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A tale of two convoy trials

While Pat King's trial has more or less run smoothly and on schedule, the trial of Tamara Lich and Chris Barber has dragged on and been punctuated by starts and stops. They're now technically at the same stage, but even there it's expected they'll diverge.

Pat King’s courtroom drama differs from Tamara Lich and Chris Barber’s

Faces of a man and a woman.

The three of them once stood side-by-side as road captains of a historic protest.

Now, more than two years after thousands of honking vehicles rolled through Ottawa in what became known as the Freedom Convoy, two narratives are emerging in court — potentially splitting the fates of Pat King, Tamara Lich and Chris Barber.

Factually, they are separate cases. King is being tried alone, whereas Lich and Barber are co-accused in their trial.

And while the two trials share many similarities, including the nature of the charges and some of the fundamental legal arguments being mounted, they've also played out in markedly different ways.

Whereas the joint trial of Lich and Barber drags on, punctuated by starts and stops that have forced the duo to make multiple trips back to Ottawa, the case involving King is more or less running smoothly and on schedule.

Key to both trials is less about what Lich, Barber and King did. The evidence, particularly the statements they made in early 2022, were well-documented on social media and are largely self-explanatory.

At issue instead is the legality of each of their actions. And in both trials, the Crown argues they crossed the line.

But how prosecutors go about making that argument — and how they've been countered by the defence teams — has varied between the two trials.

Underpinning those differences is the fact that one case is better funded, more closely scrutinized and arguably more symbolic than the other.

For many convoy supporters, the case against Lich and Barber is about ideas — that the government, in their view, is trying to persecute an entire movement after already trampling the constitutional rights of Canadians when it invoked the Emergencies Act and arrested more than 200 people.

It's why Lich and Barber's defence has the backing of two high-profile civil liberties groups: The Democracy Fund (TDF) and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JFFC).

Meanwhile King, a more polarizing figure, is largely left to fight his own battle.

His following on social media, some 334,000 strong, is nothing to sneeze at. But among sympathizers, his case is generally seen more as the plight of a single individual.

As such, it's playing out more like the countless other misdemeanor-type trials unfolding in courtrooms across the country.

Prosecutor recused himself

Lich and Barber are pleading not guilty to charges of mischief, intimidation and offences related to counselling others to break the law during the massive protests that engulfed downtown streets for more than three weeks in 2022.

One month before the trial was set to begin in August 2023, the lead Crown prosecutor assigned to the case, Moiz Karimjee, recused himself.

According to materials filed in court, Karimjee did so after reading Lich's memoir for trial preparation, which contained "60 references to Moiz Karimjee by name, some of them defamatory."

If Karimjee prosecuted the case, it could have presented a conflict down the line were he to pursue any legal action against Lich.

Tim Radcliffe and his co-counsel were then handed the file, with a little less than a month to prepare for what would be a highly-publicized trial.

And they would have to face off against two of Ottawa's most formidable defence attorneys.

Lawrence Greenspon and Diane Magas — each with at least one additional lawyer accompanying them in court — are both veterans of Ontario courts with extensive experience across the justice spectrum.

They've been supported by fundraisers and donations, much of which continue to be funnelled through TDF and JCCF, entities with deep ties to libertarian and right-wing causes.

Lich, Barber trial slowed by delays

It's been apparent throughout the trial that there would be delays and multiple hiccups for the Crown to overcome.

The trial has extended far beyond the 16 days initially allotted, requiring Lich and Barber to travel back to Ottawa at least four times from Medicine Hat, Alta., and Swift Current, Sask., respectively since the fall.

In opening statements, prosecutors argued Barber and Lich had committed crimes, trying to establish the two as leaders who used their control and influence over supporters to break the law.

But this hinged on the premise that the protests were not at all peaceful – an assertion which prosecutors spent the early days trying to establish through videos, social media posts, police and witness testimonies.

Highlights include Lich's use of the infamous "hold the line" catchphrase, and Barber's exhortations to his audience to "grab that horn switch" and "let it roll as long as possible" if police tried to dislodge them.

Objections became regular occurrences, however, as lawyers for Barber and Lich tried to poke holes in the Crown's case at every turn — even picking apart choices like using the word "occupation" to describe what happened.

They attempted to show another side of the convoy: a downtown core filled with peace, love and unity — bouncy castles, pig roasts, street hockey and all.

Still, the trial soon became less about the arguments inside the courtroom and more about the stops-and-starts of the process itself.

The defence would file applications to block witnesses, to access additional disclosure, to prevent specific social media evidence from being used and to access third-party records. They found success in some instances. Other efforts were abandoned.

