By Brielle Smith & Martin LeBrun
For over ten days central Ottawa has been blocked by the so-called “Freedom Convoy,” a nationwide protest calling for an end to all federal and provincial COVID measures. Some have gone further and called for the removal of the elected government. It has totally dominated Canadian news. Contrast this to the lack of widespread coverage of the many rallies for climate justice over recent years.
Crowds of demonstrators — ranging in political self-identification — have taken to the streets in support of their cause. Another blockade, at Coutts on the US-Canada border, has at times closed the main road crossing between Alberta and the US. Over the weekend of 5–6 February, there were convoys in many cities across the country. As this article goes to press, protests are ongoing in Ottawa and at Coutts, Alberta. On February 7, a protest stopped traffic into the US on the Ambassador bridge between Windsor and Detroit, the busiest truck crossing between the two countries used by more than 10,000 commercial vehicles a day — this will make life even harder for working truckers!
Key organizers of the protest, unbeknownst to many of those taking part, are open white-supremacists. Tamara Lich, who raised over ten million dollars on GoFundMe for the convoy, is a former member of the now-defunct Wexit party, famous for claims that Trudeau’s government hopes to “depopulate [Canada’s] white Anglo-Saxon race.” Pat King, in the early days of the Convoy — a key fundraising organizer, is well known in extreme racist circles. Christopher Pritchard, who spoke at the rally in Ottawa, is noted for his anti-Semitic and racist views. Canada Unity, which launched the convoy, was founded by James Bauder, a supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Romana Didulo, prominent in QAnon and describing herself as the “Queen of Canada,” burned the Canadian flag at the Ottawa protests. In December she urged her online followers to “shoot to kill anyone who tries to inject any children under 19 years old (with COVID vaccines).” Québec’s far right is also involved including La Meute, an anti-Islam group.
Other big players include alt-right social media behemoth Rebel Media and the members of United We Roll, a group of far-right truckers who organized a previous convoy to Ottawa, in support of pipelines in 2019. They have previously collaborated with company bosses and Regina Police to threaten striking refinery workers. Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk also tweeted his support on 28 January, saying “Canadian truckers rule.”
The reception in Ottawa has been mixed. Many Conservative MPs have indicated support for the convoy. Conservative MP Michael Cooper handed out coffee to protesters on the first days of the protest. Ex-Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, who opposes vaccine mandates and supports the convoy’s right to protest, called on Prime Minister Trudeau to meet with the protesters to hear their concerns. Trudeau’s decision to mandate proof of vaccination for cross-border truckers served as the initial spark for the convoy. So far Trudeau has refused to meet with them, rightly criticizing some protesters’ use of Nazi and racist symbols, their urinating on the war memorial and dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as intimidating behaviour. He has also refused to repeal the mandate at this time, although it must be noted that the US currently has a similar measure in place.
Meanwhile, several trucking associations have come out against the protests including the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada, the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association, and the Canadian Trucking Alliance.
Many truck drivers in Alberta are frustrated with the Coutts blockade as they can’t do their job, or they have to take long detours on narrower and less safe roads.
Canadian truckers of South Asian decent make up 18 per cent of all Canadian truckers, 50 per cent in Vancouver and Toronto, but a South Asian person is a very rare sight at any of the protests. Most South Asian drivers do not feel represented by what some are claiming as a trucker’s movement. Jagroop Singh, the president of the Ontario Aggregate Trucking Association, says that no one has reached out to the South Asian community to ask them if they agree with the protest demands. Vaccination rates among the South Asian community in Southern Ontario are higher than the national average at 90 percent. Manan Gupta, the publisher of Road Today magazine, whose readership is the South Asian trucking community, told The Globe and Mail that “Immigrant families in places like Brampton and Mississauga live in multigenerational families. A South Asian trucker doesn’t want to catch COVID, only to come back and infect the grandparents.”
The weakening of regulations and attacks on unions have left many truckers vulnerable to exploitation. Real wages have been slashed over the decades. The protests are not uniting Canadian truckers. On the contrary, what would unite truckers would be a campaign for safer roads, with sufficient rest stops, double-lane highways in remote areas, an end to wage theft and better pay. For truckers fighting for better working conditions like Arshdeep Singh Kang of Brampton, Ontario, “These are the real issues we should all be uniting over, not vaccine mandates.” In addition to low pay and wage theft, a real truckers’ movement would focus on poor training and inadequate legislation to control unscrupulous employers.
Most of the vehicles on the protests are not trucks, but cars and vans. Most of the truckers in the convoy and protest must be owner-operators, if they are truckers at all, rather than employed workers. The blockades at Coutts and the Ambassador bridge hurt working truckers and the actions in Ottawa have hit many workers hard. This is not a working-class movement. Can you imagine asking the boss of a trucking company: “Can I have a couple of weeks of paid leave to go to Ottawa, and, oh by the way, can I also take the truck?” And the boss happily agreeing?
