Canada: trucker protests set off alarms
Protests started by truckers brought Canada’s capital Ottawa to a standstill for weeks and blocked crucial border crossings. As with other pandemic protests, what began ostensibly with a specific grievance – mandatory vaccination for truckers who travel between Canada and the USA – quickly morphed into a broader movement that accommodated a universe of conspiracy theories, far-right ideas and extremist demands. The protests attracted much support from the Trumpian far right and inspired copycat protests in several European countries, Australia and New Zealand. An ultimately heavy-handed response from the Canadian government can only further fuel the sense of mission of this disparate movement galvanised by the pandemic.
Ottawa is returning to normal. The occupation of Canada’s capital by protesting truckers was brought to an end when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act, which granted him sweeping powers. But while protesters and their trucks have moved on, a powerful sense of grievance among a very vocal minority remains.
A step change in Canada
For three weeks the protesters laid siege to downtown Ottawa, their trucks parked outside parliament. They had travelled there from across Canada, forming what they called a ‘freedom convoy’. A flatbed truck provided the stage for a string of impassioned, angry speakers, punctuated by blaring music. The protest was a constant presence. Locals complained about the disruption, the noise and the piles of rubbish – and also the hostility they encountered from some protesters.
Protesters felt they had much to be angry about. Their protests were initially prompted by a requirement that truckers who cross the Canada-USA border must have proof of COVID-19 vaccination – without it, they would have to spend 14 days in quarantine.
But that was just the beginning. The vaccination issue offered a rallying point for all kinds of otherwise disparate discontents.
The Ottawa protests were the biggest and loudest, but they inspired similar events in other Canadian cities, as well as blockades at border crossing points. The most significant of these shut down the Ambassador Bridge, a crucial trade artery across the Detroit River.
The Freedom Convoy protests were by no means the first, in Canada or around the world, reacting to aspects of the pandemic. In the last couple of years Canada has seen numerous protests against masks and vaccines, many of them held outside health facilities and schools.
But while past protests have been sporadic, these were sustained. They appear to mark a change, at least in Canada, in the willingness of various fringe groups to make common cause. They offered further evidence of how groups that existed before the pandemic have seized on the restrictions introduced under it as their central and defining issue and are using public frustration at pandemic measures to push extremist ideas.
The protests also marked a change in tactics. Protests by truckers, using their heavy vehicles as assets, are not new, but this is the first time protests have been taken into the heart of a city and had such an impact on people’s lives. It likely won’t be the last.
Far-right support flows across the border
The ugly side of the protests was on show early. On 29 January, protesters were accused of urinating on the National War Memorial, dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and hanging an anti-vaccine banner from a statue of Terry Fox, a legendary cancer campaigner. Some brandished swastika flags. Protesters harassed staff at a food kitchen for homeless people, demanding they hand over food. They insisted on going barefaced into places where masks were required. Predictably, protesters threatened journalists, accusing them of propagating ‘fake news’, to the extent that some felt no longer able to wear masks, since these would make them targets.
Certainly not all protesters did this. But as such publicly offensive behaviour suggests, this was a gathering of fringe groups: Canada has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world and around 90 per cent of cross-border truckers have had their shots. The Teamsters Union distanced itself from the protesters and condemned their ‘displays of hate’. As the protests went on, opinion polls consistently showed most people disapproved of them. But the small section of the public who took part in the protests or supported them were an intensely committed minority.
As has been seen time after time under the pandemic, the protests rapidly escalated from anger at mandatory vaccinations for a specific occupation to making an increasingly wild array of claims and demands. Soon all the usual suspects were involved: the people for whom basic public health requirements are an unwarranted assault on personal liberties, the conspiracy theorists who deny the pandemic or blame it on 5G, the QAnon acolytes, the Donald Trump followers, the Bill Gates conspiracy theorists. The protests were a magnet bringing together previously isolated fringe opinions. While not everyone taking part was a far-right extremist, it would have been hard to find a far-right extremist who didn’t support them.
