On Jan. 15, the federal government implemented a vaccine mandate for all cross-border essential workers, including truckers—meaning that unvaccinated drivers would have to quarantine for 14 days, and self-test after the eighth day whenever they enter Canada. Backlash has been fierce ever since, marked most obviously by the self-proclaimed “Freedom Convoy” that arrived in Ottawa on Jan. 28. Despite the fact that approximately 90 per cent of truckers are fully vaccinated and groups such as the Canadian Trucking Alliance have spoken out against the protests, this reactionary coalition has received intense and growing support.
From the over $10-million amassed in GoFundMe donations, to support from both provincial and federal conservative politicians and international actors like Fox News and former U.S. President Donald Trump, the convoy has managed to cut across wide swaths of the population. Granted, the movement has every right to criticize and organize against what they believe to be misguided and overreaching measures by the federal government, as is guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, this campaign has quickly devolved into a disturbance of peace, where minority concern over government mismanagement is lost to the violence of the movement, including their desecration of national monuments and tombs, along their affiliation with white supremacists and anti-Semites.
A multitude of factors are responsible for the rise of the protests: Unclear restrictions, poor government messaging, political theatre, citizen apathy, the polarizing effects of Big Tech, and a Canadian tendency to forget local, fascist histories, are but a few. The truckers should cede ground, acknowledging that they have a damaging effect on public safety. Until then, government officials must push to address the root causes of the proliferation of this anti-science, false oppressive, and fascist-adjacent movement.
It is possible to raise concerns about COVID-19 measures in productive, pragmatic, and democratic ways—take efforts by small business owners and unions that have organized and spoken to the government as examples. This fringe minority group of truckers, on the other hand, perceives vaccine mandates as a restriction on individual liberty, hence their use of the rhetoric of “freedom.” Valid skepticism about government overreach, though, should not employ anti-science language. Had the truckers chosen to protest vaccine mandates in good faith, they would not have allowed such extremist, anti-science angles to debase their initial legitimate concerns.
But in a world where social media algorithms group like-minded individuals together and confine them to reductive echo chambers, it is unsurprising that individuals mobilize in the absence of critical thought. The kind of groupthink exemplified within the convoy normalizes the idea that one’s individual rights and liberties supersede the health and safety of the general public. The movement pushes the rhetoric of individual liberty to the extremes: To fabricate a sense of oppression over a public health issue is to make a false equivalency with systemic and structural racism.
Though Nazi and Confederate flags appear throughout the rallies, some high-profile supporters, like newly appointed interim opposition leader Candice Bergen, argue that onlookers should not let these extremists’ opinions distract from the “real” problem. These protestors should take umbrage in how anti-racist movements face relentless criticism when they rightfully hold governments to account. Consider the hypocrisy of police, politicians, and mainstream media during the Black Lives Matter protests: When millions walked peacefully in the streets, these powers sensationalized a minority that vandalized and took down monuments of perpetrators of genocide and Confederate “heroes.”
In the eyes of the government—and certainly in the eyes of the police—white protestors continue to be treated as more human and more deserving of the right to protest, even as their movement fails to recognize actual threats to liberty, like wealth and racial inequality and settler colonialism. In reality, the trucker convoy itself threatens freedom, harassing people in shelters and small businesses. The protestors’ scrupulous focus on a specific kind of individual liberty does not and cannot fix far more pressing collective struggles.
The truckers show no sign of slowing down. When celebrated on the right as “freedom fighters” and met with next to no police intervention, they have good reason not to. Solutions remain tricky: Though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that he will not negotiate with convoy participants, the Liberals’ absence feeds the flame and puts society at large at risk. But to really fix the problem, governments must be far more clear and transparent in communicating public health restrictions, while also cracking down on how Big Tech polarizes, brainwashes, and recircuits citizens’ engagement with each other. Doing so will not just tamper the protests, but protect Canadian democracy.