‘Freedom is sometimes a messy business’: The Freedom Convoy’s former spokesman Benjamin Dichter’s view of three weeks that paralyzed Ottawa

Benjamin Dichter, a spokesperson for the Freedom Convoy that occupied Ottawa for three weeks in early 2022. (Supplied photo)

Benjamin Dichter became a national news figure as spokesman for the Freedom Convoy which paralyzed Ottawa for three weeks in the winter of 2022—long enough to become the subject of fascination beyond these borders on Fox News and elsewhere, but also the target of some criticism.

However his own Jewish parents might have been his toughest audience of all.

He tried – in vain – to explain why he joined the thousands who converged on Parliament Hill to protest against vaccine mandates and the ArriveCan app, given that he was fully vaccinated against COVID. 

“They think I’m a meshuhgah, but we love each other,” Dichter says, describing the scene with his 70-something Mom and Dad, in an interview in early December with The CJN Daily from his Toronto home.

“This was a movement for freedom,” says Dichter, 46, who’s promoting a new book about his experiences: Honking for Freedom: The Truckers Convoy that Gave us Hope

“And I think everybody in the medical community understands that we’re not against that, but we are against being forced.”

Published on Remembrance Day

The book was co-written with John Goddard, although Dichter insists it was much more than a ghostwriting effort. Goddard, a former journalist with the Toronto Star, spent days observing the convoy, and did extensive interviews and research about some of the main storylines.

They decided to self-publish right away and sell it through Amazon, he says, rather than shop it around. (Conservative journalist Andrew Lawton had a best-seller earlier this year with his account of events, which was published by Sutherland House.) 

Cover of Benjamin Dichter’s book on his experiences with the Freedom Convoy in the winter of 2022.

The publication date was intentionally slated for Nov. 11, on Remembrance Day.

Dichter was ordered to Ottawa in early November to testify before the federal government’s current public inquiry into the use of the Emergencies Act. The Trudeau government invoked the Act on Feb. 14, giving it special powers that then helped police clear the convoy, and remove border blockades in other parts of the country. 

“I think there’s enough people in our political class who need to be reminded as to the significance of Nov. 11,” Dichter says.

“People didn’t storm the beaches of Normandy so these lobbyists and political hacks can turn our country into [a] banana republic.”

As part of its special powers, Ottawa forced banks to freeze the accounts, credit cards and credit lines of the protest organizers. Dichter acknowledges that all but one of his accounts was reactivated as soon as the act was lifted Feb. 23— but eight days passed when he couldn’t access money. 

“I couldn’t go buy myself a cup of coffee with a broken ankle (he had slipped on ice outside an Ottawa hotel). I couldn’t go buy myself medicine. Some of the drivers who have diabetes, they couldn’t buy themselves insulin. 

“This was the government attacking us.“

Months later, he still sees consequences in his financial situation. 

One of his accounts with the Royal Bank—which he doesn’t often use—was off-limits even in early December because his client card did not work. He was told by a clerk that the account remained frozen because of the sanctions from February. 

He actually is a trucker

Before the Freedom Convoy took over downtown Ottawa, Dichter had an eclectic career.  The graduate of Toronto’s Associated Hebrew Schools worked as a gemologist and diamond grader in Europe. 

He’d subsequently operated a printing shop near the former Ryerson University campus in Toronto. He ran (unsuccessfully) for Toronto city council in 2014, and (also unsuccessfully) for the federal Conservatives in the 2015 election.  

And, together with one of his brothers, he bought a big rig truck. It gave them the opportunity to haul products to the northeastern United States—including loads of maple syrup. 

But Dichter came to the attention of Alberta-based Freedom Convoy organizer Tamara Lich because of his reputation as a podcast producer, including for right-wing media personalities like Tom Quiggin—a former Canadian military veteran who advocates for free speech, and opines with conspiracy theories about Islamic terrorism. 

Lich had organized smaller protests by oil and gas workers from her home in Medicine Hat, and she had ties to the Yellow Vest movement in Canada, which was inspired by demonstrations in France. 

Dichter was invited to join the team to handle communications, as the convoy began driving east from B.C. and Alberta towards the National Capital Region. And he came up with a motto he hoped would show the protests were all about “peace, love, unity and freedom.”

‘Canada’s Woodstock moment’: Dichter

At every turn, Dichter tried to keep spreading the message to convince Canadians that the truckers were participating in a “Woodstock” moment, with no desire to do anything violent. 