One of the main organisers, a group called Canada Unity, submitted an absurd ‘memorandum of understanding’ to Canada’s Governor General and Senate, demanding that all pandemic restrictions be lifted, an ultimatum the government was never going to grant. Some went even further, calling for Trudeau to be removed from office. Canada Unity’s founder is a QAnon believer who has called for Trudeau to be tried for treason.
Gallingly, for liberal Canadians who take pride in the relative placidity of their country’s politics compared to the political circus south of border, this all seemed quite American. And in a sense it was. The US far right lined up to convey their blessings. Inevitably, Donald Trump expressed support, calling centrist Trudeau a ‘far-left lunatic’. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, also lining up a presidential bid, took time out from his busy schedule of fighting culture wars, attacking abortion rights and targeting LGBTQI+ people to do likewise. Elon Musk was another famous name who appeared to tweet his support. It seemed that in the USA and further afield, every well-known far-right figure saw the Canada protests as their own.
It wasn’t just moral support. The protesters were sustained by crowdfunding, raising over CA$10 million (approx. US$7.8 million) on the GoFundMe platform before the page was taken down over terms of service breaches – something US Republican politicians attacked the company for. Protest organisers then embraced more obscure platforms as well as cryptocurrency. A hacker leaked the names of over 90,000 people who donated via the GiveSendGo platform: 56 per cent of them came from the USA, compared to 29 per cent from Canada. Some donors appeared to be US government employees. Once again, here was the apparent paradox of far-right nationalists mobilising resources transnationally.
A misguided political move
At the same time, the level of Canadian support indicated by donations can’t be overlooked. It’s no longer possible for Canadians to think their country impervious to Trumpism and other far-right currents. While it crucially doesn’t have a fundamentalist Christian movement anywhere as strong as the USA’s, it can’t be ignored that Canada has a domestic far-right problem, which brings the potential for violence: in February an armed group was charged with plotting to kill police officers; its members were accused of links to leaders of the Ottawa protest.
It’s no longer possible for Canadians to think their country impervious to Trumpism and other far-right currents.
Disturbingly, it wasn’t only the far right who showed support. Several members of the opposition Conservative Party, one of Canada’s two main parties, sided with protesters. They included party leader Erin O’Toole, in what was pretty much his last act before getting sacked for running a campaign seen as too centrist in the 2021 election. Far-right parties have made no headway in Canada’s electoral politics, but this suggested an alternate route to influence.
Later, Conservative politicians moved to distance themselves from the more extreme protest elements. But the fact they found common ground with a movement led by extremists was unprecedented in Canadian politics, and a disturbing reaction to having lost an election campaign fought on the middle ground. This is at least dangerous opportunism, and worse, could indicate a troubling longer-term shift.
Global currents of disaffection and disinformation
Since the pandemic began, groups around the world have mobilised against issues like movement restrictions, mask mandates and vaccines – as well as to deny the pandemic even exists or claim its spread was intentional. Regardless of how they start – including with genuine grievances over the impacts of restrictions on livelihoods or over-zealous enforcement of measures – online discourse and real-world protests quickly attract a barrage of extremist views, disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Many of those who lock onto and intensify pandemic grievances are from the far right, although in some countries, including Germany and UK, obscure far-left groups have joined in. Protests and online spaces act as bootcamps for radicalisation where an initial reasonable concern – say over the power of big pharma – can lead into a maze of conspiracy theories. Scepticism about the pandemic can be a gateway into fascism, racism and misogyny. There’s often a significant blue-collar element here, as people mobilise in anger at their economically precarious and marginalised lives.
Far-right groups that existed before the pandemic, including far-right political parties, saw the pandemic as an opportunity to recruit support and make an impression. They switched effortlessly from mobilising against migrants, women’s rights and LGBTQI+ people to make resistance to all pandemic restrictions their defining issue. Diverse grievances are brought together by opposition to a common enemy, characterised as the tyrannical state. Such groups have made sensible public health precautions deeply politicised and polarising decisions. Issues that in reality are quite trivial – such as having to wear a mask on a bus – quickly spin into calls to overthrow governments and try politicians, journalists and scientists as ‘war criminals’.
