Since January 28, Canada’s capital city of Ottawa has been under siege by a convoy of angry truckers — a two-week running protest that has drawn support from right-wing extremists in Canada and abroad.
The so-called “freedom convoy” is nominally protesting a vaccine mandate for truckers, implemented in mid-January on both sides of the US-Canada border. The demonstrations have quickly grown into a wider far-right movement. Some demonstrators waved Nazi and Confederate flags. Protesters want Canada to end all Covid-19 bans and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to resign.
As many as 8,000 demonstrators have occupied Ottawa, blocking streets and harassing citizens. Ottawa police have created a special hotline in response to a flood of hate crime allegations. It received over 200 calls during the first week in February.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has declared a state of emergency, and Trudeau’s government has deployed hundreds of Royal Canadian Mounted Police to the protests. As the situation improves, Trudeau’s government has deployed hundreds of Royal Canadian Mounted Police to the protests. Ottawa The freedom convoy movement is expanding across the country, as it continues. At least two border crossings were shut down by protestors between Canada & the United States.
While protests generate a lot of attention and noise, it actually highlights a counterintuitive truth: The Canadian far right, particularly when it comes to pandemic restriction, is weak and ineffective.
Canada’s provinces have generally employed strict Covid-19 measures such as school mask mandates and vaccine passports, including during the recent omicron surge. They have received broad public support for doing so. Even the most restrictive restrictions in Canada are less controversial than in the US. The current protest is very unpopular with the public and divisive even within the center-right Conservative Party.
This doesn’t mean the movement will accomplish nothing. It has already contributed to a revolt against the Conservative party’s leader and is serving as an important organizing node for far-rightists. The US-Canada supply chain is under more pressure due to the border crossing blockage, which causes an estimated $300 million in economic damage per day. Internationally, both France and the United States have copied the freedom convoy.
But it’s important to understand the broader context in Canada. Fox News and sympathetic anchors might have reported on the convoy. This could lead Americans to believe Canada is in the middle of a far right popular uprising. In reality, the mainstream consensus in Canada about Covid-19, and the nation’s institutions in general, is holding. The so-called trucker movement is on the fringe, including among Canadian truckers — some 90 percent of whom are vaccinated.
They are mad because they lost.
Canadians against “truckers”
I’ve been to Canada several times since the beginning of the pandemic, driving over the Peace Bridge from Buffalo into southern Ontario. The differences between the countries are apparent as soon as they cross the border. Masks are considered optional at rest stops and gas stations in upstate New York. However, once you cross the border you will see almost everyone indoors covered up. My daughter got a fever after an ear infection. I was asked to give a negative Covid-19 test. upon entryWe were referred to urgent care; without one we were told that we would be turned away.
My experiences reflect the country’s much stricter government policies. Canadian provinces are well-versed in the use of vaccine passports, school mandates and bans for private indoor gatherings with more than 10 persons. Even Alberta, the prairie heart of Canadian conservatism, had imposed all three — with Jason Kenney, the province’s Conservative premier, arguing in September that a passport system was ”the only way to cut viral transmission without destroying businesses.”
Alberta and other Canadian provinces are in the process to remove some of the more restrictive restrictions. But this generally reflects the omicron surge’s ebb rather a wave of public opposition; in Ontario, home to Ottawa and Toronto, the Conservative provincial government is following a preexisting reopening script pegged to a decline in case counts and hospitalizations. Some provincial leaders, like Quebec’s François Legault, noted that reopening plans were in no way influenced by trucker shenanigans.
Canadian politicians have chosen this position for a reason: Poll after poll shows that Canadians are strongly in favour of restrictive pandemic policy at both the federal as well as provincial levels. This is not to say they enjoy restrictions on their freedoms — who does? — but simply that they believe the government has an obligation to act when case counts are high.
This is especially clear when it comes to coercive vaccination rules, ostensibly the freedom convoy’s main target.
The Covid-19 Monitor’s January edition, which is a regular survey on Canadian attitudes regarding the pandemic finds that around three quarters of Canadians support vaccination passports for indoor gatherings and dining. Strikingly, 70 percent would “strongly” or “somewhat” support a vaccine mandate for all eligible adults — a vastly more restrictive policy than any province has actually attempted. What’s more, the researchers behind Covid-19 Monitor find that, on most issues, “support has remained relatively stable” throughout the pandemic — strong evidence that this isn’t just a short-term blip caused by omicron.
The trucker protest is therefore not popular.
Innovative Research Group, a polling company, has done three rounds of polling on the protest since its inception. They found that public opposition has increased as the convoy has continued. In their most recent survey, conducted February 4-9, a scant 29 percent of Canadians expressed support for “the idea of the protest” while 53 percent disapproved.
A separate survey by Léger, released on February 8, found that 62 percent of Canadians oppose “the message that the trucker convoy protests are conveying of no vaccine mandates and less public health measures.” Sixty-five percent of respondents agreed that the demonstrators represented a “small minority of Canadians who are thinking only about themselves.”
Why the trucker protest matters, even though they’re losing
It’s worth emphasizing that a movement does not have to be popular with a majority to have influence.
During the trucker protests, an uprising against Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole succeeded in toppling him from the top spot. The challenge was fueled, in part, by Conservative members of Parliament frustrated by O’Toole’s equivocal stance on the convoy, with many in the ranks calling on the party to embrace the truckers.
The leadership challenge points to the bigger effect of the protest: It is a rare action by the Canadian far right that’s gaining mainstream attention and backing. “Even if the trucker protests do recede, their show of strength has won them demonstrable support abroad, including financial support, and has established large communities online that could fuel future activity,” the New York Times’s Max Fisher writes.
The protests have had notable international reach, becoming a cause célèbre for anti-restriction conservatives in the US and Europe. Sixty-three percent of the donations to the truckers’ now-removed GoFundMe came from the United States; the American right reportedly played an important role in getting the protest off the ground. It’s also now inspiring actions elsewhere: An American convoy is scheduled to depart from California on March 4, with Washington as its ultimate destination. Similar efforts from France are already underway to Paris. Police have promised to block its entry.
Yet the fact that so much of the so-called trucker movement’s support seems to be coming from abroad is telling.
A combination of factors, from Canada’s political structure to its acceptance of liberal cultural values to the fact that it is an open society, has made the government of Canada particularly resistant to far right radicalism. The mainstream consensus has held on issues such as Covid-19, immigration, and abortion.
The freedom convoy’s willingness to disrupt life in Canada’s capital is less a sign of an incipient popular uprising than the lashing out of a minority that has little influence at the ballot box.