Right now, hundreds of vehicles, maybe more, are barrelling towards Ottawa, with a plan to blockade Canada’s capital to protest, among other things, vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers.
The convoy has been enthusiastically endorsed by some Conservative Members of Parliament. It has been lauded in the pages of the Toronto Sun. It has been promoted the world over, on Fox News, and by Twitter philosophers like Jordan B. Peterson and Elon Musk.
Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole, leader of the opposition, has promised to meet with the convoy when it arrives on Saturday, insisting the convoy represents the frustration of working people.
But there are mounting concerns the convoy could turn ugly. The stated objectives of the founders and organizers of the movement go well beyond vaccine mandates for truckers: The convoy, dubbed “Operation BearHug,” is seeking to abolish all measures in place to fight COVID-19 and removing Justin Trudeau’s government from power. If they don’t get their way, they intend to blockade Ottawa until their demands are met. This has been the plan from the very beginning.
On Thursday evening, Sergeant-at-Arms Patrick McDonell, who is responsible for security on Parliament Hill, sent an email to MPs about Saturday’s demonstration. “Solicitations were issued to the online community for Members’ residential addresses in the Ottawa-Gatineau area,” he wrote. “This is known as doxing—a process of finding and publishing personal information about a particular individual on the Internet, usually with malicious intent.”
McDonell offered extraordinary advice to MPs: “Do not get involved and go somewhere safe,” and “close and lock all exterior doors.”
One man and his Winnebago
The protest, originally, had nothing to do with truckers: The freedom convoy began as one man in his winnebago.
James Bauder registered the Canada Unity Facebook page in late 2019, when he was a fervent supporter of the United We Roll anti-carbon tax convoy. Things didn’t exactly take off: In March 2021, his recently-registered website boasted a membership count of 30.
Bauder’s Facebook is littered with videos from Fox News broadcaster Tucker Carlson and MAGA politician Louie Gohmert. He has endorsed the false idea that the 2020 U.S. election was rigged. He has repeatedly shared the hashtag “#WWG1WGA”—the rallying cry for the QAnon movement. He has endorsed the idea that the terror attacks of 9/11 and the anti-Muslim massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, were planned by some shadowy government body. He has called COVID-19 a “political scam” and a “plandemic,” and has pointed fingers at George Soros, Bill Gates, and vaccine-maker Pfizer for creating the virus. In 2020, he warned, “I think WW3 could start as soon as Feb 2021. I also predict this war will take place on Canadian soil.”
Bauder has repeatedly written that Trudeau “needs too [sic] be arrested and charged for treason, and for participating in committing crimes against humanity.”
In 2021, Bauder started using his Canada Unity group as a front against COVID-19 measures. He organized his first convoy, headed to Ottawa, in October—long before any vaccine mandates for truckers were put in place. He and his group were explicit that they wanted all vaccine mandates and requirements gone. Bauder himself headed to the capital in an RV, covered in writing from well-wishers and fellow travellers.
Bauder and his small group began promoting their “memorandum of understanding.” The plan was to attract as many signatures as possible and deliver the document to Ottawa.
The document itself is complete legal nonsense and betrays a breathtaking misunderstanding of Canada’s system of government. The document asks the Senate and governor general, supposedly “the highest authorities representing the Federal Government,” to sign the memorandum and agree to all the clauses therein or “RESIGN their lawful positions of authority Immediately.”
Signing the memorandum, according to its drafters, requires the government to repeal all federal, provincial, and municipal vaccine mandates, vaccine passport requirements, and COVID-19-related fines. The memorandum further requires the governor general and Senate to strike a committee, with Canada Unity, to, ostensibly, govern the country. Only when its demands are met will the group leave Ottawa, the memorandum promises.
At the bottom there is room for five signatures: Bauder, his wife, co-organizer Martin Brodmann, Senate Speaker George Furey, and Governor General Mary May Simon.
The memorandum was a relatively arcane and bizarre stunt, until recently. In November, Bauder delivered some of the signed copies to the Senate, to no effect. Undeterred, Bauder kept criss-crossing the country in his RV, extolling the virtues of his campaign and imploring Members of Parliament to endorse the memorandum: “#SignOrResign,” he posted on Facebook. On several occasions, Bauder and his crew parked outside Rideau Cottage, where the prime minister resides, and protested.
In early December, Bauder announced the next phase of Operation BearHug: A new convoy to Ottawa.
Bauder’s campaign didn’t garner much buzz until this month, when an array of other characters joined the Canada Unity mission.
One of those organizers was Pat King, a former organizer with the Western Canada separatist party Wexit. King gained notoriety after he helped organize a rally in Red Deer, Alberta, that turned violent, and thanks to his repeated attempts to weaponize his misunderstanding of the law to repeal Alberta’s COVID-19 measures. King is a prolific streamer, using his social media pages to warn of “Anglo-Saxon replacement” and to make disparaging remarks about immigrants and the LGBTQ community, per videos cataloged by Anti-Hate Canada.
On Jan. 18, Bauder and King appeared on a livestream together to promote the Canada Unity website as “our official convoy page.”
Bauder made it clear this was not a leaderless movement: He said there were five organizers across the country, including himself and King, who were behind the convoy. He insisted they already had “tens of thousands” of participants signed up.
