Canada has long been viewed as a peaceful, welcoming country. Like most western democracies, it has witnessed some difficult historical moments: divisive election campaigns, Quebec separatism, and policy debates on free trade, capital punishment, gay marriage and decriminalising marijuana. While these issues led to periods of tension, cooler heads have usually prevailed.
The Freedom Convoy, however, which has seen hundreds of truckers converge on Ottawa and the blockade of cross-border trade with the US, has been a moment like no other in modern Canada.
The Freedom Convoy’s important message of more individual freedom and less government restrictions and lockdown measures during Covid-19 resonated with many Canadians. Conversely, the potential economic ramifications from traffic logjams, blockades and reduced amounts of cross-border trade has started to divide family, friends and neighbours. People want the protest to have a peaceful resolution, and not lead to further frustration, anger – or worse.
How the Freedom Convoy got to this point is an intriguing story on its own.
On January 15, Canada’s minority Liberal government announced a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers. It was a significant policy shift. Truck drivers and other essential workers had been exempt from the two-week quarantine rule for unvaccinated travellers crossing the Canada-US border. Meanwhile, the Canadian Trucking Alliance had estimated that 85 per cent of Canada’s 120,000 truckers were vaccinated. If the vast majority of men and women who drove the big rigs were complying with the rules, why were they being targeted?
While these matters could have been managed without a restrictive government mandate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau motored ahead. He knew that most Canadians were fully vaccinated – 78.69 per cent as of Feb 4, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Meanwhile, a January 19 poll by Maru Public Opinion found that 66 per cent of respondents favoured ‘mandatory vaccinations for everyone aged 5+.’
Trudeau, a left-leaning Liberal whose political antenna has regularly been on the fritz since taking power in 2015, misread the room once more. Two years of restrictions and lockdown measures had reached a tipping point in the Great White North. The bizarre decision to target truckers, who serve such a vital role in transporting goods and services, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
In response the Freedom Convoy was organised to protest mandatory Covid-19 vaccines for the trucking industry. Participants came from across Canada, linking together on the nationwide Trans-Canada Highway. A GoFundMe campaign that started off with the ambitious goal of raising $7 million (CDN) surpassed $10 million, although that money has been frozen until organisers reveal where it will be used and spent. Although quite a few truckers participated in the protest, the majority were Canadians who drove their cars to the nation’s capital in Ottawa, in support of the cause of freedom.
Trudeau pushed back by depicting the protesters as a ‘fringe minority’ with ‘unacceptable views.’ This harkened back to Hillary Clinton’s description of half of Donald Trump’s supporters as being a ‘basket of deplorables’ during the 2016 US presidential election. The PM’s strategy, much like Clinton’s, was a failure and only served to increase interest and sympathy for the cause he opposed.
Meanwhile, Liberals pointed to some less-than-savoury characters who latched on to the Freedom Convoy. A Nazi swastika and Confederate flag were seen in the crowd, while a statue of a national hero, Terry Fox, along with the National War Monument and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, were desecrated. None of these things were defensible. Alas, that’s what often happens at rallies, marches and protests – be they left-wing, right-wing or no wing. No one has a monopoly on the higher moral ground.
There’s also been the unmistakable fact the Freedom Convoy has largely been a peaceful gathering. Protesters come from all parts of Canada, and represent all walks of life. They’re tired of restrictions, mandates and lockdowns. They’ve suffered economically and emotionally. They want to regain control of their lives, and want things to return to normal (or whatever the ‘new normal’ entails).
This is all perfectly reasonable, and difficult to achieve in a protest that won’t end.
Some protesters have said they won’t leave Ottawa until the Liberals either meet their demands or resign completely, which obviously won’t happen. Truck horns have been banned for ten days in this city, which led to an unfortunate (and avoidable) incident with police arresting and handcuffing a 78-year-old retired janitor who defied this rule. Similar protests have occurred in cities like Toronto, and Coutts. The Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, a crucial international border crossing between Canada and the US, is in the midst of a blockade that’s stalled cross-border trade. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, a Conservative, declared a state of emergency on Friday to help bring the blockades and protests to an end. On Saturday, police officers moved to break up the Ambassador Bridge protest.
Where do things go from here? The next few days could end up being some of the most important in Canadian history. Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail once more.
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