Manitoulin contingent cheers on Freedom Convoy at Espanola, Nairn

Trucks from across Western Canada travelled along Highway 17, bound for the protest in Ottawa. photos by Michael Erskine

ESPANOLA – Sundogs gleamed in the frigid January air as dozens of vehicles, a number towing trailers filled with supplies, pulled into a truck stop in Nairn Centre to await the arrival of the Freedom Convoy coming from Western Canada and headed for a protest in the nation’s capital. It was to prove a long wait for many as the caravan of heavy trucks, SUVs, pickups and RVs, originally expected around 9 am on Friday, was delayed leaving Sault Ste. Marie by several hours. 

The delays and temperatures in the double minus digits did little to dampen the spirits of the Freedom Convoy supporters gathered in Nairn Centre, most of whom seemed to come from the nearby City of Greater Sudbury, but also included a significant contingent from across Manitoulin Island. 

Broad smiles were the order of the day amongst the largely unmasked crowd and impromptu singing and laughter could be heard ringing out across the parking lot. Many of those gathered carried signs and placards ranging from exhortations of peace and love to profane condemnations of the prime minister. The most common sign to be seen being waved about, aside from Canadian flags, were those suggesting Justin Trudeau ‘take a hike,’ to put it politely, but some prominent orange Every Child Matters banners were also in evidence.

Some of those gathered at Nairn Centre stood around a fire seeking to stave off the harsh mid-winter cold, but most were well-dressed and ready for the cold. “We are Canadians!” responded one of the supporters. Others kept busy setting up tables laden with food and drink for the convoy members, many of whom had travelled from the West Coast as part of the convoy.

OPP estimates of the convoy leaving Sault Ste. Marie were of roughly 300 vehicles, stretching out for some 17 kilometres, about one-third of which were heavy transports, but the dispersal of the vehicles as they arrived in the region made accurate estimates challenging, as did the intermingling of working commercial trucks and other vehicles on the highway. That did little to hamper a number of those preparing for the convoy in estimating a cast of thousands.

Another convoy from the west was headed across the Highway 11 corridor and it was anticipated the two groups would meet up in North Bay before heading south to Ottawa.

The only “negative” event that occurred in Nairn Centre while The Expositor was in attendance was when a woman began berating a television crew with shouts of “leave, you aren’t wanted here!” It was a matter of seconds before someone intervened and told the woman to desist. Other than that one outburst, no other confrontational events were witnessed during the two hours The Expositor was in attendance at the site.

Honora Bay entrepreneur and vocal online opponent of vaccine mandates and restrictions, Kyla Jansen, was far more representative of the mood and demeanor of those attending the site.

“We just want to be able to visit our loved ones in the nursing home, to be able to hold the hands of our loved ones during their final moments,” said Ms. Jansen as to the motivation behind the protest.

Most others, like Jackie Shawanda of Sheguiandah First Nation (whose truck was one of those featuring an Every Child Matters banner on its grill), cited their support for truckers and fears that Canadian rights and freedoms are being eroded by government decisions. Although most restrictions cited by those in attendance involved provincial mandates, anger seemed to be largely directed at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—at least judging by the signs and banners in evidence.

Most of the vehicles in the Freedom Convoy were of the smaller variety, but well-bedecked in any event.

Moving to the junction of Highway 6 and Highway 17 at Espanola, many in the crowd hailed from Manitoulin Island. A huge number of Canadian flags and the aforementioned anti-Trudeau banners were in evidence. 

“We trying to show support for the truckers,” said Declan Allison, before adding “we all dislike the prime minister.” Mr. Allison, his brother and friends were decked in maple leaf hats and were waving Canadian flags.”

Although a GoFundMe account that has raised over eight million dollars in support of the convoy was set up by a member of the Maverick Party (formally known as Wexit and labelled by Liberals as “separatist”), that party has disavowed any official connection with the fundraiser or the convoy, although most members have voiced support for the goals of the convoy. A truck bearing a large Maverick Party sign was in the centre of the convoy.

The most common theme expressed by those identifying as from the west briefly interviewed through the windows of their vehicles as they passed through the junction was one of “unity.”

“Finally, the country is united,” offered one man who said he hailed from Red Deer, Alberta. Those in the convoy were obviously grateful for the outpouring of support expressed by those lining the highways. “This is wonderful,” said a woman passenger who said they came from Lloydminster, Alberta.

An “extremist” sign of a different bent expressed the hopes of many.

There was no sign of any overt police attendance either at the support stop in Nairn Centre or at the juncture of the highways coming from the Island, nor was there any sign of abuse being expressed by the crowd, violence or anger expressed towards the press, as cited by other news outlets along the route, (well, except for the aforementioned) and once, as the end of the main body of the convoy passed Espanola when one individual accosted The Expositor.

“Tell the truth,” exhorted one man who confronted the Expositor, and who went on to claim that all mainstream media has been paid off by the Liberal government to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars and as a consequence, all news is skewed to the government narrative.

The Expositor disagreed.