By Amy Oldfield
On a bright, cold day in September, a group of Lowertown locals and community activists gathered outside of St. Brigid’s Church to celebrate an eviction. Protestors brought chairs, donuts, and hot chocolate. One played NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” on a portable speaker. Riffing on the same theme, another protestor carried a sign that said “Bye Bye Losers.”
A small group of these protestors stayed outside the church from the early afternoon until about 10:30pm, when the last car left the parking lot. “That’s it you guys. It’s all done,” one protestor said on her Facebook live.
Earlier that day, September 23, Superior Court Justice Sally Gomery granted an application to evict The United People of Canada (TUPOC) from St. Brigid’s. The deconsecrated church in Lowertown has been the center of controversy since June, when TUPOC began leasing the facility.
The United People of Canada say on their website that they are a “diverse, intergenerational fraternal organization.” The group incorporated as a not for profit business six months ago, according to federal filings. TUPOC referred to St. Brigid as an “Embassy” and said their goal was to turn it into a “community centre” and “co-working space.”
But the group’s connections to the “freedom movement” caused some locals to worry that the enormous building, within walking distance from Parliament, could become a stronghold for a future convoy.
The legal battle began on August 17 when property owner Patrick McDonald tried to evict TUPOC for not paying rent. The group’s director William Komer protested the eviction in court on September 19.
According to court documents, TUPOC signed an agreement of purchase and sale (APS) in June. A clause in the APS said TUPOC would lease the property while making deposits on the $5.95 million purchase price.
McDonald’s lawyer Gordon Douglas argued TUPOC breached the conditions of the APS by failing to pay rent. As stated in the APS, this voided the agreement and effectively terminated both the lease and the sale.
TUPOC’s lawyer Saron Gebresellassi argued they had raised the money but McDonald rejected their payments. Gebresellassi suggested the landlord purposefully refused rent because he wanted to “reverse out of his own deal” due to “negative media attention.”
Justice Gomery said TUPOC did not prove to her satisfaction they had the funds or that McDonald had ever rejected payments. The only piece of evidence TUPOC gave to support their claim was an affidavit from Komer. Gomery said this wasn’t sufficient and commented: “I find this odd, I’ve never seen this in an affidavit before. [Mr. Komer] doesn’t attach a single piece of corroborating evidence.”
Komer told The Leveller on September 23 that TUPOC “disagree[s] with the decision” and will be “dealing with that through the appropriate legal channels, with an appeal in the divisional court” He went on to say, “it’s unfortunate that Patrick McDonald didn’t tell the truth when under oath.” He said TUPOC would “be addressing the untrue statements with the Ottawa police service.”
The group’s connections to the “freedom movement” caused some locals to worry that the enormous building, within walking distance from Parliament, could become a stronghold for a future convoy.
Protesters fear a permanent convoy foothold
Deana Sherif was a counter-protester at the convoy, where she held a homemade sign that said “Go home terrorists.” She brought the same sign with her to St. Brigid’s. “I just showed up, played my music, had my banners,” Deana told The Leveller outside the courthouse on September 19, the day of TUPOC’s hearing. “My concern is a foothold for the convoy, of them establishing a legit space.”
When Sherif first started protesting, she said TUPOC didn’t really like her there, “but we were keeping it sort of friendly, back and forth… it started to get more hostile as things progressed.” One moment she remembers things turning sour was when she and a TUPOC supporter named Walter ‘Brian’ Derksen “got into the COVID conversation.”
“He said, ‘do you even know anybody who died?’” Sherif recounted. “I replied ‘yeah, my dad’.”
She said Derksen tried to argue with her — he asked about her dad’s age and “underlying conditions.” From there, she said, “I lost it.”
TUPOC’s website says they are committed to “truth-seeking and healing as a community.” TUPOC director William Komer told The Leveller, “There’s been a lot of hurt within communities over the last couple years from people being at each other’s throats from their perspectives on vaccinations, masks, mandates, and things like that.” He believes different perspectives on getting a vaccine and wearing a mask are equal points of view that can and should be shared through “respectful dialogue.”
“We’re not going to be shunning [anyone] from the property simply because they are opposed to vaccination mandates, they believe in bodily autonomy, their body their choice,” Komer said.
But the idea that everyone should be able to make their own decisions about masking and vaccines is complicated in a global pandemic. Exercising an individual right to not comply with mandates can infringe on the rights of others — specifically, on the communities’ collective right to take measures necessary to keep all of its members safe.
