Canada’s ‘Freedom Convoy’ was on a path to nowhere—until its critics overplayed their hand
I can always tell when Canadian political news gets exciting, because these are the rare moments when foreign media outlets email me for commentary. In recent days, I’ve been asked for comment on Canadian truckers’ “freedom convoy” by the Washington Post, a Spanish-language radio network, and even a podcast based in Hanoi. Certainly, The New York Times has taken notice, grimly warning its readership of the “far-right activists” embracing the truckers’ cause.
There is certainly a grain of truth to the Times’ description. The convoy was originally conceived as a way to fight back against government rules mandating the vaccination of cross-border truckers. But some of the organizers were populist radicals, and there have been sporadic sightings of extreme right-wing symbols at the protests (even if the paucity of these embarrassing outliers seems to have disappointed the left-of-center pundits and politicians who were primed to treat the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa as Canada’s version of the January 6th Capitol riot).
The convoy’s presence continues as of this writing, and Ottawa residents are understandably angry about the paralysis of their downtown by hundreds of noisy big rigs. As I wrote in the National Post, there was no real reason to think this kind of disruptive stunt was going to be a successful act of protest. In early days, many of us associated the whole project with anti-vaccine activism (even if, technically, this was about mandates, not vaccination itself), a highly unpopular cause in Canada, where almost 90 percent of the population has had at least one jab.
My own perspective in late January was pretty typical of most urbanites, I think: I live in a Toronto neighborhood where people get antsy if someone so much as double-parks a minivan for more than 10 minutes. I can’t imagine how much my neighbors and I would be freaking out if a whole truck convoy were lining our streets honking their horns. And so it didn’t surprise me when an early national poll showed that most Canadians didn’t have much time for the convoy.
But something interesting happened in the last week or so: Progressive critics of the convoy badly overplayed their hand, and their own divisive rhetoric became a story in itself. Social media has played a huge role in this: The depiction of the protestors as uniformly malevolent actors (and even white supremacists) has been deeply undercut by viral images of joyous and multicultural protest parties.
Moreover, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s refusal to meet with the protestors (due to what he calls their “hateful rhetoric”) has earned him a clear (if implicit) public rebuke from an MP within his own party—a stunning development given the fastidiously whipped nature of political messaging in Canadian party politics. On Tuesday, Liberal MP Joël Lightbound said, “it’s time to stop dividing Canadians, to stop pitting one part of the population against another. I can’t help but notice with regret that both tone and the policies of my government changed drastically on the eve and during the last election campaign. From a positive and unifying approach, a decision was made to wedge to divide and to stigmatize.”
While Lightbound also threw in abundant denunciations of the radicalism evinced by some protestors, he also pointedly noted that some of their specific grievances—he named “the vaccine requirement for truckers” explicitly—weren’t exactly crazy: “If we forget about the demonstrations, and we forget about the convoy for just a second, and look at that policy for what it is. This is a policy that now goes against the World Health Organization’s recommendation and for which no epidemiological studies and projections have been provided.”
We are witnessing what I believe is a significant inflection point in Canada’s political timeline—though I offer no predictions for what will become of it. Just a few months ago, when fear of Omicron ran hot, and the fight against COVID was still seen as a matter of great urgency, the freedom convoy wouldn’t have had a chance in the Canadian court of public opinion. But things have changed a lot since December, and provincial governments are starting to dismantle their lockdown measures without waiting for Trudeau’s blessing. As a result, the political taint associated with vaccine skepticism—which has, until now, throttled the forces of populist agitation on the Canadian right—has ebbed.
Even many vaccinated-and-boosted centrist Canadians (I’d put myself in that category) are eager to get on with post-pandemic life, and don’t have much time for the hectoring of double-masked puritans who denounce all strong political dissent as emanating from (in Trudeau’s words) “misogynists and racists.” This week, poll results indicated that almost half of fully vaccinated Canadians now sympathize with “the concerns and frustrations being voiced by people involved in the trucker protest in Ottawa”—a stunning result given how many journalists have spent the last two weeks amplifying Trudeau’s depiction of the truckers as hate mongers.
There are other signs that change is in the air, too. A traditional political cleavage line in Canadian politics has been the (foundational) one between English and French, and it wasn’t so long ago that a razor-thin referendum vote nearly allowed Quebec separatists to create their own country. Yet Canadian and Quebec flags have intermingled freely among protestors on the streets of Quebec City and Montreal—a bad sign for a Liberal party whose path to power has traditionally run through Quebec.
To Trudeau’s left, meanwhile, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, which is currently propping up the Liberal minority government, is now offering lavish praise for truckers (the ones who aren’t protesting, anyway), this after he suffered an epic backlash for his ham-fisted attempt to link the convoy to a horrific act of Islamophobic mass murder in 2017.
Even the leadership of the CBC, which typically lumbers along obliviously in its own hyper-progressive taxpayer-bankrolled media silo, now seems somewhat dumbstruck by its inability to shape the country’s political narrative. In a February 8 essay, CBC News editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon rightly denounced the harassment that some of his colleagues are now facing from angry viewers and listeners, while also channeling incredulity that there are those who “harbor a deep and growing distrust of news organizations like ours.” This lack of institutional self-awareness is quite stunning. And if the blistering replies that his article elicited are any guide, even many Canadian leftists are becoming alienated by legacy media cliques that now operate as little more than relay stations for increasingly dubious orthodoxies about race, sex, and politics.
The wild card here is the Conservative Party of Canada, which vies with the Liberals for power every time a federal election is called. Its affable leader, Erin O’Toole, fell victim to an internal revolt last week. O’Toole had spent the last previous two years steering the Conservatives on a respectable center-right course, studiously avoiding any posture that the Canadian media might be able to seize upon as evidence of Trumpism. In part thanks to the convoy’s disruptive effect on Canada’s normally placid political order, it seems doubtful that his leadership replacement will find this kind of risk-averse strategy to be viable. No matter how Canadians feel about the convoy, there’s no doubt that these truckers have made their mark on the political direction of their country.
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