Far-right politicians – such as Trump in the USA, Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK – have been quick to support protests not just in their countries but abroad, offering a hint of the international currents of support and inspiration that sustain these movements. The most mobilised are prepared to cross borders to make common cause: in protests against a vaccination mandate in Austria, the government noted that many activists came from other countries. Key symbols are shared around the world too: banners and flags expressing support for Trump and QAnon, and using far-right imagery, are invariably seen at protests.
Canada’s protests not only won support from the usual suspects – they inspired copycats around the world. A ‘People’s Convoy’ began in the USA. In France, a ‘Freedom Convoy’ made its way into central Paris in February, stopped only by a heavy police presence that fired teargas at protesters. A smaller-scale vehicle protest was also held in the Netherlands.
Australia and New Zealand have seen the imitation effect too. A ‘Convoy to Canberra’ made its way to Australia’s capital for two weeks of protests. In New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, a protest movement remains camped outside parliament. Like Canada, New Zealand might have thought itself immune to this: the county has been admired internationally for its effective pandemic response and part of the reason for this has been overwhelming public buy-in. But as in Canada, a vocal minority, however small, can make a lot of noise.
A disturbing precedent
Initially, many Ottawans complained about the relative passivity of the police. They suspected that some police officers sympathised with protesters. Indigenous groups noted the contrast between the often abusive and violent policing of their protests and the benign approach taken towards the truckers. On 15 February, Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly resigned following criticism of protest policing.
The police can claim to have succeeded in avoiding violent confrontation, when there seemed clear danger of this. The Ambassador Bridge blockade ended after the province of Ontario declared a state of emergency, a move that made blocking crucial infrastructure illegal and heavy penalties possible – but it also ended peacefully when police persuaded people to drive their trucks away.
But to end the Ottawa protests Trudeau resorted to troubling measures. For the first time in Canada’s history, he invoked the Emergencies Act, which gives the federal government temporary sweeping powers. With these powers, the police flooded central Ottawa, building fences around parliament and establishing a secure zone controlled by checkpoints. Three Freedom Convoy leaders were quickly arrested. More followed, as police arrested protesters and towed away their vehicles.
When Ottawa had been cleared, the arrests total stood at 191 and 76 vehicles had been towed. Some 206 bank accounts of alleged financial supporters had been frozen. The operation had seen police in riot gear deployed and some scuffles as arrests were made, along with use of stun grenades and pepper spray.
What’s most concerning is that once the Emergency Act has been used, it could be used again – perhaps when a climate or anti-racism protest adopts a similar tactic of disruptive occupation of public space. The use of wide-ranging powers against protests could become normalised. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is taking legal action over the Emergencies Act, accusing Trudeau of overreach.
A grievance that will continue
The conclusion of the protests left few happy, except perhaps Ottawans able to go about their daily business again. The small section of the population that has mobilised passionately in response to pandemic restrictions will remain active and highly motivated. For those radicalised by the protests and sucked into a parallel reality of conspiracy theories, there may be no going back. They have a mission: they truly believe they are saving their country from tyranny. Now they are not only emboldened but united – unlike the moderate majority. The use of draconian powers to end protests can only further fuel the sense of mission.
It’s hard to see anything the Canadian government can do to win over those with such virulent opinions. While Trudeau could be accused of refusing to engage with protesters, in reality there seemed little room for negotiation, given the implausibility of their demands and their leaders’ visceral hatred for Trudeau. No attempt at engagement could ever satisfy them, and could backfire if it was seen as legitimising them.
The only hope is that once the pandemic is over, the lack of the glue it provided might cause these disparate movements to scatter again. But anger will remain, waiting for the next issue that galvanises it, and ready to be exploited by unscrupulous politicians, in Canada and across the border.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Canadian government must refrain from invoking the Emergencies Act in response to future protests.
Social media companies should commit to preventing the circulation of disinformation, hate speech and conspiracy theories.
Civil society should try to understand and respond to people’s grievances to prevent them being hijacked by far-right groups.
Cover photo by Andrej Ivanov/AFP via Getty Images