A “Freedom Convoy,” organized by truckers opposed to Canada’s vaccine requirements jammed downtown Ottawa in subzero weekend weather, with signs venting anger at the prime minister (“F*** Trudeau), trucks briefly parked atop Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and even a Confederate flag snapping in the winter wind.
Striving to head off a Jan. 6-style uprising on Parliament Hill, security forces mobilized. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family were spirited off to an “undisclosed location.” (Trudeau was already self-quarantined after an offspring was exposed to the COVID-19 virus.)
The trucker protest was immediately embraced by right-wing media from the US with kisses blown its way by Tucker Carlson on Fox News, plus a Twitter blessing from the Rev. Franklin Graham, an ex-President Trump apologist and advocate.
Do events of the weekend suggest that the Great White North is succumbing to the polarization and confrontation lately experienced in the United States and bitter exchanges over COVID-19 restrictions in the United Kingdom? Befitting people of the north, Canadians have generally been able to keep their cool.
Appearances deceive. The protest crowd may have been a mile wide, but its support is an inch deep. Figures show that the vaccination rate for Canada’s truckers mirrors that of all Canadians at nearly 80 percent. In British Columbia, nearly 90 percent of the population over age 5 have received at least one shot.
Maxime Bernier, a former MP and founder of the Peoples Party of Canada, has been posing for selfies with members of the crowd. He tried to ride anti-vaxxer sentiment in last September’s Canadian election, but the PPC received just 5 percent of the vote and did not win a single seat the House of Commons. The Liberal Party of Canada won a third consecutive election.
The demonstrators conjured up an extra-constitutional demand reminiscent of Trump forces’ bid to overturn the 2020 American election. They demanded that the Governor General of Canada, titular head of state and the Queen’s representative in Ottawa, join with Canada’s largely toothless Senate and direct the federal government and provinces to rescind all vaccination mandates and COVID-19 restrictions.
The British Columbia government responded on Saturday, announcing extension until June 30 of a requirement that those attending concerts, eating at restaurants, and entering places of business first show a Vaccination Card. Despite a weariness with the pandemic, B.C. Premier John Horgan continues to score a job approval rating just shy of 60 percent in the polls.
Even if the protest succeeded in removing vaccine requirements, it’s unclear where the truckers would go. The United States imposes the same vaccine rules on truckers crossing the 49th Parallel as does Canada on those heading back into their country.
In a strong political position, Trudeau has shown no truck for the caravan or the shivering protest. He warned last week that a “small fringe minority” was manipulating the protest. “Science tells us that the best way through this pandemic is to get vaccinated. That’s how we end this,” said the PM firmly standing his ground.
In the U.S., the Trump wing makes up more than half of the Republican Party, albeit with signs his nimbus is wearing thin, and perhaps 30 percent of the American electorate. Support for the political right in Canada is at a much lower level.
The Conservative Party, Canada’s official opposition, doesn’t know where to come down on these protests. Its leader, Erin O’Toole, told a news conference it was “time to take the temperature down,” but then Tweeted that Trudeau was someone who would “smear and demonize truckers.” O’Toole advocated vaccination during the election campaign but refused to say whether he was requiring Conservative MPs to submit to the needle.
The Tory leader does have far-right bomb throwers in his caucus. Vaccine mandates are “unscientific, vindictive, mean-spirited and promote segregation,” charged MP Leslyn Lewis. Ex-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer Tweeted that Trudeau is “the biggest threat to freedom in Canada.” Trudeau is on a “vaccine vendetta,” charged colleague Pierre Polievre.
The most conservative provincial premier in Canada, Scott Moe of Saskatchewan, declared last week: “An unvaccinated trucker does not pose any greater risk than a vaccinated trucker.” He’s wrong, of course, and the COVID-19 infection rate in Saskatchewan speaks to the province’s pokey and partial pandemic response. Figures for Canada as a whole show unvaccinated Canadians who contract the coronavirus are 19 times more likely to end up in a hospital.
The trucker protest raised $7.5 million (Canadian) in its GoFundMe account, and will try to keep going. It has not made a favorable impression. After trucks appeared at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson snapped: “Parking on this sacred ground was a sign of complete disrespect.” The food court at Rideau Center closed down when maskless demonstrators showed up.
Trumpism is a political virus that has not crossed the 49th Parallel.