Canada’s trucker protests: What is going on?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invokes emergency powers, but truckers pledge to maintain protest until COVID curbs lifted.

Hundreds of Canadian truckers and their supporters have maintained a protest in the Canadian capital for more than two weeks in anger about coronavirus restrictions.

The so-called “Freedom Convoy”, which began arriving in Ottawa in late January, was formed in response to a vaccine mandate requiring truckers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to cross the land border between Canada and the United States.

But observers and experts have pointed out that some organisers of the event, as well as some of its most vocal backers, have espoused anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and racist views – and authorities had cautioned that the movement could turn violent.

“The ‘Freedom Convoy’ is nothing but a vehicle for the far-right,” according to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a non-profit that monitors hate groups. “They say it is about truckers … but if you look at its organizers and promoters, you’ll find Islamophobia, antisemitism, racism, and incitements to violence.”

Since a large rally on Parliament Hill on January 29, convoy participants also erected blockades of key crossings along the US-Canada border, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked a never-before-used emergency order in an effort to help law enforcement quell the protests.

Here is a look at what’s going on:

First, what is the vaccine mandate for truckers?

Starting on January 15, Canada has required essential service providers previously exempt from vaccination requirements, including truck drivers, to be fully vaccinated to cross the land border from the US. “Unvaccinated Canadian truck drivers entering Canada will need to meet requirements for pre-entry, arrival and Day 8 testing, as well as quarantine requirements,” it said.

The US has also imposed a similar requirement on its side of the border; as of January 22, non-citizens travelling to the US for both essential and non-essential reasons need to show proof of vaccination at land border crossings.

How many Canadian truckers are unvaccinated?

The Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), a federation of provincial trucking associations, has said a “vast majority” of Canadian truckers are vaccinated – approximately 85 percent – in line with vaccination rates among the general Canadian population.

Almost 90 percent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said.

The CTA has distanced itself from the convoy, saying it “does not support and strongly disapproves of any protests on public roadways, highways, and bridges”.

Supporters of truckers gather in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to support truck drivers on their way to Ottawa to protest coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine mandates for cross-border truck drivers
Supporters of the convoy gather in Toronto, Ontario, on January 27, 2022 [Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

How many people are participating in the convoy?

Thousands of people participated in a rally on Parliament Hill on January 29.

Since then, several hundred truckers have remained parked near parliament. Residents have denounced the protesters for threatening people, honking their horns, and setting off fireworks late at night. Many have called the continuing protest an “occupation“.

What do organisers say the convoy is about?

The convoy was organised under the banner, “Freedom Convoy 2022”.

“On January 15th, a small team of Alberta truckers, their family members and friends, came to the decision that the Government of Canada has crossed a line with implementing Covid-19 vaccine passports and vaccine mandates,” the group said in a statement shared on Facebook.

“We are taking our fight to the doorsteps of our Federal Government and demanding that they cease all mandates against its people,” reads a GoFundMe page in support of the convoy, which has raised approximately $5.5m (more than seven million Canadian dollars) to date.

CBC News reported on January 28 that at least one-third of those donations came from anonymous donors or were attributed to fake names.

So the convoy is really about Canada’s COVID policies?

“This is no longer about the mandate any more,” said Jason LaFace, whom CityNews described as the convoy’s main organiser in Ontario. “This is about Canada, this is about our rights and how the government’s been manipulating the population and oppressing us all the time,” said LaFace, who is not a trucker.

While some participants do hold legitimate grievances about the Canadian government’s pandemic policies, experts have pointed out that known far-right activists that have espoused racist views are among the organisers.

Some participants also openly expressed hardline views. “I advocate civil war,” Jim Doerksen, a convoy supporter, told Global News in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in central Canada. “If people don’t want to stand up, we’ve got guns – we’ll stand up and we’ll bring ’em out.”

Canadian media have also reported on a widely shared video posted on social media that showed one convoy supporter saying that he would “like to see our own January 6 event” – a reference to the deadly riot at the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021.

