The joke magnet at the bottom of an Ottawa market rack had suddenly taken on a new meaning, proudly proclaiming "I survived Ottawa traffic!"
Blocks away, traffic is the new residence for thousands of frustrated Canadians camping out indefinitely in tractor trailers in the shadow of Parliament Hill.
They've made themselves right at home: grills and smokers serving up freshly cooked food, makeshift clotheslines hoisting soon-to-be frozen pants and elaborate speaker systems leading dance parties at the conclusion of dozens of anti-vaccine, anti-government speeches.
There are twinges of stereotypically Canadian politeness everywhere -- the demonstrators have kept the sidewalks shoveled, and plenty of people would wish us a good day, including a man sporting a pin that read "the media is the virus." Even the police statement issued nearly two weeks in seemed to tread lightly: If you're blocking the streets, you might be committing a crime, and you could, possibly, get arrested.
But even though we were in another country, our walks through the crowds felt overwhelmingly familiar: the sloganeering about freedom, the anecdotes of vaccines gone bad, the ever-encroaching boogeymen of socialism and communism, and even their behavior toward us -- individually pleasant but often communally venomous -- insisting that we, the infamous mainstream media, were only there to lyingly promote our "narrative."
Swap the maple leaves for stars and stripes, and every scribbled "Trudeau" with "Biden," and you'd swear you were at a QAnon rally in the U.S.
A common talking point was an insistence that they were not "the fringe minority," a term I heard used repeatedly. One man told me he believed their movement was supported by "probably billions of people."
Based on anecdotal evidence of my own, I think that's unlikely.
From what I could tell, the general consensus around Ottawa outside the protest is that Canada's government has perhaps been heavy-handed in its COVID-19 protocols, but when it comes to public health policies, it was better to be safe than sorry.
Most people understood some of the demonstrators' frustrations, but the excessive vaccine skepticism was a non-starter, and this shutdown was already more disruptive to their lives than a quick QR scan to get into a restaurant.
I witnessed one shouting match between a protester and a masked man who was walking by. The protester said he was defending freedom, and how else was he supposed to do that? The masked man replied, "Vote!" The protester paused, then told the man to get lost.
Now, as new blockades continue to pop up at the border and some provinces with falling caseloads roll back their COVID-19 policies, the protesters are even more certain they are right and even more convinced they'll get what they want. And some of them want even more than policy rollbacks. They want jail time, or even death, for the politicians who instituted the policies in the first place.
Pandemic fatigue and mandate confusion are not necessarily unpopular opinions, but misinformation travels freely -- and it doesn't stop at the border.