“To [the freedom convoy], freedom means individual freedom,” Sam Hersh, board member of community group Horizon Ottawa, told The Leveller on the phone. “We saw during the pandemic the collective well-being of people means nothing to them… all they care about is [that] they should be able to do what they want.”
When TUPOC first moved into the neighbourhood, Horizon Ottawa circulated a petition. Hersh said, “the goal was to demand the city either take the church under public ownership or facilitate local ownership with grants. We wanted a way to bring attention to it, and we wanted to talk to neighbours… we door-knocked many times in the community and maybe one or two out of the hundreds of people that we spoke to were in favour of TUPOC taking over St. Brigid’s. But the others are in favour of them leaving.”
One of the people who favoured them leaving is Christine Vincent. A Métis grandmother “born and raised in Ottawa,” Christine told The Leveller that having a permanent TUPOC facility in the neighbourhood would be “the worst thing that could ever happen… it would be very dangerous, because of what happened with the truckers.”
TUPOC denies any affiliation with the convoy, and director William Komer told the Ottawa Citizen he was prepared to pursue “legal consequences” for those who “spread defamatory libel.” He conceded to The Leveller that TUPOC has “a lot of volunteers who have attended, supported, participated in the freedom convoy… perhaps a disproportionate number.”
Obfuscation around the ties between TUPOC and the convoy made Vincent feel like TUPOC are “liars.” “They tried to tell me there’s only 2% in [TUPOC] that’s a part of the convoy. Well, some of the leaders have a direct connection with Tamara Lich.”
One of these connections comes through former TUPOC director Kimberley Ward. Ward has said she acted as a “spiritual advisor” for Tamara Lich’s husband, Dwayne Lich. Anti Hate reported Ward was seen celebrating outside the courthouse when Lich was released from jail on July 26.
William Komer also confirmed to The Leveller that Dwayne Lich took a tour of St. Brigid’s. “Dwayne is a supporter of our project here to restore this church. I don’t know if his wife does or doesn’t support what we’re doing here. I know Dwayne definitely does.”
Photos on Dwayne Lich’s Facebook page show him posing with William Komer and Kimberley Ward wearing matching TUPOC sweatshirts. He also uploaded a video of red baseball caps being machine-embroidered with the TUPOC logo.
Komer called the implication that Dwayne Lich’s support meant TUPOC was affiliated with Tamara Lich “discrimination based on marital status.” He went on: “It’s quite a known thing that not all couples agree about everything.” When asked if Tamara Lich had visited St. Brigid’s, Komer said, “not to my knowledge, I’ve never seen her here.” For his part, Komer says he attended the convoy as part of a “documentary film project.”
Another former director of TUPOC, Diane Nolan, attended the convoy and livestreamed from the event, according to CTV. Nolan declined to speak to The Leveller, but a Facebook video showed her speaking enthusiastically about the convoy. “The whole world needs to know that that event transformed hearts and lives,” Nolan said in the grainy footage. “So we need to start talking about a bigger gathering. It’s not about a convoy, it’s about an uprising.”
Many TUPOC volunteers and supporters also participated in the convoy. Judy Martens, also known as Rosie Convoy, appeared in a surreal CBC photo in front of the church doors, flanking a crowned William Komer and holding a water gun. Judy Martens told the Ottawa Citizen she proudly participated in the convoy and identified herself as a TUPOC volunteer in a YouTube livestream.
In the same video Brian Derksen, who calls himself ‘The Trucker Who Never Left,’ referred to the people hanging out in the St. Brigid garage as a “Freedom Family.” He said: “I’ve been hanging out with these guys since January… The protest has never ended. It’s been ongoing. We’ve kept it alive.” Derksen also hosted an open mic at St. Brigid’s, as TUPOC’s twitter trumpeted.
Norman Traversy is another TUPOC supporter who told The Leveller he “helps out when [he] can” and has “helped them raise funds.” He was also one of the organizers for the convoy — Traversy said he was “in charge of the reception committee here in Ottawa.” In his opinion, The United People of Canada “hold the same moral virtues as the convoy.”
