With Canada’s Truckers’ Standoff, a Global Journey of Freedom Populism Has Just Begun

The truckers’ protest has spread across Canada and the protesters have successfully blocked three main land crossings to the US.

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In the thick of Canadian winter, Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, has been in a truckers’ standoff for the past several days.

The Canadian government, in its efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, announced in November 2021 that all emergency workers, which included land border-crossing truckers, looking to drive into the US, would need to be vaccinated in order to avoid a 14-day quarantine. Politicians and truckers protested this measure.

Meanwhile, a motley group of people, including a family of truckers, met in Alberta, the western province of Canada. They began organising a protest against the federal intent which was to come into action early in 2022.

A week later after the government policy became effective on January 15, hundreds of truckers decided to drive across the country towards the capital city of Ottawa. They were enthusiastically welcomed, and passers-by waved flags and applauded them as heroes.

Dubbed as Convoi de la liberté, the Freedom Convoy initially kicked off with a focus on opposing vaccine mandates, especially the one aimed at truckers. As it rolled into Ottawa and parked itself on Wellington Street, right between parliament and the Canadian prime minister’s office, there was a growing show of solidarity with the truckers’ protest over the weekend with the demand that all COVID-19 restrictions be lifted.

However, a week after Canada implemented its policy, the US also instituted its own ban on unvaccinated truck drivers. Following the US’s move, the organisers of the protest issued clarifications that the vaccine mandates are “anti-government and not just one for truckers”.

That message, however, got lost in the din created by the incessant blaring of the air horns of the parked trucks. Any biblical symbolism to the horns remained aspirational for the protest!

At the time of writing this, a judge of Ontario Superior Court allowed for a temporary injunction filed by residents of the neighbourhood, who complained of noise pollution and claimed their constitutional charter rights for peaceful and silent time.

Apart from few instances of unruly behaviour, including parading of Nazi signs, confederate flag and ‘desecration of national monuments’, the protesters settled in for a long haul. They organised their supply lines of fuel and food and ensured cooperation with the local authorities to keep a lane free for emergency vehicles.

The truckers’ protest has spread across Canada and into many cities – Quebec City, Toronto, Edmonton – and the protesters have successfully blocked two main land crossings to the US – the Ambassador Bridge in southern Ontario and Coutts in southern Alberta.

Early on Thursday, a third cross-border crossing into North Dakota at Emerson was blocked by a convoy of vehicles in support of the truckers’ demands.

On the 14th day, the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor in Ontario and Detroit in Michigan began to dominate the news cycles down south as the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer, questioned the reliability of Canada as trading partners and the call for “buy American” snowballed. Terming the bridge as critical infrastructure, the federal government made a desperate call to the truckers to end the economic blockade as the bridge accounts for 20% of Canada-US bilateral trade.

The impact of the blockade on the Ambassador Bridge was felt in Ottawa. In a surprising move, the leader of the opposition made a conciliatory move and made an appeal from the floor of the House to remove the trucks and blockade as the economy was hurting.

Meanwhile, the cacophony of claims and counter-claims played out at the site of the protest, in the media and parliament.

People carry signs, as truckers and supporters continue to protest coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine mandates, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, February 6, 2022. REUTERS/Lars Hagberg

Political manifestation

As the anti-Trudeau sentiment grew, the Freedom Convoy’s calling for his removal became more explicit. But ironically, one of the first moves saw the ouster of Erin O’Toole, the sitting leader of opposition and leader of the federal Conservative Party of Canada, in a secret vote by his caucus 73-45.

O’Toole had failed to lead the Conservatives to win in the recent 2021 snap elections called by Trudeau’s Liberal Party to capitalise on his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The result was a return to status quo as Trudeau continued to lead a minority government with outside support of the New Democratic Party led by Jagmeet Singh.

It was during this election the pent-up anger against the Liberals was in full view. This manifested in the rallies of the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), a new outfit that espouses far-right libertarianism, created by Maxime Bernier, a former foreign minister during Stephen Harper’s reign. Even though the party failed to win a single seat in the latest federal election, it still tripled its share of the popular vote.

Explicitly anti-immigration and rejecting multiculturalism, the change of tenor introduced by the PPC directly fanned the partisan fires. This was the fuel that drove the Freedom Convoy into the centre of Canadian politics.

As a columnist of Toronto Star aptly described how Harper, the former prime minister and leader of the Conservatives, was like a “Tito figure, holding the Conservative fragments together”. Today the state of Conservatives resembles much like the breakdown of Yugoslavia after Tito’s departure.

