‘Freedom Convoy’ protests force temporary closure of downtown Ottawa youth centre

By Chris Stoodley

Despite typically being open every day of the year, a youth drop-in centre was forced to close for several days due to the ongoing “Freedom Convoy” protests in downtown Ottawa.

The Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa, a non-profit that focuses on working with local vulnerable youth, has multiple locations in the downtown core, including two youth shelters and a drop-in centre that were impacted as protests began last weekend.

“We've certainly pivoted in a couple of ways,” Darren Graham, the non-profit's director of community services, said. “In a really unprecedented and extremely difficult decision, Saturday morning, we had to close our drop-in to service for four days.”

“Our drop-in provides support to street-involved youth and other marginalized and vulnerable youth that live in our community.”

Graham said some of that support includes offering a safe place to go, a sense of community and warm meals as well as services such as a health clinic and school.

It's something relied on by hundreds of youth each year, and Graham said it's never closed in recent memory.

“It is a 365-day-a-year program; we're always open,” he said. “So, closing in this nature was an extremely difficult decision that we had to make. By and large, it was because of the location of where we were, bearing that staff may or may not be able to reach it. Certainly seeing the oppressive and intolerable messaging that's come along with this convoy, it puts all of us at risk.”

Graham said the non-profit was concerned about having youth — especially those from marginalized communities — try and reach some of its downtown Ottawa services amid unruly protests.

“We proudly fly Pride and trans flags in front of our service areas, and we were really quite concerned that we would be drawing youth into a space that could be very dangerous where we could be a target,” he said. “And also concerned about our staff being able to come to and from work during the thick of what was going on.”

While those services were closed, Graham said the non-profit kept its crisis line open and helped connect youth to other partnering community services so youth wouldn't be left without resources.

Once the drop-in centre reopened on Wednesday, February 2, Graham said noticeably fewer youth had visited. Moreover, the youth who did visit were eager to access the health clinic, eat a warm meal and find a safe community.

The centre's high school also saw low attendance. Some youth told their teachers that some of their peers didn't feel safe coming downtown or couldn't due to transit suspensions, among other reasons.

And even though there's been some momentum in youth returning to the centre, Graham said the non-profit is concerned about what will happen as protests continue.

On Saturday, February 5, counter-protesters are planning to demonstrate their frustration with the inaction from the Ottawa Police Service and local politicians.

But “Freedom Convoy” protest organizers told media this week they will “remain in Ottawa for as long as it takes” for their demands to be met.

“We're looking down to see what's going to happen this weekend without any real change or information around how this is going to end,” Graham said. “We are, daily, making a decision about whether or not it's safe enough to be open, and those are extremely, extremely difficult conversations to be having given the context that we're in in this pandemic.”

“This is just a few steps too far, if I'm being honest. It needs to end. It's not safe and it's intolerable.”

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