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Explained: Behind the anti-vax truckers’ protests in Canada, a broad far right mobilisation

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked rarely-used emergency powers to crack down on the protests that have since morphed from a movement against vaccine mandates to a broad rightwing uprising cheered and funded by the American far right.

Drivers park their trucks blocking lanes of traffic to protest against COVID-19 restrictions in Ottawa, Ontario, on Feb. (Image source: AP)

Nearly three weeks after dozens of trucks and tractor-trailers started to rumble into the heart of Canada’s capital to begin a bumper-to-bumper occupation of its streets, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked rarely-used emergency powers to crack down on the protests that have since morphed from a movement against vaccine mandates to a broad rightwing uprising cheered and funded by the American far right, and spurred similar protests elsewhere.

As of Tuesday, the number of vehicles in downtown Ottawa was down to 360 from the peak of about 4,000, the so-called tailgate party had lost some of its intensity, and other blockades along Canada’s border with the US had been lifted. The chief of Ottawa’s police has warned of arrests and forced evictions, and vowed to “take back every occupied space” in the “coming days”, Reuters reported.

The only other time the Emergencies Act has been used other than at war time was in 1970, by Trudeau’s father Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, after a provincial deputy premier and a British diplomat were kidnapped by Quebec separatists.

Beginning of the protest

To check the spread of the coronavirus and prevent infections from overwhelming public health systems, Trudeau’s government implemented vaccine passports, mask mandates, and other restrictions including one requiring all cross-border truckers to be fully vaccinated.

The regulation, which came into force on January 15, impacted truckers entering Canada from the United States. Unvaccinated drivers would be required to fulfill testing and quarantine requirements to cross the border. Most of the commerce between these two major trading partners is by the land route.

From January 28 onward, truckers under the banner of “Freedom Convoy 2022” began driving into Ottawa. Another group blockaded a major highway at the Coutts border crossing in Canada’s Alberta province. Protesters in pick-ups blocked the international Ambassador Bridge across the Detroit river between Detroit, Michigan, in the US, and Windsor, Ontario, in Canada, disrupting supply chains and forcing production cuts at major automobile manufacturing units in Detroit.

Changing demands

The truckers’ initial demand seeking a rollback of the vaccine mandate was dismissed by critics as pointless because of the small numbers of the impacted group. Less than 10% of Canadian truckers are unvaccinated, and unlike in the US, the public in Canada, despite harsh lockdowns, by and large supports the government’s measures. Besides, the US too has imposed a similar vaccination mandate for border crossings.

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Soon, however, the protests in Ottawa and Alberta started to attract many non-truckers, including those whose businesses had been destroyed by the pandemic, and others who were disgruntled after being hit by hefty fines for contravening Covid-19 shutdown rules. The protesters made themselves comfortable in their heated vehicles equipped with beds, in sub-zero temperatures, and developed networks of communication and solidarity that ensured supplies such as food and diesel.

As the days passed, the numbers swelled on the streets, which were transformed into party venues with loud music and blaring vehicle horns, as the authorities, despite the massive disruption and inconvenience caused to residents and businesses, remained reluctant to take harsh action. The truckers, meanwhile, escalated their demands to a full rollback of all pandemic mandates — which Canada is in the process of doing as per a pre-decided timeline — and Trudeau’s resignation.

Far right presence

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At the purported people’s movement demanding “freedom”, some extremist elements started to show up: besides aggressive anti-vaxxers, there were members of far right groups, and Nazi sympathisers. There was violence, and unmasked protesters were reported to have urinated on the city’s National War Memorial and defaced other monuments. They flew Nazi and Confederate flags, harassed local businesses and residents, and raised derogatory slogans against Trudeau.

In the province of British Columbia, an anti-mandate protester was caught on camera abusing a student with racial profanities, according to the Canadian news agency CBC News. Police recovered numerous firearms and a lot of ammunition from blockade sites in Alberta and Ottawa.

Support and funds — more than $3.6 million, according to CBC News — came from American rightwing groups and conservative politicians. The Associated Press reported, based on information posted online by a nonprofit group, that of the nearly $10 million of donations funnelled to the protesters through the website GiveSendGo, about 44% were from donors in the US. Canada has since moved to choke the funding.

The donors included members of groups who had donated to former President Donald Trump, and rightwing TV stations such as Fox News provided sympathetic coverage and visibility to the Canadian protests. American Republican leaders such as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, called the protesters “heroes” and “patriots”, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said he hoped the truckers would come to the US and similarly “clog up cities”, the AP reported.

“What this country is facing is a largely foreign-funded, targeted and coordinated attack on critical infrastructure and our democratic institutions,” Bill Blair, the Canadian minister for public safety and emergency preparedness said.
“Keep in mind that this is a small but increasingly emboldened portion of the population that is engaged in these protests. The organisers, who have long histories of far right engagement, have been adept at capturing a current of anti-state sentiment and amplifying it,” Dr Barbara Perry, Director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, told The Indian Express in an email.

American and Canadian rightwing groups have been aligned for years, Dr Perry said. “The Trump administration and the events of January 6 (the Capitol riots) in Washington DC exacerbated this, with many Canadian adherents supporting the insurrectionists online and organising ‘sympathy’ protests here,” she said.

Echoes elsewhere

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More than 79% of Canada’s eligible population is fully vaccinated and around 42% have taken booster shots. While the protests have resonated differently along regional, generational and political fault lines, an Ipsos opinion poll conducted between February 8 and 9 found that over 54% of the country felt that the demands of those participating in the convoy protests were wrong and undeserving of sympathy.

And yet, the protests are spreading. Inspired by the Canadian Freedom Convoy, anti-vaccine protesters in several developed nations, including France, New Zealand, the US, Australia, and Germany, have set up their own “convoys”. In France, a group of anti-mandate protesters announced they would ride motorcycles cross-country and converge at Paris to protest Covid-19 restrictions. In New Zealand, police arrested hundreds of people who had assembled outside the country’s parliament, pitching tents and parking vehicles to block access to the building.

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The far right’s focus on Covid-19 restrictions has resonated with many people, Dr Perry said.
“We are all anxious and tired of the restrictions on our daily lives. Most of us, however, recognise these mandates as a necessary element of the social contract. Not everyone is so disposed, especially those whose livelihoods are threatened,” she said.

First published on: 17-02-2022 at 22:24 IST
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