Canada's Freedom Convoy Is Undermining the Cause of Freedom
Its delusions and tactics have infuriated ordinary Canadians who also wanted an end to excessive pandemic restrictions
OTTAWA, Ontario: The Canadian Freedom Convoy — protests that took off when unvaccinated truckers facing cross-border travel restrictions joined the original coalition of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and other sundry right-wing groups — have become a touchpoint in the culture war. To the left, the Convoy is an assault on democracy — a Canadian January 6. To the right, it’s a stand for freedom!
The reality is complicated.
The Convoy is not as serious a threat to democracy as the storming of the U.S. Capitol. But it also isn’t any cause for celebration, even for those who believe that it is high time Canadian authorities roll back COVID-19 restrictions. Indeed, the Convoy’s main accomplishments are increased polarization of Canadians, further politicization of the pandemic, an increase in support for illiberal crackdowns on protest rights, and renewed support for harsh policing. In other words, the exact opposite of what any freedom lover should want.
The Convoy started with substantial support for its cause. The federal government’s role in pandemic restrictions was mostly limited to setting rules for border crossing and for air, rail, and sea travel. Provinces were responsible for crafting their own pandemic strategy, and many went overboard: In the name of protecting hospitals — overburdened even outside of pandemic times — Ontario never lifted its indoor mask mandate. Schools were closed, and restaurants, private gatherings, religious services, weddings, and funerals were severely restricted as recently as January. Québec even imposed a curfew in addition to other pandemic restrictions — never mind that the province, along with Ontario, is highly vaccinated.
These restrictions left people alone, frightened, and frustrated for two years. Unsurprisingly, some portion of the Convoy protesters were Canadians genuinely fed up with these ham-fisted regimes. But as the protests dragged on, the Convoy rapidly lost popular support. One poll this week found that over 70% of Canadians want the Convoy to “go home now.” Two-thirds are even in favor of using military force to end the protest, according to another poll. The Convoy is dividing Canadians in a way the pandemic restrictions didn’t.
The Convoy’s leaders wants to take credit for the recent easing of restrictions, but the picture is decidedly mixed even here.
Convoy supporters might be right that Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba dropped restrictions as a result of the protests. Likewise, the premier of Saskatchewan has suggested strongly he was responding to the protest. But in other provinces across Canada, pandemic measures are being rolled back in line with long-standing plans. Ontario eased some of its provisions before the first trucks even hit the road. Moreover, the province’s announcement this week that it will end its vaccination passport requirements on March 1 is broadly in line with reopening plans set out last fall.
This should be good news for the Convoy, if it simply desired an end to the pandemic regime. But instead of letting up, protests have intensified and dug in. Much of the American coverage of the protests seems to suggest that there is nothing threatening or untoward about them. Some photos depict a big, friendly party with Paw Patrol characters meeting and greeting the crowd.
This, however, is terribly misleading.
The fact is that the Convoy has turned into an occupying force in Ottawa. The protesters have installed heavy trucks and cranes to cordon off part of the downtown near the Parliament. Within that area they have literally set up a parallel city with stages, tent villages, wooden structures, a gym, hot tubs and saunas. A secretive and fortified camp has sprung up a few kilometers from the downtown core, along with satellite sites outside the city.
Meanwhile, truckers have taken to blaring their horns in shifts from early morning until late at night. They stopped for four days last week after a court injunction, only to resume again in defiance of the injunction. They’ve heckled pedestrians, harassed homeless shelters, encouraged supporters to overwhelm 911 lines, and closed downtown retail stores and restaurants. And, of course, there have been multiple border blockades, including one where some protesters were heavily armed.
Parliament Hill is adjacent to residential streets, so all of this is massively disruptive to area residents. Downtown residents have filed a class-action lawsuit against the protesters. It is hard to overemphasize how much vitriol has built up against the occupiers and how upset ordinary Canadians are that authorities allowed the situation to get this far out of control. Counter-protesters are rising and taking matters into their own hands — in defiance of the police — to contain the Convoy. In other words, citizens are taking to the streets to confront each other, risking a complete breakdown of order.