Barbara Perry, a professor at Ontario Tech University and director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism, said “this protest against a mandate – a specific mandate within a specific industry – has then been laid over with anti-vax sentiment, anti-lockdown sentiment, anti-government sentiment – and then even beyond that, the far-right [is] coming into play”.

“They call themselves the ‘Freedom Convoy’ so I think that says something about the breadth of the concerns that are brought under the umbrella,” Perry told Al Jazeera. “That is also the language of anti-staters. It’s also the language of the far right … It really is part of this broader trend of a convergence of the far right with conspiracy theorists and other kinds of grievances.”

Who are the far-right leaders involved?

The organisers listed on the GoFundMe page – which the company took down for violating its terms of service – are Tamara Lich and BJ Dichter.

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network reported that Lich was “an organizer for Yellow Vests Canada, a regional coordinator for the separatist Western Exit or ‘Wexit’ movement in Alberta, and now as the secretary for the Maverick Party – another separatist movement and fringe political party”.

Lich has posted “conspiracies about the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ operating in Canada”, the network said, while it pointed out that Dichter also has made Islamophobic comments. In 2019, at a national convention for the far-right People’s Party of Canada (PPC), Dichter said, “Despite what our corporate media and political leaders want to admit, Islamist entryism and the adaptation of political Islam is rotting away at our society like syphilis.”

Patrick King, listed as a contact for the North Alberta group participating in the convoy, has regularly espoused anti-Semitic views on social media. “He’s publicly distorted established facts about the Holocaust … then invoked the antisemitic conspiracy theory that the Jewish people are secretly in control of world governance, media, and finances”, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network said.

King said in December, “The only way that this is going to be solved is with bullets.”

What have Canadian politicians said?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in late January that “the small fringe minority of people who are on the way to Ottawa, or who are holding unacceptable views that they are expressing, do not represent the views of Canadians”.

On February 14, Trudeau invoked the never-before-used Emergencies Act, which grants the government special power to impose restrictions and bolster local police agencies in response to the protests.

“We cannot and will not allow illegal and dangerous activities to continue,” Trudeau said during a news conference, stressing that the measures would be time-limited, geographically specific, and proportionate to the threat. “This is about keeping Canadians safe, protecting people’s jobs and restoring confidence in our institutions,” he added.

Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, initially said he was concerned “by the dangerous rhetoric” in the convoy. In February, as the protest dragged on, he also questioned Trudeau’s role: “The prime minister of one of the wealthiest countries in the world, can’t make sure people are safe in the nation’s capital?” Singh asked in a video shared on Twitter. “We need to immediately seek leadership to fix this because this convoy is harassing and intimidating people … and it has to end.”

The opposition Conservative Party voted to remove Erin O’Toole as leader amid the convoy protests on February 2. O’Toole had met with some members of the convoy before being removed from his post. The convoy, he had said, “is a symbol of the fatigue in our country right now”.

Pierre Poilievre, a Conservative member of parliament who put his name forward to replace O’Toole, has shown strong support for the convoy protesters, saying he was “proud” of the truckers and stood with them. Candice Bergen, the party’s interim leader, in mid-February called on the protesters to take down their barricades. “Conservatives have heard you and we will stand up for you and all Canadians who want to get back to normal life. We will not stop until the mandates have ended,” she said, as reported by The National Post newspaper.

So what now?

Trudeau’s Liberal government needs to present its emergency declaration under the Emergencies Act to parliament. If the House of Commons or the Senate vote it down, the order will be rescinded.

If it is upheld, it will be in place for 30 days. The Act requires a special parliamentary committee to be formed to oversee its implementation, and for an inquiry to be held after the emergency order is lifted to investigate “the circumstances that led to the declaration being issued and the measures taken for dealing with the emergency”.

It remains to be seen how the Emergencies Act will be used in practice, or how the protesters will respond to any new restrictions put in place as a result of the measure. Some truckers and their supporters have promised to remain in Ottawa.

“We’re not leaving. We’ve dug in this long,” Gord, a cross-border truck driver from the central province of Manitoba, told the Reuters news agency in front of parliament in Ottawa, declining to give his last name. The use of emergency powers “is just another scare tactic”, he said.

Source: Al Jazeera