”
Belton said she left Ottawa before the police enforcement happened to avoid arrest and take care of her dog, who was with her. She said her bank accounts were also not frozen. Belton credits the fact that police didn’t seem interested in her due to the quiet role she played relative to another female organizer: fundraiser and spokesperson Tamara Lich.
“It seems like because of all the stuff that surrounded Tamara, I was kind of put in the background, which was OK,” Belton said. “Because being in the background, I got work done. I got stuff done. And I didn’t have as much notoriety or fame as she did.”
Belton’s main role, she said, was organizing truckers themselves, helping them to get supplies and answering their calls at any time of day.
One of the earliest meetings showcasing what would become the mixed bag of convoy leaders came on Jan. 13, on a livestream hosted by King, a right-wing social media personality interested in conspiracy theories and anti-government protesting.
The meeting opened with a video of a long-haired man in jeans and a T-shirt singing a kind of love song to freedom on the beach, and had a handful of people present — including King, Barber, Belton and James Bauder, who had been involved in the 2019 United We Roll convoy for oil and gas before going on to start his own group.
All talked about the convoy as a nascent but invigorating idea, joking with one another and discussing plans for more than an hour.
It was a show of cohesion that wouldn’t last.
Chapter two: The convoy
James Bauder would become one of the most recognizable figures in the convoy, not because he was at the centre of press conferences (he is quick to point out that he never was), but because he brought organizational help — things such as maps, schedules and chains of communication — to a motley group.
It was Bauder’s website, Canada Unity, that became the key organizational tool for those wanting to join the convoy, laying out route maps and displaying the phone numbers for convoy contacts from across the country. Bauder called it “Operation Bearhug” and reused organizational tactics of United We Roll and other smaller convoys.
Bauder himself remained relatively quiet throughout the month that trucks and other protesters stayed parked in Ottawa. But he is also the author of one of the infamous documents associated with the protest: the Canada Unity Memorandum of Understanding.
He had attempted to deliver the MOU to Senate officials in December of 2021 during an earlier anti-restrictions convoy and later posted the document to his website — the same website where all the route maps and convoy contacts were posted.
Written in legalese and bizarrely addressed to the Senate and Governor General — but not the government of Canada — the MOU was seen by many as evidence of the convoy’s nefarious intentions. Bauder, who has called COVID-19 restrictions a “crime against humanity” and “treason” on his website and social media, says he believed the pseudolegal document could be used as a direct appeal to Canada’s upper house and head of state.
The document, which asks that those two bodies intervene to end federal COVID-19 mandates and, failing that, trigger a referendum to launch a new election, sounded not just outlandish (the Governor General and Senate do not have this power) but potentially insurrectionist, prompting some to equate the document with a written intention by Canada Unity — and therefore the convoy as a whole — to overthrow the government.
Jody Thomas, Trudeau’s national security adviser, repeated that claim, saying there was “no doubt” protesters wanted to overthrow the government.
In an interview with the Star, Bauder said that the MOU was broadly misinterpreted and that he never wrote about or held intentions to try to overthrow the government. Still, he says, he stands by the document and doesn’t regret releasing it. He talks about the MOU like a kind of jacked-up petition that, had it been signed by the five million Canadians he was aiming for, would have been impossible for the government to ignore. He said the first priority of the document was just to apply pressure to lift the mandates, and believes that it could have been used to compel the Governor General to trigger a referendum on mandates if the government refused to lift them (the document got about 350,000 signatures before he took it down, according to the counter on Bauder’s website).
What Bauder does regret, he says, are some of the alliances he made in the early days of the convoy when he got on phone calls like the one on Jan. 13 with King, Barber and Belton.
“Lessons learned,” he said. “Be careful who you partner with.”
“I have learned so much and been so deceived. With respect to receiving those phone calls, I wish that I could have gone back and said no.”
From the earliest days of the convoy, Bauder’s aims were related but separate from those of the Freedom Convoy 2022 organizers, according to both himself and the other organizers. Even though his website was instrumental in organizing convoy routes, Bauder says he was never a part of the Freedom Convoy 2022, which later formalized itself as a not-for-profit organization with the help of lawyer Keith Wilson.
Instead, Bauder’s project was (and still is) Operation Bearhug, which he sees as an ongoing movement using tactics such as slow-roll convoys, rallies and “mask-free shopping” events in an attempt to rally support against restrictions and for his MOU, which he still believes could be a tool to pressure the government into ending the last of the mandates.
He’s currently working on a version of Operation Bearhug in British Columbia, with a smaller convoy of vehicles camping on a private property in Delta, near Vancouver. They’re planning a variety of protests as well as lawsuits, and dreaming of eventually leveraging the movement into its own political party.
