Canada dispatch: ‘Freedom Convoy’ protest of anti-vaccine truckers reaches Ottawa
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Canada dispatch: ‘Freedom Convoy’ protest of anti-vaccine truckers reaches Ottawa

Ian Profiri is JURIST’s Staff Correspondent for Canada. He files this dispatch from Calgary. 

Today marks the second official day of the “Freedom Convoy” protests in Ottawa. The protestors, initially self-identifying as long-haul truckers opposed to vaccine-related cross-border mandates imposed by Parliament, now appear to have devolved into a cacophony of individuals making complaints about government-imposed protective health measures and engaging in far-right ideological philosophizing.

A fairly substantial group of several thousand protestors gathered on Parliament Hill Saturday to air their grievances. Protestors parked several large trucking rigs along Wellington street, running in front of Parliament and the Prime Minister’s Office. Supporters waved myriad flags and banners while continuously sounding truck horns that honked well throughout the day and well into the night. Signs included messages that varied from “Mandate Freedom” to “End all Lockdowns”, as well as the ever-present and incredibly popular calling card of the dissatisfied Canadian right: “Fuck Trudeau.”

The conversations surrounding the Convoy and their cause have become increasingly polarizing over the week as the Convoy has gathered more attention and scrutiny. The vaccine mandate for Canadian cross-border truckers, the one that initially provoked the ire of the protestors, requires that unvaccinated truckers that come back from the US quarantine for a period of time. Non-Canadian truckers that are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated will be turned away at the border.

There was a belief amongst some long-haul truckers that there might be an exemption provided by the federal government for those that have yet to be vaccinated. But these beliefs were squashed with an announcement earlier in the month that this would not be the case.

There is no explicit mandate that cross-border truckers must get the vaccine, but concerns over their ability to continuously work and earn an income have been prompted by the mandate. It has also been argued that the mandate will cause unnecessary delays along the supply chain for supermarkets and stores across Canada.

A joint statement released Tuesday by Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra, the Minister of Labour, Seamus O’Regan, the Minister of Employment, Carla Qualtrough, and President of the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), Stephan Laskowski, said that the “Government of Canada and the [CTA] both agree that vaccination . . . is the most effective tool to reduce the risk of COVID-19 for Canadians, and to protect public health.” The statement also affirmed the known impact on the trucking industry, acknowledging the “unprecedented challenges” that truckers face. The statement also pointed to the work that vaccinated drivers have done in Canada, relaying the reality that “[v]accines, medication, personal protective equipment, food and supplies continue to arrive where they need to be thanks to the efforts [truckers].”

Aside from national quarantine mandates, a lot of discontent from protestors appears to be directed at other COVID-related mandates such as so-called vaccine passports. However, these systems, indeed any medical directive that does not have an international aspect to it, is governed by the provinces. It is very unclear how much influence the federal government has over the decisions of the provinces; this is especially true in more conservative provinces such as Alberta and Saskatchewan, whose Premiers and decision-makers have been particularly contrarian on the direction set by Parliament.

Willingness to engage with the protestors has, alas, become increasingly politically fraught as the public’s patience with the protestor’s in Ottawa has become short.

On Saturday the protestors hosted a gallery of images associated with white supremacy and racism in Canada, including the US Confederate Flag, the “Don’t Tread on Me” libertarian motto flag, “Trump Won”, and the Nazi Swastika.

These symbols are particularly disheartening as the Convoy took place during the same week as  international Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Ottawa protest Saturday itself also fell on the five-year anniversary of the Quebec City mosque shooting that ended the lives of six worshippers and seriously injured five others. The incident is, to date, one of the worst mass shootings, and most egregious cases of Islamophobia, in modern Canadian history.

Protestors were also seen parking on the National War Memorial, an cenotaph erected after the First World War to commemorate fallen Canadian soldiers. Protestors were then filmed dancing on top of the Tomb of the Unknown Solder which lies in front of the memorial. It was later reported that urine was found on the monument.

