“Canada declared a national emergency for this?”
(Boston Globe) Around 7 a.m., I woke up to the sound of trucks repeatedly honking their horns, as if Canada’s capital city was experiencing history’s worst traffic jam. In a way, it just might be. Hundreds of tractor-trailer trucks have blocked streets for weeks, making the lives of some residents and workers in the normally staid city miserable. Businesses have temporarily closed; employees have been forced to miss work and have lost wages as a result. The constant honking, this protest’s signature noise, could make just about anyone pull their hair out.
This is the so-called Freedom Convoy — a protest that started Jan. 22 with truckers demanding an end to COVID-19 restrictions in Canada, like vaccine or mask mandates. It has since garnered international attention, inspiring both global news coverage and plans for similar protests in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. The convoy has also provoked the Canadian government, caught off guard by such a seemingly un-Canadian display of disruption and bad manners, into an unprecedented security crackdown.
I arrived in Ottawa shortly after Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, invoked the Emergencies Act, which gives the federal government broad, unilateral power, for the first time in the country’s history in order to quell the protests. As its name suggests, the law is reserved for emergency situations that threaten the safety and stability of the state. So between that dire-sounding announcement and the international attention the truckers have received, I was expecting to witness Canada descending into chaos.
The reality is quite underwhelming. Walking through the protest feels more like witnessing a traffic jam — made up of obnoxious drivers with their fists glued to their horns — than an actual uprising, as the protesters suggest. Some streets are filled with trucks, but lacking in people. On a dry and only mildly cold afternoon this week, even the center of the protests on Parliament Hill had a relatively thin, albeit boisterous, crowd. It’s difficult to estimate the number of protesters with the trucks taking up so much space, but suffice it to say that without their massive vehicles occupying a good portion of downtown, the protesters would be able to disrupt only a few city blocks, if that.
In other words, Trudeau has probably overreacted. News reports suggest that the police in Ottawa — whose chief resigned earlier this week amid public anger over his handling of the protests — may move soon on the protesters, who may have numbered 8,000 at the protest’s peak. But clamping down on them, especially if doing so is handled poorly by law enforcement, might only worsen the situation.
It’s important for the Canadian government to handle this well — and delicately. Though the trucker movement represents a small minority of Canadians, according to polls, it has the potential to galvanize supporters of far-right causes in devastating ways — similar to the rise of Donald Trump. The last thing Canada, or the United States, needs is for the truckers to become martyrs or a permanent cause célèbre within the right-wing echo chamber.
For the record, the majority of people I’ve spoken with haven’t actually been truckers — though sightings of trucker hats and Carhartt jackets are aplenty.Some are blue-collar workers with Canadian flags draped over their shoulders. Others are well-to-do suburbanites, dressed in a combination of athleisure and tan overcoats.But all of them have repeated right-wing talking points to me that are similar to those spewed by American conservatives.
A group of middle-aged white men in military-style outfits, for example, refused to talk to me because they don’t trust mainstream — or “lamestream,” as one sign put it — media. And more than a few protesters have told me they watch Fox News, specifically Tucker Carlson. One protester, a Canadian wearing a Trump hat with an American flag on it, mentioned Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity only by their first names, as though they’re friends. Another told me, “I do my own research,” an oft-used phrase in the far-right world, and that he gets much of his news from Instagram accounts.
“The virus is superseding our rights,” Todd, a retired electrician in his 60s, told me. “I’m being persecuted because I’m not vaccinated.” A self-described suburban hockey mom, who wished to remain nameless, told me thatthough she is vaccinated herself, she came to protest because Canada is creating a “two-tier” society — one for the vaccinated, one for the unvaccinated — striking a similar tone to anti-vax American conservatives who have flippantly and erroneously compared vaccine mandates to Jim Crow laws. Jasey, a young hypnotherapist, said “you’re looked at differently” for refusing to wear a mask or get vaccinated.
Ultimately, Trudeau and the Canadian government should certainly be monitoring the protest and its organizers and funders — many of them American — closely. Its ties to far-right ideas and white supremacy (swastikas have been spotted among the demonstrators) are especially dangerous. But the government should be careful not to overreact with force, because that would prove divisive and drum up sympathy for the protest movement. It doesn’t take much to galvanize right-wing extremists. As Trump showed us in America, they wouldn’t need a majority to rise to power — just a loud enough minority. And these protesters with trucks are, if nothing else, ear-piercingly loud.