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My experience escorting Toronto hospital workers, patients during the freedom convoy protest


Walking through downtown Toronto on Friday night, entire city blocks were barricaded by police.

University Avenue—a major hospital thoroughfare—was empty with the exception of staggered police cars and diagonal buses to prevent large trucks from getting through, with just enough space for an ambulance to slowly squeeze by.

The scene was simultaneously hopeful and discouraging: I hoped that what has been allowed to occur in downtown Ottawa the past several days will not be allowed to occur here, but I was disheartened that our hospitals need to be protected. 

Read: What exactly does 'learning to live' with COVID-19 mean?

Many hospitals along University Ave sent a memo on Friday advising those working over the weekend as the “freedom convoy” rolled in to wear street clothes instead of scrubs. The message was clear: lay low, stay home if you can and don’t identify as a healthcare worker.

In response, physicians and nurses in Toronto organized a counter-protest in support of healthcare workers and circulated a letter signed by over 1,500 healthcare workers across the country condemning the actions of the “freedom protesters” and those threatening hospital functions. To read or sign the letter, click here

Hearing that healthcare worker safety would be at risk just walking to work seemed unfathomable—and unfair. 

What started as a joke about walking healthcare workers in like Planned Parenthood clinic escorts suddenly became a reality when a tweet actually offering escort services over the weekend started blowing up. As messages poured in asking where we’d be, when, and what our signs looked like so volunteers could be identified, it became clear that it was not just healthcare workers that were concerned, but patients too. 

We quickly came together Friday night, and by Saturday morning we’d stationed ourselves on street corners and major hospital entrances holding signs offering a “safe walk to your place of work.” At 11:00 a.m., we felt largely useless, but slowly more and more protestors began arriving by transit and walking along the empty street. By noon, we’d become a visible minority just by wearing facemasks. We made a concerted effort to remove politics from any interaction with passersby and just kept repeating that we were here to make anyone going to a hospital nearby feel safe. 

Read: Ottawa residents, protesters scheduled to clash in court

The anger from those protesting just at our presence and masks was unsurprising but reassured us that having friendly faces for those who had to be in the area was needed. The smiles and thank-yous from clearly rattled commuters exiting the subway after being the only masked one on transit, or being able to tell someone “we’re at the station you request waiting for your loved one,” felt good. For many of us, it was cathartic being able to stand in support of healthcare after having to sit at home and applaud frontline workers from afar. 

Thankfully, we only experience some minor heckling, and our services were largely unneeded for healthcare workers—but the offers of those willing to escort anyone who needs it continue to pour in. Please know that most Canadians are not only supporting you—but would walk through a crowd of unmasked, heckling, freedom convoy members just to make you feel a bit better on your walk to work. Thank you for your continued efforts to keep us safe, we promise to keep loudly supporting you. 

Keltie Hamilton is an MPH Epidemiology student at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

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