No end in sight?
The organizers made unbelievable statements such as Tamara Lich claiming 50,000 heavy trucks were heading to Ottawa, a convoy that would stretch 1,150 kilometres, from Edmonton to Vancouver! More realistically, a few hundred trucks plus pickups and cars turned up and there were around 10,000 protestors on the first weekend, but their numbers dwindled to hundreds during the week. However, they had a boost on the second weekend and the protest is continuing into the second week.
News reports have been full of downtown Ottawa residents and workers upset and traumatized about the incessant diesel fumes, horns blaring all night, blockaded streets and generally hostile demeanor of protesters unwilling to heed masking and vaccine passport measures, as well as harassment of visible minorities and women. Many downtown residents feel hostages in the neighbourhood. Some residents have called on the Ottawa police to “do their jobs” and to clear the protest. Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly has stated that he is “increasingly concerned there is no policing solution to this,” suggesting calling in the military as an option. Trudeau and the Canadian military have both responded saying that there are no plans for a military intervention. Ottawa has declared a state of emergency, but it remains unclear what they will do.
There have been racist flags at the Ottawa protest. Also alarming is the actions of some convoy supporters to block ambulances and threaten health workers. The recent convoy through Vancouver planned to go past several hospitals and health workers were advised not to go outside, and if they did, not to wear anything that would identify them as health workers. Health workers in Toronto received similar warnings. Health workers are past exhaustion, working long hours to save lives; they are heroes not villains.
So far police response to the protest has been very mild. Thousands have taken part in the protest, with multiple parking and traffic violations, as well as breaking COVID safety rules. The Rideau Mall has been closed for over a week after it was filled with large numbers of unmasked protestors. Yet, there have been a handful of arrests. Many critics of the convoy have pointed to the police’s gentle approach in contrast to the treatment of Land Defenders. The RCMP have invaded Wet’suwet’en several times armed with dogs, assault rifles, helicopters and heavy construction equipment. They brutally assaulted Indigenous elders and women.
Socialists, Indigenous activists and environmentalists have to be careful in calls for police action as any such action will be used even harder against strikers, environmentalists, BLM protests, etc. In general police have not cracked down on the convoy, as it is not a threat to capital, unlike the Wet’suwet’en blockade and its threat to TC Energy’s profits. Protest and land defence is best aimed at capital and big business, rather than at inconveniencing ordinary people.
GoFundMe ended convoy fundraising on its site on February 4, citing “the promotion of violence and harassment” in Ottawa. It now says it will refund all who donated. The organizers have switched to a so-called Christian fundraising site, that previously had raised money for the Proud Boys. Serious concerns have been raised about the origins of the convoy’s funding.
The campaign is having ripple effects in the US. Donald Trump has unsurprisingly endorsed the convoy, calling Trudeau a “far left lunatic who has destroyed Canada,” and Trump is currently supporting an attempt to build a similar convoy to Washington DC against Biden’s COVID policies.
There is growing opposition to this movement that is anti-vaccine and against public health measures. In Vancouver, the convoy was blocked for several hours by a counter rally and forced to divert away from some of the hospitals its organizers hoped to target. In Toronto over 1,000 gathered at a rally in support of health workers organized by the Ontario Health Coalition. However, in Ottawa leaders of Public Service Alliance of Canada opposed a rally. Across the country health workers and other unions need to take action to protect their health workers and put forward an alternative to the fear of the convoy.
A socialist take
While the unvaccinated are only 16 percent of the entire population (12 percent of those over 4 years old) and 10 percent of truckers, polls suggest moderate nationwide support for the protests. A Maru Voice Canada poll, conducted as the protesters were making their way to Ottawa, showed 28percent of Canadians in support of the initial demand to allow unvaccinated truckers to cross the US-Canada border. An Abacus Data poll conducted as the Parliament Hill occupation was starting, showed 68 percent of those interviewed felt like they have “very little in common with how the protestors in Ottawa see things” while 32 percent said they “have a lot in common.” Those in support of the Convoy were People’s Party voters (82 percent), Green Party voters (57 percent), and Conservative voters (46 percent), while majorities of Liberal (75 percent), New Democrat Party (77 percent), and Bloc Québécois (81 percent) voters were not in support. People’s Party voters mostly saw the protest as respectful and appropriate (93 percent), while Conservatives were divided on this question.
Most Canadians are fed up with COVID and governments’ constant on-off policies. Working people are increasingly disenchanted with mainstream politicians and frustrated with the seemingly endless pandemic and accompanying health measures.