“That’s why they were feeding the homeless. They had a soup kitchen. They were building saunas and hot tubs and having dance parties,” he recounts.

News reports reflected such scenes, but Ottawa police also laid over 500 charges against the protesters—including for assault, and uttering threats against law enforcement personnel. (The RCMP also seized truckloads of weapons and made arrests when they cleared a border protest in Coutts, Alta.) 

And if there was goodwill that preceded the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa in January, that changed after scenes of a woman emerged showing her dancing on the National War Memorial—which Dichter brands as “fake.” News reports told of downtown shoppers being harassed, and then local residents filed a class-action lawsuit to stop incessant honking from the idling trucks. The claim was that it interfered with their daily activities and mental health.

Dichter denies the honking was part of the protesters’ strategy, rather insisting the noise was more like some dogs barking to say “hello” on a summer night. (He also claims he didn’t hear much honking while he was walking the streets.)

The Nazi flag changed everything

As for the most damaging scenes, of Nazi and Confederate flags being spotted among the protesters, Dichter downplayed them at the time. “Who cares?” he told journalists in late January—which became the focus of an episode of The CJN Daily.

Benjamin Dichter (centre) speaks to reporters from an undisclosed location in Ottawa January 30, 2022.

But these symbols inevitably galvanized public opinion and brought condemnation from federal politicians across the political spectrum. They also sparked a private members’ bill adopted in the House of Commons to ban the use of hate symbols.

The Nazi flag in particular also led to a heated exchange in the House of Commons between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman, now deputy leader.  Trudeau accused Lantsman, the descendant of Holocaust survivors, of standing with people who wave Nazi flags. 

Jewish groups were understandably outraged by it all. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs issued a news release Jan. 30 condemning the small minority of protesters who “shamefully” used Nazi symbols and were “misappropriating” the Star of David symbol to “advance their political objectives.” 

Flag ‘staged’: new book

But today, Dichter offers a different explanation for where the flags came from: he says they were staged by political actors who wanted to make the Freedom Convoy look bad.

Who does he accuse of being behind it? 

Not the known Holocaust deniers from fringe, far-right-wing elements who were part of the protest, but the Liberal government.

Dichter writes in Honking for Freedom that the flag was carried as a plant, and cited reports from a Rebel News journalist who said that several photographers with Liberal ties arranged to be there when the flag appeared near the Chateau Laurier hotel.

But now, he acknowledges the theory has holes in it, and it might have been someone with Conservative ties instead. 

At the inquiry, a convoy lawyer suggested the man suspected of carrying the flag is Brian Cox, who works for a Conservative lobbying group. (Cox insists he has not been in Ottawa in years and threatened to sue for libel if the allegations were not retracted.)

In light of these developments, Dichter says he won’t revise his manuscript, explaining that it would be a waste of time to file Freedom of Information requests to find out more.

Reluctantly revealed his Jewish faith

Despite this waffling, he admits that those hateful symbols worked against the Freedom Convoy, no matter who was behind them.

Which is why within hours of the Nazi flag photos making their way through social media, Dichter held a media conference in an undisclosed location in Ottawa with the convoy organizers. It was by invitation only, and no mainstream news organizations were invited. (The CJN was also not invited, and a subsequent interview that night with us was cancelled.)

Dichter explains why he counterattacked by asserting his Jewish religious identity, while also revealing the backgrounds of the convoy leaders Tamara Lich and Chris Barber, too.

“Listen, she’s Metis, I’m Jewish. We have a whole bunch of people here. We have Sikhs here. So button it up and let’s move on,” he recalled telling the journalists.

Did it help? 

“It definitely did…you can see the collective ‘Oh, okay. So if we keep going in this direction, this Dichter guy is going to come out with a kippah and tallis’.”

Dichter was adopted into a Jewish family in Toronto. After attending Associated Hebrew Schools, and having a bar mitzvah, he graduated from public high school at York Mills Collegiate.

When he was being sworn in to testify before the Emergencies Act inquiry on Nov. 3, he insisted on using a Torah for the ceremony, although he was miffed because they had only an English-language version of the Old Testament.

“For me, it’s got to be in Hebrew. That’s just my thing.”

