Building frustration: construction companies at wit's end as protests grind projects to a halt

Freedom Convoy trucks
Protesters against vaccine mandates and other COVID restrictions have been blocking downtown Ottawa streets for nearly two weeks. Photo by Caroline Phillips

While protesters against vaccine mandates and other COVID restrictions dig in their heels downtown, Kathleen Grimes’ excavation crews can’t dig anywhere at construction sites that have been shut down for nearly two weeks.

Grimes’ firm, Site Preparation, is one of many companies working on the $5-billion renovation of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block and other downtown projects that have had to halt their operations due to the protests.

Public Services and Procurement Canada and the Parliamentary Protective Service closed the Centre Block site on Jan. 28 to protect the “safety and security” of workers. Since then, Site Preparation’s employees have had to abandon another downtown project that’s also in the heart of the protest zone.

The longer the “Freedom Convoy” sticks around, the more frustrated Grimes gets. As the demonstrations extended into their 14th day Thursday, she was nearing her wit’s end.

“I believe that people are entitled to be heard,” Grimes told OBJ. “I have no problem with that. But I’m not sure that the protesters realize that no one from the (federal) government is downtown. The only people that are being affected are hard-working individuals that have families to feed.”

"The poor workers, they’re stuck in the middle. It’s a really unfortunate consequence of this protest."

More than 300 workers were employed at the Centre Block site alone, said John DeVries, president of the Ottawa Construction Association. He says hundreds of other construction jobs, renovation projects and building fitups are now in limbo while protesters block main roadways, preventing tradespeople from getting to work sites and leaving many without paycheques.

“It is significant,” DeVries said of the protest’s impact on the construction industry. “The poor workers, they’re stuck in the middle. It’s a really unfortunate consequence of this protest. We need access to those jobs.”

DeVries has sent a letter to Mayor Jim Watson and Ottawa city council urging them to find a way to clear the roads and let construction crews get back to work.

“I think everyone’s doing workarounds because trucks can’t get down there to deliver basic materials,” he said. “Let’s get on with it – at least find some solutions to keep work going.”

Equipment 'being held hostage'

Calling the shutdowns “extremely frustrating,” Grimes said even if her company did manage to land other work in the meantime, there’s no way to remove mechanical shovels and other heavy equipment from their downtown locations and transport it to alternate sites.

“Our equipment is being held hostage,” she said. “There’s no opportunity for us to even mitigate any of our losses. 

“It’s not as though we can just go, ‘Okay, great, these projects are not operational now. Let’s get our equipment out and start tendering other projects.’ We’re kind of stuck.”

Bill Sioulas was feeling Grimes’ pain on Thursday. 

The director of real estate for property management firm Golpro Holdings had to put the renovation of the historic Trafalgar Building at the corner of Bank and Queen streets on hold when the protest cut off workers’ access to the site. 

He has a new air conditioning system ready to install on the roof, but there’s no way to get the necessary equipment close enough to do the job.

Prospective tenants 'afraid' to visit

“Maybe if I put a freedom sign and a flag on my contractors’ trucks, I would be okay,” he deadpanned.

Meanwhile, Sioulas is trying to lease the remaining 5,000 square feet of available space in the five-storey building – not an easy task when prospective tenants have to venture into a protest zone.

“People are afraid to come,” he said.

Grimes said she understands that authorities are in a “difficult” position as they attempt to diffuse the protest. 

But she said it’s time for the demonstrators to pack up and let the people of Ottawa get on with their lives, adding governments must find a way to make that happen.

“The message that somebody like me hears is that the rights of protesters are more important than the rights of small businesses, than the rights of employees to earn a living,” Grimes said. “Somebody has to take responsibility and do something about it. Somebody needs to be accountable.”