Canada’s capital, Ottawa, is not generally known for large-scale political protests or standoffs with police and bystanders. However, over the last ten days, the city among others in Canada, has been paralyzed by the ‘Freedom Convoy’, a group composed of hundreds of truckers and fringe activists which drove across Canada. The original goal of the movement was to protest a federal law enacted in January 2021, which now requires any driver re-entering Canada to be fully vaccinated or face testing and quarantine requirements.
Initially devised for a number of routes traversing all ten Canadian provinces, the truck convoys merged in the capital on January 29th, where it then became a spill-over rally with pedestrian protesters joining, totaling around 10,000 people. The peaceful protests rapidly escalated to include many not so peaceful instances, including harassment of non-protesters, public disrespect of national heritage, fire lighting, and displays of confederate flags and swastikas. As Ottawa is now under a state of emergency, there is also increasing concern regarding how rapidly it has attracted far-right extremism rhetoric and financial support from outside of Canada. Thus, this has called into question the magnitude of the movement, first deemed containable and low scale. With the protests continuing well into February, the situation has even drawn parallels to the 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Freedom Convoy: How We Got Here
Last August, as the fourth wave of the pandemic was spreading across Canada, vaccine mandates for health-care workers and vaccine passports began to be implemented across the provinces. However, it was not until January 25th that Canada enforced the truckers’ vaccination mandate, specifically targeting long-haul drivers. It was not well-received and when asked in Parliament to show data linking truckers to COVID cases in Canada, neither the country’s Chief of Public Health Officer nor the Minister of Health produced any evidence.
Following this, a GoFundMe fundraiser was created by the protests’ organizers, raising over 6 million euros. On January 22nd, the first trucker convoys began to make their way to Ottawa, reaching it on January 29th, when the members of the convoy began the ‘occupation’ of the capital. This featured the blocking of all central streets and stating that they would remain “as long as it takes” for all COVID-19 restrictions to end. Simultaneously, the convoy created sufficient traffic to shut the two busiest border crossings in North America.
Legitimate Protest or Extremist Movement?
While the initial spark of the protests was over cross-border vaccine requirements, the expansion of the movement has translated into the inclusion of more members with no connection to the trucking industry but have their own agendas, including ousting Justin Trudeau. Among the listed organizers, are Tamara Lich, Benjamin J. Dichter, and James Bauder, whom have all have some level of involvement with white nationalism, racism, Islamophobia, the QAnon conspiracy theory, far-right movements and most importantly- are not long-haul truckers.
Such an influence-and the inspiration as well as the financial contribution from several American far-right groups has been very apparent at the protests. Figures of Canadian far-right extremism such as Romana Didulo, who has called for the death of healthcare workers, took part in the Ottawa rally, and even Donald Trump expressed his support for the movement. For years now, the activists have attempted to organize demonstration convoys, first finding success in 2019, when around 100 trucks converged to Ottawa to protest energy policies. The difference with the Freedom Convoy, however, is that it successfully gained much larger traction.
Do They Have a Point?
Although their growth has been slow, Canada’s populist movements have gradually increased and may be gaining momentum. Assessing the Freedom Convoy’s magnitude is challenging in that it reflects the country’s overly complex division of powers. Canada’s constitution limits the federal government’s capacity to respond during a pandemic, as healthcare is a shared responsibility between provincial and federal governments. Each of the ten provinces has jurisdiction over the delivery of health care and emergency response, and as such is responsible for its own vaccination program (including restrictions, vaccine passports, and masks mandates). At the federal level, the government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has implemented COVID-19 vaccine mandates for air, rail, and marine travel; for public servants such as party members; and in federally regulated sectors such as cross-border trucking. While the truckers’ demands were to remove these federal injunctions, it must also be noted that respective provincial authorities also play a large role in removing and implementing curfews as well as capacity limits.
In part, what these events have pointed to is a bigger issue than protesting truckers vaccine mandate. That is, that Canada is now facing an increasingly discontent and impatient population towards continuous pandemic restrictions, as one in three Canadians say they are supportive of the protests. Although not solely resulting from the Freedom Convoy, they are currently ongoing significant changes happening at the highest political levels in Canada that are aligned with a growing political right. Thus far, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole was ousted by his party, and replaced by Candice Bergen who has strongly voiced her support for the Convoy and has previously sported a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat. In Trudeau’s own government, two Liberal Members of Parliament have thus far spoken out against his pandemic restrictions calling on him to “not dismiss Canadians’ legitimate concerns and to not de-legitimize those who do voice them” as the truckers' mandate “goes against WHO recommendations and fails to provide any epistemological evidence.” Furthermore, the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan - where many truckers are from and aligns with the Make America Great Again movement - have recently taken away all local vaccine mandates and restrictions.
Earlier last year, Justin Trudeau promised Canadians that when the country would reach the threshold of 75 percent of vaccination rate with at least one shot, the restrictions would start easing. Today, with 88 percent of the population vaccinated, there is still no clear roadmap on lifting restrictions. Given the government’s largely divided response, with Trudeau categorically refusing to meet with protesters, the country is at a stand-still. While the protests’ actions have reflected those witnessed in other global anti-vaccine movements, they have unequivocally also inspired new ones to come to life as witnessed in France with French motorists en route to Paris and American bikers’ plans to head for.