Small, boisterous group of worshipers vow to continue protesting outside Russian embassy and consulate
Last Friday, Day 212 of Russia’s bloody invasion of neighboring Ukraine, retired United Church minister Karen Niven-Wigston did what she had done for most of the 211 days. precedents: she unfurled her blue and yellow Ukrainian flag and stood in a place where she knew the gesture could not be ignored.
Most afternoons, Niven-Wigston joins a small group of dedicated protesters outside the steel fence of the Russian Embassy on Charlotte Street in Ottawa.
That day, they had decided to move a short distance up Range Road to congregate opposite the Russian Consulate, a gray stucco house which itself might go unnoticed were it not for the brightly colored banner reading « Stop the War Poutine » planted along the sidewalk in front of it.
The mood among the demonstrators – their number fluctuates, but that day there were about fifteen of them – was optimistic and collegial, even jovial, despite the gravity of their message. They waved their flags and cheered as passing motorists honked their horns in support, as almost everyone else did.
A man was dressed as a clown, with a red nose, balloons and a horn which he honked in response.
« I think a sense of humor really unites us, » Niven-Wigston said, stopping to wave at a passing car.
« We’re getting a lot of support as you’ll see, just with peace signs or horns, and basically we feel like we’re here to represent all those people who can’t be here. »
But their message is also for Russian diplomats and consular staff inside those buildings, and late afternoon protests are scheduled to confront them as they return home for the day.
‘Kill them with kindness’
With pointed slogans such as « Putin’s cowards work here », the protesters are doing no harm, although some are opting for a softer, softer strategy.
« Personally, my approach has always been to kill them with kindness, so friendly annoying, » said Angela Kalyta, another regular protester, who wore a traditional floral crown called a vinok.
Kalyta, a PhD student who lives nearby, said she enjoys smiling, sending peace signs and even hugging Russians as they walk away.
“At first they usually tried to ignore us,” she said. « They were rolling their eyes at me, but then they started waving at me. »
Kalyta, one of the few regular protesters of Ukrainian descent, discovered the day before that her name had been added to the growing list of Canadians sanctioned by Russia, and believes she deserved censure when she was quoted last month in the Kyiv Post.
« So I am now banned from Russia for my activities here, » she said.
The article focused on an incident in Ottawa in which three young men driving a car bearing diplomatic license plates were photographed spray painting black a small blue and yellow bicycle chained to a pole in front of the Russian Embassy.
The bike had been left there to commemorate the hundreds of Ukrainian children known to have died during the war.
The UCC is disgusted by the act of vandalism and hate that took place at #Ottawa yesterday, on the street of Free Ukraine. #cdnpoli https://t.co/4E6lzVGk4n pic.twitter.com/scn1dTUIgk
The men also painted a Z and a V on the sidewalk, patriotic symbols of support for Russia’s « special military operation » in Ukraine. Activists photographed the same black sedan driving in and out of the embassy compound, and shared the footage with CBC.
Russian Embassy Allegations
More recently, Russian Ambassador to Canada Oleg Stepanov told Russia’s state-run Sputnik news agency that someone threw a Molotov cocktail over the embassy fence in the early hours of the morning of 12 September, but had not fully ignited.
The embassy provided CBC with surveillance footage of the alleged attack. RCMP have confirmed they are investigating the incident.
The Russian Foreign Ministry alleged that Ottawa police turned a blind eye to « aggressive protesters » and complained that Canadian authorities had failed to prevent « hostile actions » against its diplomatic personnel.
In a statement provided to CBC on Wednesday, the Russian Embassy said protesters are “showing increasingly provocative and aggressive behavior,” including “shouting and insulting with obscene language.”
The embassy says there have also been « incidents of attacks on embassy cars, blocking entry and exit from diplomatic territory, damaging property with paint [and] throw eggs… Some demonstrators took photos of passengers in diplomatic vehicles and attempted to scare children with threats, which could qualify as harassment of minors. »
The embassy says it has reported all of these alleged incidents to the RCMP and believes investigations are ongoing.
“We hope that those who have violated Canadian law will be duly prosecuted through the legal system,” the embassy said.
On Friday, an RCMP cruiser and an Ottawa Police SUV sat in a parking lot near the consulate, but officers did not respond. Protesters said one of the officers told them there had been a consulate complaint – not the first, they said, and likely not the last.
“What they say about us is exaggerated, to put it politely,” Niven-Wigston said.
On Monday, Ottawa police told CBC that any information about calls for service from the Russian embassy or its consulate could only be obtained through an access to information request. On Wednesday, the RCMP said it was « maintaining an open line of communication as needed with all missions, including embassies and consulates, » but could not confirm or discuss specific calls for service.
According to the demonstrators, any aggression was strictly one-sided.
Flora Benoit, another regular who lives nearby, described some embassy staff as ‘just plain mean’ to the group, and said protesters sometimes had to move away from vehicles entering and leaving the building. compound of the embassy.
« If you don’t jump out of the way, you’ll get hit, » said Benoit, who uses a megaphone to play music ranging from John Lennon To imagine at Bayraktara flippant ode to the Turkish-made combat drone that was put to good use by the Ukrainians against the Russian invaders.
One of them approached us and said, “Who pays you to protest?– Karen Niven-Wigston
« They don’t like it, » the retired federal official said, describing an altercation with an embassy staff member. « He said, ‘You know, your music is violent. « »
Niven-Wigston recalled another confrontation outside the embassy on Russia Day in June.
« One of them came up to us and said, ‘Who pays you to protest?’ I told him: ‘It’s my civic duty.’ And he said, ‘Ha! You’re paid by the government.' »
Every now and then there is a faint signal that the protesters’ message is getting through.
The day before the rally at the consulate, Benoit said she was standing outside the Russian Embassy with a sign reading « Be brave like your Russian protesters » when she caught the attention of a man behind the fence.
Russia had just announced its intention to recruit 300,000 new soldiers, triggering anti-mobilization demonstrations in cities across that country. Hundreds of protesters were arrested.
The man looked at Benoit’s sign and subtly nodded.
« It seemed like he had heart, » she said.
The protests are ‘very significant’
Kalyta said she recognizes the difficult situation that embassy staff find themselves in.
« The Russian regime is really scary, and I don’t know what it is, I’ve never lived there, » she said. « [But] I really feel like the Russians need to stand up. More of them need to be standing. Come on, it’s time. »
Orest Zakydalsky, a senior political adviser to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress who has come to know the regular protesters over the past few months and whose name was also added to Russia’s sanctions list last week, believes the group, although small, makes a huge difference.
« That’s one of the most important things we can do is to keep the war in mind and in the press so that people don’t forget that in the center of Europe, Russian rockets and artillery shells hit civilian buildings and hospitals every day,” he said. « It’s very meaningful. »
As for Russians working for their government here in Canada, Zakydalsky urged them to think about their own future.
« I think people inside buildings have a chance to think about who they work for and what kind of world they want to leave for their children, and what they want to say to their grandchildren, » did he declare.