Candice Bergen, an MP for the Manitoba riding of Portage-Lisgar, did not miss an opportunity to politically exploit the protest as she showed up in support of the protest amidst the truckers. It was not surprising she was appointed as the interim leader of the party. While, another Trudeau baiter, Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre, the Tories finance critic, who went hammer and tongs after Trudeau on his spending spree, announced that he will run for the party’s leadership and wants to be Canada’s next prime minister.

The threat of being voted out by his caucus made Jason Kenney, the premier of Alberta, announce with immediate effect “a careful and prudent plan to phase out public health measures”. In the neighbouring Prairies province of Sakatchewan, Premier Scott Moe followed suit declaring “to end COVID-19 proof of vaccination policy on February 14”.

Today, the state of the play of the Tories is like run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

Also read: Is Populism Synonymous With the Right-Wing?

 Freedom populism

What the Tories in Canada are hoping for was demonstrated last summer in Spain as the idea of ‘freedom populism’ gained currency. In June, Isabel Diaz Ayuso won elections in Madrid by a landslide. A critic of lockdowns imposed by Spain’s socialist government, she refused to close bars and restaurants during the pandemic.

The post-2008 financial crisis generated a string of protests across Europe and the US when the occupy movement hinged on the imagination of the protesters as the sole voice of democracy. The elite and corruption emerged as the enemy. In 2011 Time magazine named ‘The Protester’ as the person of the year.

As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues in the 2017 Beatty Memorial Lecture “The Challenge of Regressive Democracy”, the waves of populism across the world is the result of the crisis in the western liberal democracy.

He is not the first one to grapple with the phenomenon. In 1967 at the London School of Economics there was a conference that brought leading thinkers of the day together to answer the question, what is populism? Speaking at the conference, Isaiah Berlin cautioned the audience “that we must not suffer from a Cinderella complex, by which I mean the following: that there exists a shoe – the word ‘populism’ – for which somewhere there must exist a foot.”

Much has been written on this subject, for instance, in Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, we see an expansive take on this phenomenon. While on the other hand, some exasperated columns in the New York Times made a plea to retire the word – populism – as “it has become sloppy to the point of meaninglessness, an overused epithet for multiple manifestations of political anger.”

Populism has always lurked in the semantic shadow of democracy and its ambivalence adds to the difficulty of defining it in simpler terms. At its core, to be populist requires making a claim to exclusive representation on moral grounds wherein “a part of people is the people’ constituting ‘true people’.

Interestingly, the truckers’ protest has nothing to do with the truckers’ issues and there are plenty of them. The truckers offered a conduit, and an apposite metaphor of supply lines, to represent the “true people” – the Canadians. Even the Canadian Trucking Alliance, the federal advocacy organisation of the truckers, issued a statement indicating in clear terms that it does not support and strongly disapproves of the Freedom Convoy. “A great number of these protesters have no connection to the trucking industry and have a separate agenda beyond a disagreement over cross-border vaccine requirements,” the statement clarified.

However, the Freedom Convoy is not a piffle. The seemingly innocuous pandemic protocols – social distancing measures, face mask requirements, vaccine mandates – impinge upon their personal freedom, claim the truckers. Marked by a deep conviction, anchored in an extreme right-wing libertarianism, it is blaring to the world that its freedom stands imperiled ubiquitously. In Freedom – An Unruly History, de Dijn makes a case as to why and how we conceive freedom differently.

It is a manifestation of the deeper contestation taking place with the ideas we take for granted – freedom and liberty – to understand its limits and prospective potential for its expansion. Living between feels versus facts, there has been a gradual decline in trust in people, public institutions as the ideological silos and echo chambers mushroomed. A post-truth environment and no trust in legacy media has sent social media in a hyper-drive and it has become the portal of time.

The ongoing standoff has been peeling away the neatly kept Canadian myth of peacemakers, tolerant and an equal opportunity nation and its fabled multiculturalism. Freedom populism is the new powder keg situation that is pulling together several explosive issues within its ambit. It is no wonder then that what started as a Freedom Convoy from British Columbia has galvanised the world’s imagination as similar protests have begun, part in solidarity and part in making a point politically. Truckers across Europe will descend upon Brussels on February 14.

The pandemic may come to an end, as we live with it as an endemic. The Ottawa standoff may be over. But the treacherous global journey of freedom populism has just begun.

Narendra Pachkhédé is a critic and writer who splits his time between Toronto, London and Geneva.