While socialists should clearly condemn all movements that act as vehicles for far-right racist and conspiracy propaganda, the left must adopt a broad, systemic analysis in recognizing that the distrust in Canada’s state institutions, reflected by the significant support for the convoy, is deeply rooted in social causes. Reliance on the capitalist state and big business to solve COVID woes, alongside climate change and economic hardship, will only fuel the far right.
Inequality has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic, both at home and abroad (with the ten richest men doubling their wealth from $700 billion to $1.4 trillion since the first COVID case). Millions of people, including those who struggle with chronic illness, have been forced back to work at risk of losing their livelihoods. Many provinces have no paid sick days or, at best, an inadequate five days. Widespread confusion exists about how to handle COVID as governments keep changing policy to favour corporate profits and frequently ignore the recommendations of doctors and scientists, sacrificing public health and well-being. This provides a rewarding entry point for conspiracy theories and far-right ideas.
For two years, working people of all ages were told to fill in the gaps created by the politicians’ and labour organizers’ surrender to corporate interests. Workers in all sectors have been compelled to hide possible symptoms in order keep going to work to support their families. Workers had to go into unsafe workplaces with inadequate safety protection. Now governments across the country are giving up on testing and tracing, and increasingly are moving to do away with any health restrictions. Alberta has stated that employers can declare a worker “essential” and they have to go to work even with COVID symptoms! For two years governments in Canada put the profits of big business before public health.
British Columbia (BC) has a lower rate of death from COVID than all the other large provinces, but done much worse than the Territories and Atlantic Canada. Yet the BC NDP government oversees a province where thousands of families have fallen into conditions of poverty for COVID-related reasons (with 20 percent of BC children already living in poverty before the pandemic started). The province’s unwillingness to implement sufficient economic support for workers has forced most to risk spread and exposure in order that the bottom line of corporations not be inconvenienced. Rents are once again skyrocketing, and evictions are on the up. Being “calm, kind, and safe,” in the words of Dr. Bonnie Henry, can only do so much when one has a family to feed, and the province refuses to relieve that burden in any manner that inconveniences the rich.
For two years the far right have tried to gain support over COVID, regularly holding anti-mask rallies. For most of that time they gained little support. But now millions are exhausted, fed up and looking for COVID to end.
Socialist Alternative supports the drive for the highest possible vaccination rates; this includes much more targeted outreach than has so far happened in every area. But what has been missing is the implementation of a wider range of policies of continued public health measures and much more extensive social and economic programs. However, we warned that an over-reliance on vaccines “will likely backfire among the hesitant, and even push some of them into the arms of the anti-vax movement, with its neo-Nazi links.” This is what has happened.
This is part of a larger, global trend of centre parties, usually one, centre right and one, centre left, losing support. The centre parties agree on serving big business, profits before people, having policies that increase inequality and raising taxes for working people, while cutting them for the rich and big business. In elections they make nice promises and in power betray voters. In 2020, when presented with a proposal for a 1 percent capital gains wealth tax of the country’s wealthiest citizens in order to finance COVID relief, not a single Conservative or Liberal MP voted in favour. Meanwhile, Canadians of all parties and in every province overwhelmingly (around 80 percent) supported this policy.
Unfortunately, the NDP and most union leaders have not put forward a radical, pro-worker program for COVID and society. They should be pushing for safe working conditions, effective actions to control COVID such as PPE, testing and tracing, a publicly owned pharmaceutical industry, 10 days of paid sick leave, higher wages, and a dramatic improvement in public health measures. There is a real risk of future variants unless the world is vaccinated. Canada needs to help, by demanding the ending of all patents and companies profiting from COVID. Instead, the NDP and union leaders have largely supported the Liberal government’s policies, with mild criticisms, going along with compromise and co-existence with the capitalist establishment. This has allowed the far right to gain ground for lack of an alternative.
The organizers of the convoy are trying to tap into this real anti-establishment discontent to build support for right-wing ideas that offer no solution for working people. The size of the support they have gained is a warning that the polarization and right-wing populism that exists in the US and some European countries has come to Canada. While much of the capitalist elite will criticize the more extreme slogans, flags and actions of the protests, they know that right-wing populism will not challenge capitalism and will divert workers from doing so.
While it is necessary to point to the extremely right-wing views of the protest organizers, to call all the supporters racist, fascist, etc., will not help to deter them from supporting the protests.
This is an urgent wake up call to unions and the mainstream left. The only way out — the only real answer to the pandemic, rapid climate destruction, and surging inequality — is a mass political movement unambiguous in its opposition to the ruling class. A radical socialist program, built from the ground up, capable of achieving material freedom and concrete gains for the working class, is vital.