Honking, fumes and anger: Mental toll from trucker protest lingers for Ottawa residents

Paulina Ramphos was having an especially difficult day. The trucks may be gone from Ottawa, the noises subsided, and the fumes dissipated, but the anxiety and fear built up from the three weeks of protests persists.

“Even though there’s nothing going on, it’s kind of like a constant state of panic,” Ramphos told in a phone interview. She has had generalized anxiety and depression for years and has had plenty of experience with coping mechanisms, but this, she said, was “like a whole new ballgame.”

It is waking up in the middle of the night in a panic, zoning out at the sound of sirens and honking, rage at the sight of a truck with a flag, and fear that it will happen again. And she is far from alone. spoke with more than half a dozen residents who live at the centre of where the protests took place and shared very similar experiences on the lingering mental health effects from the Freedom Convoy’s occupation of their streets and neighbourhood.

Many are longtime residents used to seeing protests in a busy part of the nation’s capital. They expressed their support for the right to peaceful demonstration, but said there was nothing peaceful about seeing the symbols of hate, the constant deafening noise of horns, or being yelled or lunged at just for walking down the street wearing a face mask, and they expressed frustration at those dismissive of their experience and the after-effects.

Craig Shackleton has lived in the city’s centre for years and was used to the 24/7 hum of the city. But since the protests, those sounds are no longer innocuous background noise. They bother him and keep him up at night. He has difficulty sleeping, he worries the protesters will return, and once in a while will hear “phantom noises” – the ghostly echo of sounds from the protest. Even the rumble of a snow plow now keeps him awake as he instinctively wonders, “Is it them?”

“I do still worry and have strong reactions to things when I go out. A lot of the vehicles that were problems for us were pick-up trucks, and I worry when I see one now, even though they are pretty common,” Shackleton told

“My immediate reaction when I see a Canadian flag, especially on a vehicle or carried by a person, is that I am about to be harassed or get into a confrontation. It’s disconcerting, especially since we just had the Olympics when I would expect to see lots of flags around. I don’t want to feel dread at seeing a Canada flag, but I do.”


Joel Harden, the NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre, told he spoke to a number of experts about the impact of the protests on local residents and described it as a form of post-traumatic stress.

“This is clearly some kind of trauma,” said Harden. The convoy was deliberately attempting to traumatize, intimidate, and harass downtown residents, he said.

“I’ve talked to parents of kids where… kids on the way to school see a car coming down the street with a Canada flag on and spin around and they want to run in the other direction….That’s what the stress and anxiety was like for kids in our city.”

Caitlin Hung says her young son was confused and could not understand the aggression he witnessed.

“We saw people getting threatened, like, ‘Why are you wearing a mask? Take it off, take off the diaper.’ People being yelled at. It was pretty aggressive,” she said.

“It was a lot for him to see people behaving like that.”

Natash McBrearty, the Associate Executive Director with Crossroads Children’s Mental Health Centre says trauma is not just about what happened, but also about a person’s reaction to the event.

“For someone who is already chronically stressed (for example, has been living through a pandemic) their senses might already be heightened and as a result, they may be more easily overwhelmed,” McBrearty, a registered psychotherapist and certified counsellor, told via email.

She says a person’s nervous system becomes overwhelmed and remains “stuck” in an “on” or “off” position. “On” can come in many forms, including feeling panicked, always on edge, or being flooded with sensation by a particular smell or sound. “Off” is associated with detachment, disconnection, and exhaustion.

“In some cases, the symptoms can be physical ailments like headaches, tension, chronic pain. Bottom line, if you’re not feeling yourself, don’t wait – reach out for help.”


The red and white maple leaf flag, once a friendly symbol of pride, had already become complicated for many Canadians amid the findings of hundreds of potential unmarked residential school graves. But now, it has also become inextricably linked to the protests.

Ramphos said the sight of the Canada flag that has always flown outside her local police station is now distressing.

“Which is upsetting in and of itself. It’s like you’re robbing me of my appreciation for the flag of my country now,” she said.

“Even hearing the anthem also – the amount of times that they just used that in such an infuriating way…typically when I hear the anthem, I’m either at a hockey game or watching the Olympics or something like that. And it’s a moment of pride. But now it’s not.”

For Emily Fielden, it is also associated with hate now.

“My stress with the sight of the Canada flag wasn’t just because of its presence in the ongoing lawlessness in our area, but also because it was often seen alongside hate symbols or flags typically seen at far-right rallies,” said Fielden, who could see the protest, late-night revelry, and hear the sounds directly from her home.

She saw first hand, symbols used by La Meute, a far-right, anti-immigration group out of Quebec, including the Patriote flag and “wolf pack” decals, as well as the Three Percenters, a far-right militia, and the flag of the Diagalon white nationalist group, she said.

It was not true that only “one or two” symbols of hate and violence could be seen, “in reality there were many,” Fielden said. Even the word “freedom” can be jarring now.

“[Freedom] was yelled in my face several times when I had to run errands,” she said. “I do find I get tense or hyper-alert, stressed when I encounter [these triggers].”


Some residents had to contend with noise levels that reached upwards of 100 decibels inside their homes – sounds that at times blared into the early hours of the morning. Paul Champ, the lawyer representing the resident who launched the class action lawsuit against the convoy, Zexi Li, told CTV News Channel last month that level of noise was “basically like having a lawn mower running in your living room all day.”

Inside Fielden’s home, the horns were consistently hitting about 70 to 75 decibels for as long as 15 hours a day, she said.

Patricia McCarthy lives a block away from where many of the trucks were parked, and likened the 15 hours of deafening noise to terrorist tactics.

“That goes beyond noise pollution… [It’s like] terrorist tactics of when they have hostages, they bombard them with noise non-stop just to wear them down,” said told While the noise has finally stopped, she is immediately on her guard when she sees and hears certain sights and sounds.

“I was out walking with a friend and the minute we saw a large rig – we would tense up. If you heard a horn you would tense up.”


Even after the protests were “over,” there were still people “shouting about freedom” outside McCarthy’s building, making it difficult to believe things are truly at an end, she said.

Hung and her family live on one of the former truck-lined streets and said even a trip to the grocery store felt dangerous.

“If you’ve ever had somebody bully you, where they’re like, I’m not going to punch you, you might just hit yourself by walking into me, it kind of felt like that,” Hung said, who along with her son, witnessed a protester lunging at some elderly individuals wearing masks without hitting them.

“It just felt like the constant threat of violence was always in the air.”

Now, her family wonders if the protesters are back every time they hear the blare of a horn.

“Honking definitely has become synonymous in my mind with them……Immediately, my son asks, ‘Are they back?’ Anytime I see somebody not wearing a mask when they’re out, I wonder, ‘Are they with them?’”

While some of the residents say things are slowly getting better, others also describe feeling “gaslit” about the magnitude of the protests and the toll it took on their mental health during and after – experiences that are not easily forgotten, they say.

“I would really like the public or the world to know that people are still suffering over this,” said Ramphos.

“Some people will still say, ‘Oh, they were mostly peaceful, and it wasn’t that bad.’ Well, that’s not true for someone who lived in it.”

If you or someone you know would like to talk to someone, Ottawa’s Counselling Connect offers free phone or video counselling in English, French and Arabic. 

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