Police in Delta said they haven’t had any issues with the group gathering in B.C. so far.
Here’s where Bauder’s and Belton’s stories diverge.
From Bauder’s point of view, the Ottawa convoy was a part of his Operation Bearhug, with Belton and Barber signing onto his pre-existing plan. He said he felt that way until some truckers got to Ottawa a day earlier than scheduled, began occupying the streets of Ottawa under the encouragement of people like Pat King, who proposed blockades in front of politicians’ residences and said on a livestream: “This is so much fun, we have all of Ottawa gridlocked.”
THE MOST POWERFUL SALE & AFFILIATE PLATFORM AVAILABLE!
There's no credit card required! No fees ever.Create Your Free Account Now!
Bauder said that’s when he decided to “step back” from the core organizing committee, while Belton and Barber say he was always at arm’s length from their efforts.
The money raised and who had control over it was another source of contention. The $10 million raised first through GoFundMe and then through the Christian charity site GiveSendGo was being managed by Tamara Lich under the direction of the Freedom Convoy 2022 team: truckers such as Belton and Barber.
No one who spoke to the Star had any issues with Lich, who was described neutrally as either the fundraiser or the accountant.
Every organizer reached also said that even though they were upset the money raised didn’t go to protesters’ expenses, they’re glad the fundraising platforms ultimately returned the money to donors instead of donating the funds somewhere else.
But Bauder saw the fact that the fundraisers were under control of those other leaders as evidence that his movement had been “co-opted,” perhaps for political purposes. He disliked Lich’s affiliation with the Maverick Party, the western separatist ideas of which he sees as antithetical to his “Canada Unity” movement.
He didn’t like that “Freedom Convoy 2022” seemed to be forming as a separate entity from Operation Bearhug, his brainchild. Freedom Convoy seemed to Bauder to be loosely affiliated with separatist parties, while he saw his whole effort as a “unity” movement.
“It just disgusted me deeply inside to see egos, greed and politics jump in and co-opt our movement,” Bauder said.
As for King, Bauder saw him initially as someone who could publicize what they were doing, but that ultimately his livestreams encouraging protesters to stay on the streets and occupy “did a lot of damage to the movement.”
It is clear that hard feelings remain about King’s style and approach to the movement.
“We’re like, this is interesting stuff we were doing behind the scenes while everybody’s making a fool of themselves with their live feeds and Pat King there, eh,” Bauder said. “I tell you, personally, I think he should stay in jail.”
All the organizers eventually distanced themselves from King, with Lich being one of the people clarifying that the Freedom Convoy fundraiser on GoFundMe had nothing to do with King.
King was arrested as part of the Ottawa protests and remains in jail facing 10 charges, including mischief, counselling mischief and intimidation. The Star has reached out to a lawyer who has spoken for King in some of his court appearances for comment but did not hear back.
Belton denied Bauder’s implication that she and Barber were “co-opting” the movement for political purposes.
“The convoy was not there for political purposes. I said it in interviews, that if people were coming for political purposes, they needed to go home,” Belton said. “We were not there as a political party. We were there to have the mandates dropped.”
And she downplayed Bauder’s role.
“He’s a nice man … but he needs to feel that he is the leader of the pack,” she said. “Which is not the truth.”
Chapter three: The occupation
None of the organizers the Star spoke to on or off the record denied the reality that the convoy, whatever it started out as, became illegal when it parked on Ottawa’s streets and occupied them.
They did offer some explanations or deferrals of responsibility. Belton said they wanted the trucks to keep moving or park only in front of Parliament. Bauder said he never wanted protesters to stay parked in town at all.
But the person who became responsible for sorting all of this out was a newer addition to the organizational crew. Neither an original “Freedom Convoy 2022” organizer, nor a Canada Unity organizer, retired Canadian Forces captain Tom Marazzo says he came onto the convoy scene as an independent volunteer and ended up taking on “the biggest leadership challenge of my entire life.”
“I wasn’t signing people’s paycheques. Nobody had to listen to anything that I had to say,” Marazzo told the Star shortly after the protest ended.
In the end, sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t.
Marazzo appeared suddenly on the convoy scene on Feb. 7 as the movement’s new spokesperson, when he gave an impassioned speech about how he’d meet with any elected official from any party, since Trudeau had repeatedly refused a meeting (some critics interpreted this as an expression of support by Marazzo for Bauder’s MOU, which Marazzo says he has never read).
