Inuit students, Nunavut MP avoid downtown Ottawa amid ongoing convoy protest

For much of last week, Kim Pilgrim has avoided going out.

Pilgrim, who is originally from Nunatsiavut and now in her first year at Nunavut Sivuniksavut, an Inuit studies program in Ottawa, said the ongoing trucker convoy protest has her questioning her safety out in public.

“I’ve been staying home because it is pretty scary,” she said.

The protest, which has rolled into its second week, has been disrupting the lives of people who live, work and study in the downtown area.

There have been people honking throughout her neighbourhood too, Pilgrim said. Sandy Hill, which sits just outside of the downtown core, is where where some protesters have parked their trucks. 

“We’ve heard a lot of horror stories,” said Pilgrim. “Our school and instructors and friends and social media have all been warning us to stay inside and not to engage with that.”

Pilgrim said some of those stories include people using racial slurs and people being assaulted, having their masks removed or being denied entry to public parks and public streets.

People stand in the Ottawa anti-pandemic rule protest ‘red zone’ in front of Parliament Hill Tuesday. (Simon Lasalle/Radio-Canada)

So far, Pilgrim said she has not been directly harassed by anyone. But she feels the tone of this protest compared to previous smaller-sized COVID-19-related protests is more aggressive.

“These people, from what I’ve seen, have been trying to aggravate people and trying to get a response with what they’ve been saying and doing,” Pilgrim said.

“The vibe is definitely not good downtown right now. A lot of people I’ve seen just from being in my neighborhood [have been] trying to avoid the downtown core. People have been staying in and being a bit fearful.”

Pilgrim isn’t the only student who has noticed this.

Shelby Angalik is from Arviat, Nunavut, and  is also a first year student at Nunavut Sivuniksavut. 

“I feel like it’s more racially driven now,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s really focused on masks anymore. It just feels like it’s a way for people to express whatever feelings they have toward racism or how people are treated.”

‘It’s clear that I look Indigenous’

Angalik said she also is worried from a health standpoint, as she said she has witnessed people encouraging others to stop wearing masks. She’s even postponed her grocery shopping due to fears of harassment by protesters downtown, where she lives. She said that so far, she hasn’t been harassed, but it is a worry.

“It’s been really scary… I wear my parka with fur boots, it’s clear that I look Indigenous,” she said.

“Being afraid of being harassed in some way, even for wearing a mask and then, on top of that, being more afraid of COVID and how easier it’ll spread throughout Ottawa because of all the people gathering, has been scary.”

Angalik said the ongoing honking downtown last week was “incredibly disturbing,” and it interfered with her ability to do schoolwork at home.

She said she’s had to take a step back from social media too.

“It’s taken a toll on my mental health in general, and [on] my view on Canada, itself,” she said.

She thinks if the protesters were predominantly Indigenous, the protest would have been stopped earlier.

Double standard in policing

Tungasuvvingat Inuit (TI), which works to support urban Inuit in Ottawa, said in a statement last week that it supported the Algonquins of Pikwaknagan, Kitigan Zibi and the Algonquin Nation Tribal Council in opposition to the ‘Freedom Convoy Protest’ using cultural practices of Indigenous people in ceremonies.

The organization said it believes “in the right to peaceful protests” but that the current protest in downtown Ottawa has “introduced a high-level anxiety and increased fear for the vulnerable Indigenous communities in the area.”

Lori Idlout, Nunavut’s NDP MP, says she’s staying away from Parliament Hill and working from home. (Don Sommers/CBC)

Meanwhile, Nunavut Member of Parliament Lori Idlout said she has been staying away from Parliament Hill and working from home. She said the freedom convoy can be traumatizing, and that it’s not worth the stress to work in the downtown area where there have been reports of harassment and violence.

She thinks the police are taking a soft approach to the demonstration.

“It’s so unfortunate to see the unequal treatment that First Nation, Métis, Inuit, and people of colour experience from police enforcement,” she said.

“It’s exposed just how much, how unequal [the treatment] is that we receive compared to people who have privilege.”

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