Crossed the line

Dichter claims he is opposed to what he calls identity politics focused on someone’s race. While active in the Conservative party, he formed a group called LGBTory, dedicated to helping gay and lesbian partisans feel welcome. However, in the past, Dichter has himself been accused of making comments that could be described as Islamophobic.

If he could do it over again, Dichter would have banned some of the most vicious conspiracy theorists from the Freedom Convoy from the get-go. He swears he tried to, but they wouldn’t go home. 

Although he describes himself as a “free speech absolutist,” he also worried that some of their videos crossed the line of Canadian hate-speech legislation. 

Being part of the convoy served to catapult some of these fringe protesters from what Dichter calls “mouthy” nobodies to a much wider and more dangerous platform than they had originally enjoyed. James Bauder—one of the original organizers—is a supporter of the antisemitic and homophobic QAnon conspiracy group, and called for overthrowing the Canadian government. He was arrested and is awaiting trial.

Another volunteer, Pat King, now also facing trial, incited people to put a “bullet” into the prime minister’s head. (He has since apologized for the comments.) Jeremy MacKenzie, the founder of. the far-right Diagolon movement, based in Nova Scotia, has since been charged for 13 weapons offences related to anti-mask protests.

Dichter thinks the real danger for Canadian Jews comes instead from those who are inside the corridors of government in Ottawa, including inside the political parties themselves. And he urges community leaders to focus on fighting antisemitism there.

“We ignore or excuse away sometimes the people who have power and are a real danger to us. And for me, quite frankly, it’s embarrassing (that people think) that we’re living in the 1940s, that the Third Reich is coming around the corner. No, that’s 80 years ago. 

“The threat is completely different now, and everybody is ignoring it because of diversity.”

The protests found some support in the Jewish community. Some people decried the vaccine mandates and the resulting job losses for people who refused to get vaccinated.

Dichter describes finding allies in Ottawa’s Lubavitch community. In his book, he writes that they came out every Sunday to convoy prayer services, and asked him to put on tefillin. 

In his book, he said he met a religious Jewish woman in the crowd holding up a sign equating vaccine mandates with the swastika. What she meant, he said, was the Trudeau government was acting like Nazis. 

Correct ‘inaccuracies’

With the convoy attracting international attention and filling hours of news coverage—and an expected report still to come from the judge conducting the inquiry in early 2023—Dichter was asked what more he hopes his book can contribute to the conversation about the largest mass protest in Canadian history. 

He intends it to provide some “accurate” behind-the-scenes glimpses of life in Ottawa during those heady below-zero days, rather than leaving the final word to the politicians, and the journalists who he accuses of toeing the party line.

​​”In the future, I want people to be able to look back and read this and see what actually went on.”

He delves into his three weeks shuttling between hotels, including breaking an ankle and having orthopedic surgery in hospital, surviving a car accident, evading arrest, and the infighting between members of the convoy’s organizing committee and their lawyers and hangers-on, who had their own agendas.

But the aftermath of the protest continues. Dichter is still in pain from his ankle injury, when he slipped on the ice, which he refers to as a “battle scar.” 

He’s also facing that massive class-action lawsuit brought by Ottawa residents who are seeking over $300-million in damages. Whether the defendants, including Dichter, will be able to afford to fight it is currently unclear. 

The $23 million raised for the truckers via crowdfunding campaigns was frozen last winter, at the request of the Canadian government. Some money has already been returned to donors. The rest is in escrow. 

The convoy’s lawyers are asking the courts to overturn this, so that Dichter and his co-organizers can afford counsel.

So, as a self-published author, he also needs to sell a lot of books. The back-cover blurb on Honking for Freedom is an enthusiastic endorsement from Jordan Peterson.

But he also hopes the readers will realize that, despite everything, the Freedom Convoy was a success. Restrictions were lifted by provincial governments in the subsequent weeks, and vaccine mandates for travellers were gradually repealed, including the ArriveCan app. 

Meanwhile, some government officials have been busy preparing for a repeat scenario, in which protesters go ahead with a planned Freedom Convoy 2.0 in February 2023. The apparent organizer James Bauder, who is facing charges, already posted on his Facebook page calling for a short four-day “olive branch” edition to take place in Ottawa on the Family Day Weekend.

Dichter dismisses the idea. He’s told the group as much. 

“Some of those people, they just want to be famous at any cost and they don’t understand how dangerous any sort of fame can be, but they’re just desperate for it.”