On eviction day, TUPOC volunteers loaded boxes into the back of a white pick-up truck decorated with Sharpie signatures and slogans, like a yearbook page of convoy messaging: “Freedom for all”, “We the Fringe”, “Hold the line!”, “Keep Canada strong and free!!”, and “I’d like to stick a bouncy castle up Trudy’s fat ass”
Later that night around 8:45pm, TUPOC volunteers and supporters gathered in the emptying garage and sang along to “Truck You Trudeau,” a pro-convoy track by SixXx’Tre. The first few lines are: “2022 Freedom Convoy, what’s up? Let’s roll. My people want they Freedom back, so please take off that dumb ass mask.”
All these observable links between TUPOC and the convoy, paired with William Komer’s insistence that they have no affiliation with the convoy or the freedom movement, have frustrated protestors. Christine Vincent said, “It’s like they’re wearing a face mask. And you really have to peel off the face mask before you see what’s underneath.”
Harassment and racism surround allegedly peaceful freedom movement
Chris Dacey, who publishes as Dacey Media, gained a following on social media livestreaming the convoy. He told The Leveller he started coming to St. Brigid’s “around when the controversy really started.” Since then he has filmed interviews with TUPOC members and livestreamed hang-outs in the garage with supporters. From his perspective, media coverage about both the convoy and TUPOC has been “skewed.”
“I saw [the convoy] every day and filmed it,” he said, “and it was peaceful.”
Both Chris Dacey and William Komer said they feel TUPOC is facing discrimination because of perceived ties to the convoy. “Someone said “we don’t want your kind here,” Dacey said. “I guess Convoy types… ‘Freedom’ whatever? I can’t believe I’m saying that, but that’s become like a creed of people in Canada and they’re being — honestly it sounds ridiculous, I’m not one to talk like that — but it’s like they’re being discriminated against.”
A point of contention between TUPOC and their protestors is the idea that the convoy was a peaceful demonstration. “I think [the convoy] sort of skewed the popular idea of what is a legitimate means of protest,” said Sam Hersh from Horizon. Hersh has attended protests led by other groups in the city, such as the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition, and compared those actions to the convoy. “When we’re doing a protest, we don’t harass people. If someone has to go to work or an ambulance needs to pass, we let them pass. We don’t harass people in the street.”
Many Centretown residents said they faced harassment from protestors during the convoy (as Global News and many other sources documented), and the Ottawa Citizen reported ambulances were “pelted with rocks.”
The same day the city declared a state of emergency over the convoy, someone started a fire in the lobby of a Lisgar Street apartment building. Security footage showed that after the arsonist started the fire, they duct-taped the front doors shut, according to CBC News. Two men have been charged with arson, and police said there was “no information” about whether or not they were involved with the protest.
But Matias Muñoz, a resident of the building, posted on Twitter that “After a night of blaring horns and fireworks until 4AM, some residents had yelled & pleaded with protesters outside to stop.”
The convoy also attracted racism. “I saw a Nazi flag, I saw Confederate flags, I saw 3 Percenter flags,” Hersh said. “Imagery is violent, too.”
The 3 Percenters are a far-right paramilitary group that believes in arming and defending themselves against government tyranny. In the United States, an armed group of 3 Percenters attended the 2018 white supremacist march in Charlottesville where a counter-protester was killed. They have been called the “most dangerous group” in Canada right now, according to CBC News. Other far right groups were also represented at the convoy, like Qanon (as documented in The Guardian), Canada First (Canadian Anti-Hate Network), and Plaid Army (Press Progress).
William Komer told The Leveller he “didn’t observe any hostility, white supremacy, racism, any of that” at the convoy. “Could there be someone in there who someone could identify as a racist? Potentially, the same as any massive crowd of people.”
Yet, outside of St. Brigid’s, Lowertown protestors observed that TUPOC attracts racism too. Deana Sherif captured some of these instances on video. In one filmed on September 5, Sherif stands across the street from the church and greets a man “from the other side” who had been standing with TUPOC volunteers. In the video, he refers to the media as “all that Jewish bullshit” and says “you can be on Christ’s side or the side of the Jews, the people who murdered him.” Sherif said the man is not a member of TUPOC, but she did see him at the church again a few times.
Another video posted to Twitter shows a shouting match between Sherif and a visitor at one of TUPOC’s community barbeques. The man walks towards Sherif, who is filming from the other side of the road, and spits at her. Sherif crosses the street to confront him, saying, “What, are you going to spit at me?” The man turns around and responds, “You’re ugly and your friend’s a n*****.”