All of it took up valuable court time, gumming up the Crown's efforts to make a clear and concise argument against Barber and Lich.

Through it all, Justice Heather Perkins-McVey has shown a willingness to take great strides to ensure the proceedings are fair. She's been amenable to at least hearing out anything the defence brings up, including the early spectre of the whole case being tossed for delays.

It's likely being done to leave little room for future appeals.

And still, one of the most contentious aspects of this trial remains to be settled. It concerns whether Lich and Barber acted as "co-conspirators," a complicating factor that makes the trial of Pat King seem simple by comparison.

King trial on track

King, from Red Deer, Alta., is facing charges of mischief, intimidation, obstructing police, disobeying a court order and other offences for his role in the protest. He has pleaded not guilty to all nine charges.

To pay for his defence, King held a motorcycle rally and sought permission from court prior to his trial to host online fundraisers.

Unlike Lich and Barber, he is not bankrolled by any well-mobilized organization and does not have the resources to afford a long, drawn-out court case.

Nevertheless, he's found an experienced lead counsel in Natasha Calvinho, a familiar face around the Ottawa Courthouse with a reputation for being a strong orator.

Calvinho sought more time last November to review the disclosure she had received from the Crown, which pushed King's trial to May of this year and made him opt for a judge-alone trial to move it along. It was a sign that, with fewer resources available, she would be hard-pressed at times.

On several occasions, she has turned to X, the online platform formerly known as Twitter, to solicit evidence from the public, seemingly reacting to the Crown's case on the fly.

A screen capture of a social media page.

The lead prosecutor in King's trial is none other than Karimjee, the lawyer who recused himself from Lich and Barber's trial.

Within the first two weeks, Karimjee and his co-counsel walked the court through nearly 40 videos of King, marking a significant change in speed at which this case would go.

Like in the Lich-Barber trial, the Crown is trying to establish King as a leader of the protests who used his control and influence to commit many of the crimes he is accused of.

Videos seen in the judge-alone trial include declarations by King he had no intention of leaving the city, even after the federal government called in the RCMP.

"We'll leave when we get the mandates lifted," King said in one such video.

Several Ottawa residents have also testified, with few interruptions. That's allowed the Crown to build a cogent argument that King had intentionally rounded up trucks to clog up downtown and encouraged drivers to honk their horns and disobey police orders to leave.

The defence has pushed back with a different narrative of King's character and actions, but Calvinho never once filed any application to block evidence or alter court proceedings.

All of this means the Crown was able to wrap up its case within nine days, about a third of the time it took prosecutors in Lich and Barber's trial.

Trials diverging further

The two convoy trials are now technically in the same stage, with the Crown having completed their turn calling witnesses.

However, while testimony is expected to continue in one trial, the other is slated to go straight to closing arguments.

Lich and Barber's lawyers are forgoing their turn to call evidence and witnesses. After devoting considerable energy to objecting the Crown's argument at every turn, the defence team seemed confident in deciding to skip ahead to the final round.

"We've reviewed the evidence that's been tendered by the Crown. It's been all subject to cross-examination," Greenspon said in March.

"We're of the view that there's nothing that really needs to be added or that should be added by the defence to the body of evidence that the Crown has presented."

By contrast, King's lawyer is expected to call a few witnesses, including at least two controversial convoy participants whose testimonies will undoubtedly fall under scrutiny during cross-examinations.

The potential outcomes of the two trials might also look quite different.

In King's case, the Crown has been more outspoken in asserting it wants a roughly five-year sentence for the 46-year-old.

Originally co-accused alongside Tyson "Freedom George" Billings, King went to trial while Billings took a plea deal. Signage around the courthouse still reads "Kings/Billings", but King's co-accused pled out, had charges withdrawn and got time served after being jailed for four months.

When it comes to Lich and Barber, prosecutors have stayed mum, leaving the door open for a reduced sentence for time served in the event of a conviction.

Looming over Lich and Barber's case, too, is another technicality that could derail the entire thing.

Under what's known as a Jordan application, trials must be heard within an established timeline from when charges are laid.

The spectre of the Lich-Barber case being tossed altogether because of court delays is unlikely, but a real one.

Regardless of what happens, Lich and Barber will have more capacity — some might even call luxury — to continue their fight. After all, they're perceived by their financial and moral backers as victims of constitutional rights abuses.

Whereas King's case could potentially wrap ahead of summer, final submissions for the Lich-Barber trial are scheduled for mid-August.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Fraser

Reporter

David Fraser is an Ottawa-based journalist for CBC News who previously reported in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

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