At the same time, King—who just a month before warned that “the only way that this is going to be solved is with bullets”—began pressing the idea that the movement had to be squeaky clean. It had to “make sure that we come off on this as professional as can be,” he said on one livestream, “because the whole world’s eyes are gonna be on us.” (Other organizers have tried to distance themselves from King, but he continues to lead a segment of the convoy coming from the West.)
Jason LaFace is an Ontario organizer for the convoy. Speaking to a Kitchener talk radio station, he admitted, “This is no longer about the (trucker) mandate anymore,” according to a City News report. “This is about Canada; this is about our rights and how the government’s been manipulating the population and oppressing us all the time.” LaFace is no trucker, just “a regular Canadian with some very exceptional organizational skills,” he said.
LaFace was previously linked to Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group, by anti-racism researchers. (Those researchers obtained an apology letter from LaFace, saying he dismantled the local chapter.) LaFace did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Benjamin Dicher, whose name is listed on the GoFundMe page, which has surpassed $6 million, is a People’s Party activist who has warned that the Liberal Party is “infested with Islamists.” Another of Operation BearHug’s regional organizers is a former candidate for the arch-social conservative Christian Heritage Party. Several of the regional organizers have promoted false information about vaccines.
Other groups have become silent partners in the Canada Unity effort, like Taking Back Our Freedoms, a vocally anti-vaccine group. The organization, which boasts People’s Party leader Maxine Bernier as a board member, falsely claims that "the C-19 Vaccines Are NOT Safe." (The COVID-19 vaccines are exceedingly safe.)
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network also has an exhaustive rundown of the major players in the convoy.
All of this is just the organizers. Those actually in the convoy, and cheering on from home, have trumpeted their intent to remove Trudeau from power. On Facebook and the secure messaging platform Telegram, supporters of the convoy have generally been careful to avoid espousing anything controversial—but things have slipped through. The call-signs of QAnon have popped up occasionally, and others have talked openly about their expectation that the government be toppled when they arrive. One meme, which has been shared widely, shows a truck gaining ground on the prime minister, calling their operation a “roadkill rally.”
The three hosts of a far-right vlog have vowed to be at the Ottawa rally, with one remarking, “I would like to see our own Jan. 6 event see some of those truckers plow right through that 16-foot wall.”
Some of the others on the convoy include followers of Norman Traversy, who started his own GoFundMe to finance his trip to Ottawa. Traversy is the QAnon-linked conspiracy theorist who tried to launch a private prosecution of Trudeau in July 2020, assembling a motley crew of protesters in downtown Ottawa who waved signs calling for Trudeau’s hanging. In the weeks that followed, Traversy’s supporters camped in downtown Ottawa, launching a series of attempted “citizens arrests” of politicians and journalists.
There’s no indication that he was in Ottawa to attend Traversy’s protest, but a day afterward, Corey Hurren drove his truck through the front gates of Rideau Hall with a cache of weapons and a plan to arrest the prime minister. On his social media pages, Hurren also espoused QAnon and anti-vaccine sentiments, and carried a letter accusing Trudeau of wanting a Communist dictatorship.
As Global News has reported, there is an array of far-right groups looking to latch on to the protest as well.
Even as the movement has grown, the memorandum of understanding has been its guiding light. The Canada Unity website boasts it has over 210,000 signatures. (It’s worth noting it’s very easy to input a fake name and address and sign the document.)
Journalists who have reported on the convoy, particularly women, have received a deluge of hate and death threats. Global reporters Mercedes Stevenson and Rachel Gilmore have been inundated with vile and violent messages in recent days for doing their jobs and reporting on the movement.
So why endorse this?
On Thursday evening, O’Toole held a press conference, announcing he would be meeting with members of the convoy in Ottawa Saturday.
Three Conservative Party sources who spoke to VICE News said there is a division in O’Toole’s party: Some MPs see this convoy as a new metastization of an ugly, paranoid fringe that has been gaining momentum in Canada—a movement hostile not only to Trudeau but towards every Conservative politician who won’t endorse its deranged fantasies.
Other MPs in O’Toole’s party see the convoy as their base of supporters—particularly after Bernier’s extreme-right People’s Party picked up significant momentum in the 2021 federal election.
Former leader Andrew Scheer came out to wave the convoy on. Pierre Poilievre, increasingly supplanting O’Toole for the real leader of the party, swatted away any criticism of the truckers: “Whenever you have five or 10,000 people who are part of any group, you’re bound to have a number who have or say unacceptable things,” he told reporters. He was quickly endorsed by deputy leader Candice Bergen.
One Conservative politician told VICE World News the party leadership knows they’re playing with fire. O’Toole’s office will just “pray and hope that they don’t storm the Hill,” they said.
Another Tory said they fully expect members of the caucus to show up to the rally Saturday.
There is no indication, thus far, that the protesters intend on being violent when they arrive. But, at a minimum, they are promising a blockade of the nation’s capital (something the Conservatives vowed to criminalize in 2020 when it was Indigenous people doing it).
Saturday’s rally, which could stretch into the days and weeks to come, has gone well beyond the plight of truckers. The Canadian Trucking Alliance has condemned the convoy. The vast majority of truckers are vaccinated.
How many will show up remains unclear. Estimates of the number of rigs in the convoy are somewhere in the low hundreds, and it’s unclear how many actually do cross-border routes. The total number of vehicles coming to the capital could be as high as 1,500.