Last Saturday in Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, a self proclaimed ‘Freedom Convoy’ of vehicles traveling from different parts of the country converged to protest a mandate that forces long haul truckers who cross the border with the United States to quarantine for 14 days and take a Covid 19 test when they return if they aren’t vaccinated. This rule was copied by the Biden administration soon after, making the convoy somewhat useless even if it were to somehow manage to achieve its original goal.
Contrary to a lot of the reporting around it, the convoy is not the first of its kind. In 2019, what was called the United We Roll Convoy traveled from the western province of Alberta to Ottawa for a two day protest against a carbon tax and in support of pipelines and the oil and gas industry. A darker side to this earlier protest was revealed by some of those in this much smaller group who had ties to the far right and tried to shift the focus towards immigration and fear mongering about Muslims.
The latest rolling protest led to one of those rare occasions when something happening in Canada caught the attention of some politicians and the press in its much larger southern neighbor. This was especially true for America’s rightwing media and politicians, including the former president and his oldest son, as the arguments being made against public health mandates in response to the pandemic both influence and are influenced by these kinds of voices on both sides of the border.
WednesdayThose following this story couldn’t help but notice that American outlets like Fox News were often inaccurate in their descriptions of what was happening and who was involved. Fox newsreader and opinion host Sean Hannity at one point claimed that there were 10,000 trucks headed to Ottawa. On social media the number of trucks converging on the city was inflated to as many as 50,000.
Claims like Hannity’s were widely refuted by Canadian media, with the Toronto Star reporting that the smaller convoy traveling from the east was said by police in Kingston, Ontario, through which it passed on the way to the capital, to consist of, “17 full tractor-trailers, 104 tractors without trailers, 424 passenger vehicles and six RVs.”
Although aerial images of the larger convoy traveling from the west were impressive in terms of its length, the number of actual trailer trucks involved didn’t reach the bloated number cited by Hannity, let alone some of the exaggerations that have been making the rounds online. Pretending that crowds are much larger than they appear is a tactic embraced by the right at least since Donald Trump claimed he had the largest number of people at a presidential inauguration in his country’s history.
While the convoy traveling from the west grew steadily as it crossed the country and the numbers at the capital and at a separate protest at the Alberta/Montana border can’t be denied, the truth of the matter is, in line with the rest of the population, almost 90% of Canadian truckers are fully vaccinated and are continuing to work.
The convoys are also not supported by mainstream organizations representing the industry’s workers, including the Canadian Truckers Alliance, the country’s largest, which released a statement last Saturday, which said, “While a number of Canadians are in Ottawa to voice their displeasure over this mandate, it also appears that a great number of these protesters have no connection to the trucking industry and have a separate agenda beyond a disagreement over cross border vaccine requirements. As these protests unfold over the weekend, we ask the Canadian public to be aware that many of the people you see and hear in media reports do not have a connection to the trucking industry.”
Nonetheless, following a trend that’s been visible since the beginning of the pandemic, there were images of people carrying Trump flags and signs, swastikas and the Canadian version of the ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flag at the protests. One pickup truck was even adorned with a Confederate flag.
News reports showed placards and messages on vehicles concerned with conspiracy theories like Qanon, the ‘Great Replacement’ and paranoia about the ‘Great Reset’ called for by the neo-liberal billionaire class associated with the World Economic Forum.
This is not to imply that those involved in the convoy don’t have the right to protest, and the majority of the crowd still in Ottawa are ordinary citizens from many walks of life exhausted by what we’ve all suffered through for the past two years, even if a lot of the anger is misplaced and fueled by misinformation.
Unfortunately, some of those involved in the convoy and on online forums dedicated to it have called for a January 6th style event in Ottawa, incitement to violence that’s not protected under the country’s constitution. There have also been reports of harassment of those wearing masks and people of color by some of the protesters.
This is not the only bad behavior on display in the country’s capital so far. Disruption caused by the noise of car and truck horns blaring alone has to be driving people unlucky enough to live in central Ottawa to distraction. Many businesses in the area have closed to avoid having to police belligerent customers who refuse to wear masks. Media trying to cover the protests have been harassed and in some cases chased away by protesters who at the same time complain about a lack of coverage.
Parts of the city have been gridlocked by vehicles, some with their wheels removed, making commutes difficult and more time consuming with no end in sight as convoy organizers have promised the blockades will remain until their unrealistic demands are met. What started out as a very specific cause quickly expanded to include all mandates, including those requiring citizens to wear masks, most of which were not imposed by the federal but by provincial governments and, in many cases, private businesses themselves.
As the protests began on Saturday, with the temperature a frigid -18.4 F in Ottawa, large numbers of these protesters invaded the Rideau Center mall refusing to wear masks and causing its closure to protect those working there. As of this writing the shopping center has yet to reopen.
As if to show how little they know about their own country’s history, a large group of these protesters played drums and chanted “yabba, dabba, doo” in a disrespectful imitation of the music of some indigenous North Americans. Anecdotally, these are likely some of the same people who post in online comments sections about how the systemic campaign of murder and cultural genocide directed at Canada’s indigenous people over centuries happened ‘long ago’ (which is untrue) and shouldn’t weigh on their consciences.
In yet another incident, some of the protesters descended on a soup kitchen serving the unhoused demanding food and harassing staff.
As the president of Shepherds of Good Hope, which runs the kitchen, Deirdre Freiheit, told a local news radio station, “Staff and volunteers were verbally harassed by people who came to the kitchen looking for meals. We also had a situation where the trucks were blocking our drop-off in front of the shelter, which is where police and paramedics come to bring people to us for care. That was blocked and that could have cost somebody a life.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, a separate convoy consisting of about 100 vehicles, including farm equipment in oil rich Alberta blocked the Coutts border crossing, likely adding to supply chain issues in the short term and essentially blockading the small town of the same name as the crossing, where citizens were cut off from the closest grocery store and pharmacy in the area, some school children were unable to attend classes and locals have been told they will not receive mail until the convoy disperses.
Bowing to the pressure brought by authorities, the protesters freed up two lanes to traffic on Wednesday.
Just like other protests targeting public health measures across most Western democracies, the far right have attached themselves to the Freedom Convoy and are using it to spread unscientific opinions, hateful messages and probably to recruit.
Many on the left have argued that if this protest involved them and the movements they support the crackdown would have been swift and likely brutal, something we have seen time and again at protests against police brutality in Canada over the years. With no end in sight and so many illegal acts on the part of the protesters it remains to be seen if authorities have the will to do their jobs.
*For those with an interest in those who organized the convoy and how it’s being funded, Global News Canada has a detailed report on these issues here.