„Trucker protests“ in Ottawa: Canada on the brink

The „trucker protests“ which paralysed Ottawa for weeks were a systematic attempt from Canada's Trump-inspired Right to overthrow the government.

Ottawa, Saturday 19 February Foto: Blair Gable

This is the English original of the essay whose German translation by Dominic Johnson appeared in TAZ here.

Judging from reports sent around the world, it would seem that events currently taking place across Canada, including the occupation of the nation’s capital, Ottawa, are led by “peaceful“ truck drivers protesting vaccine mandates imposed on both sides of the Canada-US border. However, many Canadians would disagree and are convinced that the blockades are not led by truck drivers, 82 percent of whom are fully vaccinated, but more importantly Canadians do not believe these “protests“ are in anyway “peaceful,“ or are about vaccine mandates, since upon their arrival the “occupiers“ gave the government an ultimatum: resign, or be deposed.

The majority of Canadians believe they are led by a coalition of four groups holding Alt-right ideology, including White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, anti-Semitics, and libertarians. This belief is based on the political affiliation of the four organizers, whose members drove across the country parading Confederate flags, Third Reich flags, Swastikas painted on Canadian flags, yellow stars, upside down Canadian flags, as well as many flags laden with profanities directed at the Prime Minister of Canada while threatening his life.

Despite their posing as “peaceful protesters,“ they polluted the air with idling diesel trucks, blocked Ottawa’s city centre, sounded their air horns day and night (over 106 decibels), put up tents, bouncy castles, open firepits, and even hot tubs on the streets they blocked. They built kitchens offering free food to their supporters as many businesses closed their doors. They put up a stage to party nightly, blocked public transportation, and harassed residents for wearing masks, particularly members of visible minorities. They defecated in the streets, violated the Cenotaph of the War Memorial, danced on the tomb of the unknown soldier, and attempted to burn down two residential buildings in retaliation for being told to stop the noise.

Once established in Ottawa, members of this movement proceeded to blockade major highways, the main arteries for trade between US and Canada.

Canadians are struggling to come to terms with the level of hate and vitriol expressed by what they first took as normal Canadians tired of Pandemic restrictions wanting to make their voices heard. Few among us are willing to accept that Canada has pockets of groups seeking to cause serious harm to society and their fellow citizens. Even more alarming are the deeply racist and fascist views that members of these groups hold, much of which echoed those held by ex-US President Trump’s supporters south of the border.

A Tale of Two Solitudes

One of the reasons that this comes as a shock to Canadian society has to do with the speed with which fissures within the social fabric appeared. Looking back, there was a clear radical shift to the right in Canadian political discourse since 2003, when the leading centre-right Progressive Conservative Party merged with the Reform Party that was based on US socially conservative and far right ideology. The emerging Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) had none of the nuance of the Progressives, as it advocated much weaker Federal government, and pushed provinces to privatize health services and education. The party came to power in 2006 under the leadership of Stephen Harper, whose nine years in office resulted in radically weakened social supports, allowed foreign ownership of Canadian media, muzzled scientists, altered immigration selection process away from family reunification, and promoted policies aligning with racist rhetoric à la Trump.

Although the CPC was voted out in 2015, it nevertheless had time to introduce social and political divisions in a country that was feeling the impact of globalization, the off-shoring of meaningful manufacturing businesses, and the influx of highly educated immigrants. Unemployment increased in small rural centres, prompting the exodus of young workers to larger cities. In less than two decades, urban and rural populations were divided along educational, financial, and racial lines. The seats won by the Liberal Party of Canada when it returned to power in 2015 showed a rural (Conservative) and urban (Liberal) divide.

The departure of Stephen Harper left a void in the party, which has floundered under successive unsuccessful leaders, last of whom was turfed for attempting to bring the party’s socially conservative members to the centre. This attempt raised the ire of the party’s membership that has been dominated by lobbyists for the gun, oil and gas, and big pharma corporations, and adhered to an ideology imbued with Trump’s populism. However, unlike their Republican counterparts in the US, Canada’s CPC has been unable to regain power as its policies have failed to resonate with the majority of Canadians. As the Republicans have done under Trump, in its bid to regain power, CPC espouses racist rhetoric, conspiracy theories, spreads lies and misinformation on social media, and is supported by the Canadian US-owned mainstream media outlets.