Protestors reportedly threw a beer can at a reporter, and local shops were forced to close due to worries over the actions of maskless protestors. Late Saturday evening, members belonging to the Convoy bullied staff of a non-for-profit Ottawa homeless shelter until the shelter “eventually” gave them food in an attempt to ensure the peace.

In perhaps the most objectionable act of the day to most Canadians, a statue memorializing Terry Fox was defaced with anti-vaccine messaging and an upside-down Canadian Flag. Fox was an amputee who raised money for cancer research by attempting to run across Canada on a Marathon of Hope, completing a marathon of distance each day he ran before ultimately succumbing to the cancer in his lungs. Fox is one of the most revered figures in recent Canadian history. Brad West, mayor of Terry Fox’s hometown of Port Coquitlam, called the protestors out saying “[w]hatever your cause, you don’t get to appropriate his [Terry’s] legacy and you don’t get to touch his Statue. Ever.”

It is unclear how any of these actions are supposed to effectively drum up support for the removal of the supposed career-threatening and food supply-shortening cross-border vaccine mandates for professional truckers.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance, which constitutes the largest trucking organization in Canada hosting around 300,000 members, distanced itself from the actions of the protestors in a statement Saturday saying “that a great number of these protestors have no connection to the trucking industry and have a separate agenda.” This follows earlier statements from the CTA saying the vast majority of truckers are vaccinated and “must adapt” to border mandates including the vaccine. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated the oft quoted statistic that “90 per cent of truckers in Canada are [already] vaccinated” in support of the CTA statement and the mandate.

Truckers in the Convoy itself, for their part, disagree with the CTA’s statements as well as disagree with the idea that the CTA supports an adequate representation of truckers’ views on the issue. “The goal is to regain freedom in Canada,” said Brigitte Belton, a trucker and social media personality who has gained popularity amongst the Convoy’s supporter, “[it] seems that Mr. Trudeau think that our rights and freedoms can be taken at any point.”

Tamara Lich, the secretary for the Western-separatist Maverick Party, established a GoFundMe page that quickly raised several million dollars in support of the Convoy. The page was temporarily shut down as GoFundMe officials reviewed the commitments promised in regard to the funding. The page has since been allowed to continue.

Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) Leader Erin O’Toole initially supported the Convoy, and met with “parts of the convoy” early Saturday morning. O’Toole also called out “groups [for] using the plight of the truckers to bring division [and] hatred,” and then repeated a call for Canadian politicians to “lower the temperature” of the protest.

However, O’Toole previously stated that “Truckers were our heroes at the start of the pandemic [and n]ow Trudeau and his Liberal allies want to smear and demonize them.” O’Toole was also called out by commentators for wearing the green-square pin, a memorial to the victims of the aforementioned Quebec City mosque shooting, after meeting with those that bring into their ranks swastika flag-waving individuals.

O’Toole later walked back his earlier comments, tweeting “I support the right to peacefully protest but that should not be confused with blatant disrespect for the men and women who have served, inspired, and protected our country.”

Conservative MP’s were also seen supporting the Convoy. Potential CPC leader candidate and MP for Carleton, Ontario, Pierre Poilievre, tweeted a speech from the rally with the headline “Freedom over fear.” Poilievre has been a vocal supporter of the truckers since the Convoy’s initiation. CPC MP for St. Albert Alberta, Michael Cooper, was interviewed at the rally and gave his support for the protestors. Cooper was filmed in front of an upside-down Canadian flag that had been marred with anti-Semitic slogans, including a swastika.

Party leader of the hard-right libertarian People’s Party of Canada (PPC), Maxime Bernier, drew large crowds with his arrival at the protest. The ex-CPC member offered his support for protestors and called for the complete removal of vaccine-related mandates across the country.

As of the writing of this piece, the Canadian government has not removed the quarantine mandate for long-haul cross-border truckers, and it seems the government will remain adamant in its position.