Marazzo’s role with the convoy, as he describes it, was to speak on behalf of the group of organizers, and to try to work at a high level with police and public officials to keep the protest running smoothly. He was recognized by other convoy organizers for his affiliation with the Police on Guard group, a collection of retired and current police and military members who opposed vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions. He says his military experience is why he was asked to take on a leadership role.
It was a balancing act. Marazzo admits there were illegal occupations happening, but also asserts they had a right to keep protesting and wanted to make sure that could happen. Marazzo said he quickly realized how many different organizations had attached themselves to the convoy and the challenge he would have not only to simplify the message, but to try to direct traffic when so many of the people who had shown up had their own pre-existing affiliations.
“I remember being in a meeting with various members of different organizations and I said, ‘Listen, we are not Canada Unity, we’re not Taking Back our Freedoms, we are not part of any of the social media darlings that are going around and saying all these things,’” he said. “’We are here for the Freedom Convoy 2022. We’re here to end the mandates.’”
Marazzo said that, to Bauder’s credit, Canada Unity did seem to go off and do “their own thing,” reducing the noise within the core of central organizers.
Getting everyone on the same page didn’t always work, especially on the roads themselves, where Marazzo said he knew loads of people were parked illegally and the top priority for a while became making sure emergency lanes remained open everywhere.
“There were a lot of people there that, you know, were adamant that they weren’t going to go home until these federal mandates were lifted. They didn’t want to use violence, but they’re like: ‘No, I’m doing this. Maybe I’m illegally parked, fine. I’ll accept that,’” he said. “There was a whole group of truckers that showed up the day before the main convoy arrived and they took positions all around that corner. And so this was a movement of several different people from all across Canada that came together and basically found a parking spot in Ottawa.”
Belton arrived early in Ottawa, on the Friday, as did King. A pickup truck also drove through Ottawa on that day waving a confederate flag which was quickly denounced by Barber, who led the group of trucks that arrived Saturday, at the time.
Marazzo described working with Barber, Belton and Lich, as well as other former service members such as Danny Bulford most closely.
Jason LaFace, an Ontario organizer who spoke with the Star after the convoy and had volunteered with Canada Unity, said that at some point in Ottawa COVID-19 went around. LaFace said he was tested and tested positive.
“When I was in Ottawa, there’s a lot of us who believe that we got sprayed on the first weekend we were there because there was some type of aerosol in the air,” he said, without elaborating.
COVID-19 does spread through aerosols, but it is transmitted from aerosols given off by people when they talk, eat and breathe.
The organizer, who initially worked with Bauder, also said that regardless of its intentions, the MOU became too much of a distraction.
“To be honest with you, I would have never even brought (the MOU) to light. I would have just went down there protested, protested properly,” LaFace said.
Marazzo described one circumstance in which he said he worked with officials from the city of Ottawa on a plan to move trucks away from the downtown. News of that deal was leaked Feb. 13 and it never came to fruition. Marazzo says it might have, if only he had time to explain it fully to protesters before they read about it online and dug their heels in.
A representative for the mayor’s office wouldn’t confirm that Marazzo was the person in meetings with city officials.
As it happened, the occupation continued and police cleared the protests Feb. 18. Marazzo was there, watching, and sarcastically cheering, he said, the officers doing the enforcing, but clearing out of the way himself before he was arrested. He had hoped the police were on the side of the convoy and wouldn’t make them go home in this way.
But when he got home, he was grateful to be there, but furious at his bank for freezing his accounts because of his connection to the protests.
“I don’t really know what is next. I’ll be involved in the convoy until I needed and, if I’m not needed, I’ll go back to my life,” he told the Star shortly after the arrests happened.
On Monday, he announced he would be running for Derek Sloan’s new populist party, the Ontario Party, in the next provincial election.
LaFace said he’s running with the Ontario Party, too, and that he wants to tackle the homelessness crisis.
“I’m going to run for provincial (office) here in Ontario because we need change,” he said. “We should be able to go into government and resolve problems together. You know, and get them done instead of dragging them on for decades.”
Belton expressed no political aspirations, but said she’s still using her voice to argue against mandates, especially since she was not arrested and does not face bail conditions as others do.
Bauder has already moved his attention toward British Columbia, organizing convoys (that won’t be occupations, he says) in Vancouver and Victoria while vaccine passports remain in place.
And as pandemic restrictions lift across the country, the organizers of the convoy are trying to make sense of what the alliances they formed during those weeks of sustained protest now mean.
For Belton, she’s still waiting to be allowed to cross the border and figures that, one way or another, she’ll be protesting until the mandate gets lifted.
“If you’re vaccinated, you can cross both ways,” she said. “I’m still angry. And until it gets fixed, I have no choice. I have to stand up.”
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe