“We didn’t engage with the truckers and that seemed to make them even angrier”: what it was like to escort health care workers through the protest
“Going into a hospital right now is hard enough. To have people screaming in your face on top of that is just so unfair and unreasonable”
Keltie Hamilton and her classmates from U of T started a group to help escort hospital workers through the trucker convoy over the weekend. Here, she describes the sights and sounds of the protest and the many grateful health care workers she and her team assisted.
—As told to Courtney Shea
“I moved to Toronto in December of 2020 to start my master’s in public health at the University of Toronto. Before that I was a nurse in Alberta. For the first several months of the pandemic I worked at an isolation hotel for people in the shelter system, so I’m very aware of what it’s like to be on the front lines during the pandemic—how scary and stressful it can be for health care workers to go into work every day, and that was before everything that is happening now with this so-called freedom rally. To see individuals harassed and targeted just for doing their jobs, or even just for wearing a mask, it’s been next-level frustrating and upsetting.
“My classmates and I started brainstorming about what we could do to support our community when the protesters arrived here. In Ottawa, there were trucks parked outside hospitals, obstructing emergency vehicles, honking their horns and yelling around the clock, so we were obviously worried about what might happen over the weekend. And on Friday morning I saw a tweet from a health care worker from Mount Sinai Hospital about how nervous she was for her colleagues who had to go in to work over the weekend. This was around the same time that hospitals started advising medical workers to avoid wearing their scrubs to work. I said to my classmates, almost jokingly, “Why don’t we go full-on Planned Parenthood on these protestors?”—the way volunteers for that organization will walk doctors and patients to and from abortion clinics, so that they don’t have to face the mob alone. And then we thought, Wait, that’s actually not a bad idea.
“That afternoon I tweeted that any downtown health care workers who wanted an escort to work should get in touch. I thought I might get a few responses, but instead the post totally blew up. I’m not sure what constitutes going viral but it got more than 3,000 likes and more than a thousand retweets. I started a Facebook group because I couldn’t keep up with all the direct messages. Some people were interested in getting help; others wanted to join our effort. We started as a group of six or seven; 24 hours later there were more than 100 people.
“A lot of people—hospital workers and people who had appointments to go to—got in touch expressing how scared they were about coming from the subway and onto that main strip on University Avenue. I also got DMs from several adult children of health care workers saying things like, ‘My mom will be coming out of St. Patrick station, and I just want to confirm that you guys are going to be there.’ Or, ‘My mom is working a shift on Saturday. I told her to look out for your signs.’
“We met up on Saturday at 11 a.m. A nurse joined us for a bit before her shift, and she handed out N95 masks and homemade cookies. That was so sweet. And also, N95 masks? Those are like gold! The group was a real mix: a lot of people from my program, but also people from the health care community and activist groups. Our youngest volunteer was 18, and our oldest was a retired nurse in her 70s. We decided to fan out down University Avenue, gathering at the main intersections and TTC exits, holding up signs offering our services.
“In a lot of ways things went better than expected. Because the police blocked off traffic on University Avenue, we weren’t dealing with big trucks blocking us. But there were still a lot of vehicles driving around the perimeter, honking their horns and harassing anyone wearing a mask. There was one truck with a ‘Fuck Trudeau’ sign that somehow managed to get past the barricades. Mostly though, the protesters arrived by subway. By noon the sidewalks were packed: people were waving flags—some were half-Canadian, half-American flags, which was weird. There were some signs with anti-Semitic messages, which was horrible. Most of the yelling was about masks, asking us what we were doing there, why we thought we needed to be there. I thought that was pretty ironic because it’s like, by yelling in people’s faces you are kind of demonstrating why we feel we need to be here. And then lots of misinformation about vaccines that I don’t really want to repeat. It’s funny because our policy was not to engage, and that seemed to make these people even more angry. At one point I couldn’t help myself—there was this man yelling at me that I was a liar and I was being paid by Antifa. I said to him, ‘Oh really, well where can I collect my paycheque?’ He did not like that. Overall, though, we wanted to avoid politics. It’s not that I don’t have very strong feelings, but our goal was simple: we were there to make sure people didn’t have to feel unsafe going to and from the hospital. That shouldn’t be a political notion.
“It’s hard to estimate how many people we helped. Health care workers would walk up from the subway platform—with or without scrubs, they were pretty easily identifiable because they were the only ones in masks—and they would give us the thumbs up or say thank you. We escorted workers from all the major hospitals. Even if they weren’t necessarily scared, they appreciated the support and solidarity, the message of You are not alone; we’ve got you. Probably the most dramatic example was from a hospital worker who had commented on my original tweet, expressing support for what we were doing. People who felt differently somehow managed to track down their place of work and call and threaten them. The worker reached out to us after they were notified by hospital security, so I and another volunteer and my very intimidating chihuahua, Nova, met them after their shift and made sure they got home safe.
“Members of our team escorted an elderly couple who had been at Princess Margaret for cancer treatment. That one really hit home for me. I lost my mom to cancer several years ago and I’ve spent a lot of time in the last two years reflecting on how difficult it would be to go through that experience during the pandemic. Going to a hospital is hard enough, especially now when most people are there for essential reasons. The idea of having to deal with people yelling and screaming in your face on top of that is just so unfair and unreasonable. If we made the experience just a little bit less horrible, it was so worth the effort.”