The Pandemic and the “Freedom Convoy“

The pandemic hit Canada as hard as it did other nations, however the Liberal government succeeded in managing its impact quite successfully, keeping small businesses from bankruptcy, supporting gig economy workers, while procuring vaccines for the public. Despite the gross mismanagement by Conservative run Provinces of vaccine roll out and restrictions, Canada’s economy remained robust, and received accolades from international institutions, including the OECD and World Bank. In fact, one of the elements that has led the majority of Canadians to suspect the rhetoric of the “Freedom Convoy“ was the knowledge that vaccine mandates and restrictions are entirely under provincial jurisdiction, and yet these aggressive groups chose to direct their demands to the Federal government.

More disquieting for the fully vaccinated Canadian public (90%) was the realization that this relatively small movement had succeeded in amassing $14.7 million (Can) in less than two weeks, 52 percent of which came from the US. As the level of violence directed at the government and the public in Ottawa became undeniable, GoFundMe took the decision to freeze the account, prompting US Republican politicians to weigh in and forced GoFundMe to refund the money, which then allowed the movement’s US and Canadian donors to contribute to the movement through another crowd funding engine, GiveSendGo, notorious for having been the financial conduit that bankrolled Trump supporters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

As the situation in Ottawa degenerated, residents took to the streets to stop the entry of 'week-end’ protesters, succeeding where the police had failed. Within two days of these events, the federal government took the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act (EA) for the first time since it was promulgated in 1988, thereby facilitating the deployment of police from other jurisdictions, and providing federal RCMP support units to end the “occupation“. Again, US politicians and news outlets, including Fox News, CNN, and the New York Times accused Canada’s PM of tyranny and dictatorship, spread false rumours of wanton police violence, and killing of protesters where none were perpetrated. This rhetoric was echoed by CPC caucus members, who openly welcomed the “occupation,“ and went so far as to suggest the PM acquiesce to the demands of the “occupiers“.

Emergencies Act and Canadian Unity

A note should be made regarding the nature of the Emergencies Act, which replaced the War Measures Act invoked by Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau in 1970. The Act allows local authorities to automatically swear in Peace Officers from other jurisdictions, and to limit access to certain areas to help bring a situation under control. It explicitly safeguards all rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, holds police accountable, and permits full access to the media. It also allows the authorities to scrutinize the source of financing of unlawful acts, a power that has in fact succeeded in stemming the funding to this group of right-wing extremists. Unlike the War Measures Act, it specifically does not call for the deployment of the army.

Police chiefs and legal experts confirm the powers given under the EA were absolutely necessary to free the city of a group that has taken possession of Ottawa centre, and had setup three command centres within few kilometres of the city. Contrary to common media narrative the majority of Canadians (67 percent) believe the movement is illegitimate, particularly since the group made it abundantly clear their intention was to occupy the nation’s capital and overthrow the democratically elected government. They presented an ultimatum in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) demanding government resignation, and proposed to have it replaced by themselves forming Citizen Committees to rule in coalition with members of the Conservative Party, Governor General, and Senate. Indeed, the influence of US politics is hard to ignore when the organizers when arraigned ask for their rights under the “first amendment“ and plead silence under the “fifth amendment“ of the US Constitution.

The government had one week pass the right to invoke the Act in parliament. The minority liberal government of Justin Trudeau had to convince at least one party to vote alongside it, as it faced stiff opposition from Bloc Quebecois (a secessionist party representing Quebec) and the CPC. The New Democratic Party (NDP) has now conditionally sided with the government, while reserving the right to remove its support should its members decide the Act is no longer warranted.

The Act has passed its first hurdle in parliament, but provincial Premiers who are in the majority Conservative (eight of 10), have opposed it, and some are currently threatening legal action against the federal government for “overreach,“ a move that will put in question federal authority as set out in the Constitution. In the event the NDP withdraws its support, it may justify the legal case against the government, which may open the way for a constitutional challenge. The decision to open the Constitution can only occur if at least seven of the ten provinces with a combined 50 percent of Canadian population agree. So far only Alberta has launched a legal challenge, but all indications point to the possibility it would be joined by others, most definitely Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec. More Canadians are becoming aware of the wish on the part of some, particularly in the Oil and Gas sector in western provinces, to divide Canada.

As these events unfold, Canadians need to acknowledge the socio-political and economic disparities that have nurtured these divisions, and find ways to bridge the rural-urban divide. This will require deep changes to the political landscape, and in particular a strategy to handle foreign meddling. Canada cannot afford to allow divisions to fester, as Canadians are not equipped to deal with extremism and violence. A tall order for any government, let alone a minority government led by a beleaguered leader. What transpires will define the Canada of this century.

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