Some U.S. commentators believe that if Canada simply dismantled its mandates and restrictions, the protesters would melt away. But for the Convoy organizers, COVID restrictions were merely a pretext. The real reason for the protests was far more political.
James Bauder, who heads a group called Canada Unity and is the original brains behind the idea of a Convoy, initially staged one in 2019 to remove Justin Trudeau from power. For the Convoy’s current iteration, planned before a vaccine mandate was extended to truckers in mid-January, Canada Unity made clear that their goal was to dissolve the recently elected government and install Canada Unity as part of a dreamt-up governing body. The organization has withdrawn its “Memorandum of Understanding” detailing these plans. But protesters have produced pseudo-legal rationales to demand Trudeau’s resignation, and they have been swearing in "peace officers" authorized to arrest public figures and unfriendly police.
It’s hard to dig fully into the intentions of other organizers since attendance at press conferences is limited to friendly media. But it is clear that many of the organizers are not anti-mandate but anti-vaccine. They demand their “scientific advisers” to be showcased by the government.
These demands are obviously unrealistic. The clearer it becomes that they will never be met, the more the Convoy entrenches itself, especially since right-wing legislators are egging the protesters on. Canada’s Conservative Party’s interim leader told them: “Don’t stop, its working.” The likely next leader has declared himself “proud of the truckers.”
But even though the protesters won’t succeed in achieving their hardline demands, they are spelling an end to Canada’s era of light policing. This era started in the wake of a public backlash against two separate shooting standoffs between the police and Canadian Indigenous people in the 1990s, as well as the wrongful detention of protesters at a 2010 G-20 summit.
Since then, authorities have taken a more hands-off approach even in the case of extreme protests, including when Indigenous people, along with anti-pipeline protesters, blocked rail lines across Canada for weeks in 2020, putting hundreds out of work and disrupting supply chains. Indeed, even in the case of the Freedom Convoy, the Ottawa police initially marked off routes and created special areas for protesters to comfortably gather in order to minimize disruption for the rest of the city. Now, most of these sites remain closed, occupied, and even fortified, leaving Canadians furious that the protesters abused Canada’s lenient policing. That anger, combined with fears about secondary convoys entrenching themselves at border crossings and in other cities, is now fueling public demands for aggressive action to shut them down.
Ottawa and the Province of Ontario declared states of emergency earlier this month. Following on their heels earlier this week, the Trudeau government went even further and invoked the Emergencies Act, a never-before-used piece of legislation that gives the federal government sweeping powers to regulate and prohibit gatherings, seize funds, suspend insurance, direct labor, and deploy the military in response.
This is all terrifying, especially because the crackdown is so popular. There are scenarios when extreme protest tactics might be justified — for example, when a state perpetrates or tolerates human rights abuses. The problem is that many Convoy occupiers really believe that human rights abuses are taking place in the form of a treasonous government experimenting with unsafe vaccinations and other similarly odious measures. This is simply not true. And because it is not true, their tactics are maddening, disproportionate and completely nonsensical to ordinary Canadians.
The cure would be to persuade the protesters to abandon the alternate reality they have created for themselves amid a hothouse media environment steeped in conspiracy theories. They need to return to a shared reality with their fellow Canadians. No polity can function without some such common ground and common understanding of basic facts. Unfortunately, this hasn’t proven an easy problem to solve anywhere.
Meanwhile, the Convoy’s crusade is backfiring spectacularly as it alienates even Canadians upset with the government’s mishandling of the pandemic response. Most citizens simply don’t think such over-the-top tactics and subversion of public order are acceptable.
Canada is a less violent country than the United States, so the chance was always small that things would turn as violent as they did on Jan. 6 last year in the United States. But the prospect of violence grows daily, especially if the protesters continue to escalate their confrontations in response to eviction attempts likely to begin in earnest this weekend.
Sticking up for the rights of protesters does not mean giving them a pass on their tactics or their delusions. The Freedom Convoy is actually hurting the cause of freedom. Valorizing it is a mistake.