Chris Dacey said he was there when the altercation happened. He explained the man was “a random local, just enjoying the barbeque” but that Sherif, “the woman with the ‘go home terrorist’ sign was screaming and yelling at everyone, for half an hour, and finally he lost his mind and he went over and said the most inflaming thing he could think of to her, which was the N word. And she lost her mind.”
Afterwards, Dacey said that the man went inside the church and Diane Nolan, the former TUPOC director, “talked to him for quite a while. He needed help, that guy, he was suffering, there was something going on. He went inside for a little bit, he got some help, he went on his way.” He added, “You can’t do that stuff, nobody condones that.”
On August 23, a TUPOC supporter posted a screenshot to Facebook showing a donation he made to TUPOC’s GiveSendGo fundraiser for eighty-eight dollars, with the comment “HAIL MY BROTHER! Love the great space you’ve set up for families and all Canadians to chat and discuss like enlightened volk!” (This is a clear allusion to the Nazi fetishization of an idealized Aryan volk or folk.) In a livestream filmed outside of St. Brigid’s, this same poster calls out to another TUPOC supporter, “eighty-eight!” The livestream has since been removed. (The American Defense League recognizes “88” as white supremacist numerical code for “Heil Hitler.”)
Meanwhile, William Komer said accusations of racism at The United People of Canada were “very strange and hateful and untrue.” Citing diversity among the volunteers, he said: “We certainly have a lot of assistance from a lot of people from a variety of faiths, creeds and ‘races.’ You know, my personal perspective is we are the human race. I guess people want to segregate it into different races.”
“I’m allowed to do whatever I want”
On August 25, across the street from St. Brigid’s, William Komer performed what he called “a citizen’s arrest”. A Facebook video shows Komer putting activist Samuel Rizzotto in a headlock and ripping off his costume mask. Rizzotto told the Ottawa Citizen that TUPOC volunteers squirted him with water guns as he tried to approach the church. When he grabbed a fallen water gun and returned fire, volunteers chased him around the block yelling “Stolen property!” and “Citizen’s arrest!”
A YouTube livestream of the same incident shows Komer explaining the situation to the police. He says: “This individual stole property, we made a citizen’s arrest, we released the individual [because] hostile people were coming over, and we’d like to press charges for theft [and] forcible entry because they did trespass onto the property.”
Komer’s citizen’s arrest is one of many examples of TUPOC members using legal threats or implied violence to try and control the situation at the church.
Several protestors, including Deana Sherif and her eight-year-old daughter, were told they were trespassing for standing on the sidewalk outside of St. Brigid’s. TUPOC also established a “private security force”, which Komer told CBC News was necessary because the police weren’t responding to their calls quickly enough.
They also encroached on communal spaces, using their vehicles to block other tenants’ access to the shared parking lot. When this came up during the eviction hearing, Gebresellassi said Komer wanted to see copies of the other tenants’ leases before letting them into the parking lot. Justice Gomery said she would not compel McDonald to share those leases with Komer and that TUPOC “didn’t have the right to block access.”
Deana Sherif said she witnessed tensions in the parking lot between TUPOC and other tenants. “I had seen on a video a guy who works there or is one of the tenants … he was attacked when he parked there. One of the days he pulled in and there was a huge commotion and they swarmed him.”
Sherif also said TUPOC members have knocked her phone out of her hands and “tried to follow [her] home.” One TUPOC volunteer named Christine followed Sherif up and down the 417 highway, both east and westbound, before getting stuck at a red light on Metcalfe. “When I confronted her back at the church [she] said, ‘I didn’t do anything illegal’” Sherif told The Leveller.
Sam Hersh had a similar experience. After Horizon circulated their anti-TUPOC petition, Hersh received a phone call from a man who introduced himself as William. “He asked about Horizon… and about St. Brigid specifically. I said, ‘William, what’s your last name?’ and he said, ‘Why do you want to know my last name?’ I asked, ‘Are you William Komer?’ and he said ‘yes’.” Komer then told Hersh he “found [Hersh’s] address online” and went to his house, but no one answered the door.
Hersh said he felt it was “pretty inappropriate” for Komer to come to his house uninvited, but Komer told him, “I’m allowed to do whatever I want, it’s a public address.” Hersh disagrees and said: “I’m a private resident, I’m not necessarily a public figure.”
Komer confirmed to The Leveller that he went to Hersh’s house. “I came to his house to invite him to the BBQ. I guess he didn’t like that, so I haven’t gone to his house again.”
