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North Bay money flowed into Canadian trucker protest

The so-called freedom convoy, a protest of truckers and their supporters that brought downtown Ottawa to a standstill for three weeks before local police scattered it Saturday, had a decidedly Canadian flavor.

Demonstrators flew maple-leaf flags from the ends of hockey sticks and drank Labatt Blue at night. Some of the slogans were written in French.

But data collected in an anonymous hack revealed the mobilization against COVID-19 public health mandates had financial support that came from far beyond the Great White North. Almost half of the money, and close to 60% of the donors, were American.

And a disproportionate amount came from the North Bay.

The hacked list of donations to the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo was made available to journalists by the open-information site Distributed Denial of Secrets. It shows that 214 donors in Sonoma, Marin, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties sent 225 payments totaling about $18,500 to the convoy organizers. Their median contribution was $50, while the largest was $1,000.

Those may be relatively modest numbers, but they are bigger than the region’s population of about 1,050,000 would predict.

Across the country, on average, $1 was donated for every 91 Americans. In the North Bay, it was $1 for every 57 residents. And the numbers of donations were also skewed: 1 for every 6,378 United States residents as a whole, 1 for every 4,662 in the North Bay.

In all, the North Bay donated more than entire states like Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia, and nearly every other country outside of North America.

At first blush, a politically blue, largely rural region near the California coast would seem to be an odd breeding ground for support of a populist, right-wing Canadian protest.

But it’s not surprising to Dr. Brian Prystowsky, a Sutter Health pediatrician who has been heavily involved in Sonoma County’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

“You might say, what could possibly be the common theme between rural, anti-government sentiment and hippie California? They meet at the corner of vaccine hesitancy,” Prystowsky said. “And who wants to be on that corner? It’s a dangerous corner.”

The North Bay’s anti-vax sentiment predates COVID-19. In 2018, the California Department of Public Health published a list of California schools with the highest rates of unvaccinated kindergartners. Six of the top 10 were in the North Bay, including four in Sonoma County.

Topping the chart was Sebastopol Independent Charter School, where 58% of kindergartners received medical exemptions that year. The others — one each in Sebastopol, Petaluma, Sausalito, Calpella and Santa Rosa — had rates between 35-51%. Statewide, children were being exempted at a rate of two-tenths of 1%.

“West (Sonoma) County, in particular, has this reputation — you might say they’re trying to be everything natural,” Prystowski said. “So like, no additives, no high fructose corn syrup, no vaccines. The problem with that approach, in medicine, is that some diseases are so deadly, and so contagious.”

Prystowski added, “So when I see this stuff about Canadian truckers — well, it all kind of fits.”

Richard Carpiano, professor of public policy at UC Riverside, agreed that the political topography of California’s northern and inland counties is fertile ground for conservative, conspiratorial sentiments.

“The anti-vax movement didn’t have a lot to places to go after they lost (Calif. Senate Bill) 276,” which tightened the rules for medical exemptions families could claim for children’s school vaccinations, Carpiano said. “When COVID came around, they … expanded into a much wider network of people that are against the government.”

The past two years have seen numerous anti-mandate protests in Sonoma County, including the noisy disruption of a Healdsburg City Council meeting in December and a more recent rally in the Sonoma Plaza.

The pandemic provided “a sympathetic market for them to tap into,” Carpiano said.

Also among the local “freedom convoy” donor base is a substantial number of business owners, including vintners — a crowd Carpiano said may be more unfriendly to public health restrictions perceived as bad for business, and thus sympathetic to the truckers thousands of miles away.

The Press Democrat contacted 10 of the top local givers on the GiveSendGo donor list. Only one person agreed to discuss motivations, and he asked for anonymity, saying he feared fallout from family members and friends.

“First off, I am not vaccinated. I will not be vaccinated,” said the man, who lives in Sonoma County and is in his 60s. “I try not to wear my mask, ever. Because I don’t buy it.”

He said he wishes the truckers had more support. “These people are doing something that should be done,” the donor said. “More should be standing up for what’s happening in Canada. (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau is acting like a complete dictator now.”

Some who sent money through GiveSendGo attached comments, which were included in the leaked data. Those from the North Bay included “From Commiefornia, we’re supporting you truckers in Canada and beyond,” and “This money is to support brave peaceful souls standinging (sic) and honk honking for freedom. Freedom from the weight of these ridiculious (sic) mandates!”

The truckers first rolled into Ottawa on Jan. 28 to lash out against what they called government overreach in mandating COVID-19 safety precautions like vaccinations, masks and business closures.

The demonstration soon spread to other Canadian sites that included the Ambassador Bridge, a vital border crossing that connects Michigan and Ontario. In the United States, conservative politicians like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and media pundits such as Tucker Carlson quickly pounced on an opportunity to steer the truckers into America’s ongoing culture war.

And the donations began to flow in. Supporters first tried crowdfunding through GoFundMe, but the company shut down the effort after complaints from the Canadian government. GiveSendGo stepped into the vacuum.

Tamara Lich, the campaign organizer, said money would be spent “to help cover the cost of fuel for our Truckers primarily, and will be used to assist with food and shelter if needed” — though with the Justin Trudeau administration working to block access to the funds, it’s unclear how much money the protesters have been able to access.

The largest contribution in the country by far was $90,000 from an individual with the same name as a San Francisco tech billionaire, Thomas Siebel.

The demonstrations padded by those donations mostly remained peaceful, with few of the police clashes that defined the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington DC. Still, there have been troubling incidents.

On Feb. 6, two men started a fire in the lobby of an Ottawa apartment building where residents had complained of noise from the protests, and attempted to block the main exit. On Feb. 14, police arrested 11 people at a border blockade in Coutts, Alberta, seized guns and ammunition, and eventually charged four people with conspiracy to commit murder.

On Feb. 17, police arrested two core organizers of the convoys. One of them was Lich, who created the GiveSendGo campaign. On Saturday, law enforcement swept through central Ottawa, went from truck to truck and arrested protesters. The large-scale Canadian protests had effectively been dispersed.

But several U.S. citizens opposed to health mandates have announced they are organizing knockoff convoys to drive to Washington, DC. One of them, a towing company owner in Scranton, Pennsylvania, said his group would choke the Capital Beltway like “a giant boa constrictor.”

By Tuesday, GiveSendGo had posted several fundraising campaigns for American convoys.

You can reach Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com and Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder and @Skinny_Post.

Emily Wilder

Criminal justice and public safety, The Press Democrat  

Criminal justice is one of the most stirring and consequential systems, both in the North Bay and nationwide. Crime, policing, prosecution and incarceration have ripples that reach many parts of our lives, and these issues are under increasingly powerful microscopes. My goal is to uncover untold stories and understand the unique impacts of criminal justice and public safety on Sonoma County.

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