In all of these instances — the citizen’s arrest, the private security force, the blocked parking lot, the uninvited home visits — the legality is debatable, but a threat of force is communicated. This is also true of some far-right groups that have embraced the freedom movement.
One of these is Plaid Army, a collective of right wing streamers who created the meme country Diagolon. Both have become synonymous with vlogger Jeremy McKenzie, also known online as “Raging Dissident.” The Canadian Anti-Hate Network called McKenzie a “conspiracy streamer, antisemite, and accelerationist.”
McKenzie is currently being investigated by the RCMP, according to CBC News, for threatening to rape Pierre Polievre’s wife Anaida. “Let’s rape her,” he said on a Telegram live stream (captured in a tweet by @JohnEThibeau). “It’s not really a sex thing, we just want to show people that we can do things to you if we want to. It’s a power move.”
McKenzie told the Toronto Star it was a “joke,” and that he only “vaguely recalls” making the comment because he had been drinking. He also said thought Pierre Polievre should “be a bigger man than that and have some thicker skin than that if he’s going to be prime minister.”
McKenzie also has a connection to the Coutts border blockade arrests. According to CBC News, he appeared in a photo on social media with Chris Lysak, one of the four men arrested at the Coutts protest. The RCMP allege Lysak and the other men had plans to kill Mounties and members of the public. Officers later seized “13 long guns, hand guns, a machete, a large quantity of ammunition and high capacity magazines,” Global News reported. The Canadian Anti- Hate Network tweeted that some of this body armour bore the Diagolon logo.
McKenzie himself was charged earlier this year with “assault, pointing a firearm, mischief and use of a restricted weapon,” according to the Toronto Star.
McKenzie was also a regular at the convoy in Ottawa, and he was not an unwelcome guest. At a Veterans for Freedom fundraiser in May captured on youtube, convoy leader Tom Marazzo singled out McKenzie:
“Before I start there are some people I’d like to acknowledge in the room. And I’d like Jeremy McKenzie to stand up for a moment.” McKenzie stood, to applause and shouts of “Diagolon!” from the crowd.
Marazzo is the leader of Veterans for Freedom (sometimes abbreviated as V4F), an organization whose membership often crosses over with The United People of Canada. Chris Dacey described himself as an “ally” to the group, and has many Facebook posts and videos supporting them. He said he “met a lot of those guys during the convoy, and they’re doing incredible work.”
William Komer said the group is not affiliated with TUPOC, but a representative of Veterans for Freedom took a tour of St. Brigid, “potentially looking at a space to hold an event [or] potentially becoming a co-working space member.”
Regardless of their affiliation, TUPOC and Veterans for Freedom — and Jeremy McKenzie — seem to draw a similar crowd. The comment section of a TUPOC livestream looks like the digital version of the St. Brigid’s parking lot, pre-eviction. Comments included: “V4F” with a Canadian flag emoji, “arm, train, organize” (commented multiple times), “\\\” (a Diagolon symbol), and “Even Gandhi got violent for what he believed in.”
It’s the same livestream that captured William Komer’s “citizen’s arrest.” In the midst of the action, Komer lost his crown and scepter. When the crown appeared on screen one commenter joked, “The Crown of Gondor,” referencing The Lord of the Rings. Another commenter replied: “Throne of Diagolon!”
Residents relieved that TUPOC is out
Lowertown resident Christine Vincent is glad the saga is over. She told The Leveller that TUPOC taking possession of St. Brigid’s would be “the worst thing that could ever happen … the country is divided enough.” She described TUPOC as “a continuation of colonization, literally who’s dominant over who.”
As TUPOC showed this summer, the group shares values, worldviews, slogans, tactics, and members with the convoy. And just like the convoy, TUPOC met their critics with hostility — while claiming they were peaceful and friendly.
TUPOC supporter and convoy participant Norman Traversy said the convoy “woke up the world,” showing “that the individuals have the power, not the government.” But which individuals? And how will they exercise that power? More specifically, how will they use that power when they encounter other individuals with conflicting goals?
On eviction day, TUPOC supporters and protestors had a final shouting match in the parking lot. Deana Sherif and Chris Dacey filmed each other as the groups squared off, trading insults. Then the white pick-up truck, festooned with freedom slogans, pulled in. A TUPOC volunteer sat behind the wheel, holding down the horn. The honking drowned out everything else.