Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre has accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of trying to silence the freedom convoy in Ottawa. Photos by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld and THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
On Jan. 31, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre took a selfie with people holding Canadian flags near Parliament in Ottawa. They were supporters of the “freedom convoy” that’s currently laying siege in the country’s capital, demanding an end to all COVID-related restrictions. “These are the people the media and [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau want to silence,” Poilievre wrote on Twitter. “Bright, joyful, and peaceful Canadians championing freedom over fear on Parliament Hill.”
Poilievre, the Conservative Party leadership frontrunner, is one of several Tory politicians who’ve voiced unequivocal support for the protests, which have not been all that peaceful. For two weeks, hundreds of devoted members of the anti-vax trucker convoy have paralyzed Ottawa’s downtown core, blared their horns incessantly, and harassed residents. Convoy members have flown flags with swastikas, taken a shit on a lawn adorned with a pride flag, and are allegedly responsible for 200 reported hate crimes. Ottawa is currently under a state of emergency. Elsewhere, convoyers have shut down two of the busiest ports of entry on the US-Canada border. All of this, under the guise of “freedom” and getting the economy running. The movement started out as a protest against new rules that make it mandatory for truckers travelling across the US-Canada border to be fully vaccinated. But it quickly devolved into chaotic action against all COVID restrictions—and against many federal politicians that the convoyers don’t like, especially Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It comes at a time when Omicron levels are levelling off and COVID restrictions in Canada are already starting to loosen—but thousands of Canadians are still hospitalized, even as the situation steadily improves.Conservative politicians have largely failed to condemn the racism, homophobia, and harassment that has been connected to the movement today, with some—though not all—calling for sympathy and support for protestors instead. They’ve also leaned heavily into the anti-Trudeau sentiment.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is applying pressure on Canada to clear out the blockades clogging ports of entry at the U.S.-Canada border.During a snap parliamentary debate on Monday night, interim Conservative Party leader Candice Bergen said Canada is “more divided than ever” and blamed Trudeau for it. She also suggested that Trudeau called people “misogynists” and “racists” simply because they didn’t get the vaccine. (She’s since asked for the blockades to come down because they’re damaging international commerce at the border.) Alberta Conservative MP John Barlow has also voiced support for the convoyers, tweeting they are “grabbing this moment in our history.” Amid all of the chaos, federal Conservatives opted to oust Erin O’Toole as their leader because he was viewed by many as too liberal. Some experts think it was really bad timing. “Why would you dump the leader of an official opposition in the middle of a rapidly evolving conflict that could devolve into a crisis?” said Melanee Thomas, a political science professor with the University of Calgary. O’Toole didn’t manage to unseat Trudeau during the last federal election, so Conservatives are likely trying to appeal to their perceived base so that they win government in the future, two experts told VICE World News, and their approach to the “freedom convoy” highlights that tension. Now, the question is: what identity will they cement? A fiscally conservative but socially progressive one, like what O’Toole was trying to do—or one that’s decidedly more to the right, and taps into the same anti-government anger Donald Trump exploited. It’s a soul-searching expedition that has the potential to backfire on their own party—and on all Canadians, too.
“It wont bode well for the party—or for the rest of us,” Thomas said.
One of the main problems, according to Thomas, is that Conservative leaders haven’t concretely defined the Conservative Party’s values. So, you have MPs like O’Toole taking a more hard-lined stance against racism, while other MPs try to avoid the subject. That means the party as a whole is failing to condemn fringe, far-right values promoted by some of the convoy’s leaders, Thomas said, adding that MPs are “playing footsies” with extremists “because they don’t want to lose a potential voter or donor.” “You’re fully prepared to stand with someone holding a Nazi flag, if not shoulder to shoulder, then a few blocks away from them,” Thomas said. Some MPs and their supporters have tried to push back on criticisms, saying the convoy isn’t “anti-vax” or racist, but rather “anti-mandate.” As University of Toronto political science professor Eric Merkley put it: “Not everyone believes that the truck convoy is motivated by unsavoury individuals. They don’t trust the media's representation of the convoy as accurate.” Conservatives, who are already “badly split,” might be scared to speak out against the convoy because they don’t want to lose voters who are tired of the pandemic and believe the trucker convoy is really about freedom, Merkley said.
Conservatives haven’t set boundaries
Many sitting Conservatives might also believe that because the far-right People’s Party of Canada (PPC) stole some of their votes during the last election, it’s important to win them back.“It’s a myth that the PPC lost them the campaign, so therefore they have to get those voters back,” Merkley said. “Supporting the convoy and what not could be seen as curing that, but I think it's mistaken.”Thomas said by failing to condemn the trucker convoy’s nastiness, the Conservatives have created the impression that they might welcome fringe views. “In the absence of political elite and leaders repudiating the far-right, that means they’re prepared to open up the tent.”According to Thomas, it’s a poor long-term strategy: Canadian political parties need moderate, non-partisan voters on their side to win elections since about half of Canadians don’t have a strong party affiliation. “Let the fringe go. It’s not a winning strategy,” Thomas said. She pointed at Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who has spent practically his entire term pandering to the fringe right and the anti-vaccine mandate folks. Today he is the second least popular premier in Canada, and his party is receiving significantly fewer donations than the left-leaning NDP.
In the meantime, a lot of people have been making comparisons between the rallies in Canada and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot in the U.S. According to Merkley, Canada is better positioned to stave off a U.S.-style political crisis because Canadians don’t tend to support political parties with the same intensity as Americans.“That’s not to say it can't happen in the future,” Merkley said. “But I have a lot of faith that politicians want to get elected and want to win power,” and in Canada federal parties need to win over progressive constituencies in the Greater Toronto Area and Vancouver if they want to hold office. More concerning is how the Conservative approach to the anti-government convoy will play out for the rest of Canadians. Thomas said she’s worried that they have the potential to erode trust in democracy, including in the Prime Minister's Office. According to the University of Calgary professor, the convoyers are creating space for extremists to galvanize their own support and gain mainstream legitimacy, which could further divide Canadians. Far-right organizers and conspiracy theorists have been attached to the convoy movement since its inception. “We should be more honest with ourselves, frankly,” Thomas said. “Canadians like to say we aren't like the U.S. and we aren't as racist, and that attitude has allowed all of this to fester…. We aren't doing ourselves a service if we don't acknowledge that that stuff is very much a reality here too.”
All Canadians affected
On Twitter there are already several posts of people of colour saying they are frightened by the freedom convoy. One South Asian trucker told VICE World News he’s too scared to take his usual route across the Alberta-Montana border because he doesn’t want to interact with convoyers. There is also a risk that when COVID restrictions inevitably loosen—already a reality in Saskatchewan and Alberta—the convoy will take credit, Merkley said. “If you can go and shut down the capital and change policy, that would really erode trust.”
Ultimately, the freedom convoy doesn’t represent Canadians—or truckers. About 90 percent of truckers are vaccinated, and most Canadians spent the pandemic wearing masks and getting vaccinated. A recent survey by pollster Leger found that 62 percent of Canadians oppose the convoy. “It’s important to reiterate that as distressing as these convoys are, they aren’t representative of Canadians or even conservatives. We are not as polarized as some people think we are,” Merkley said.But just because the Conservatives could end up shooting themselves in the foot, it doesn’t mean Trudeau is better off. He’s been largely absent during the Ottawa occupation and now two of his MPs have broken ranks and spoken out against their leader’s approach to the situation.“I don't think there is a scenario where this situation helps Trudeau. It’s out of control,” Merkley said. “Long-term, though, the convoys could very well be beneficial for the Liberal Party, but that depends on what the Conservative Party does.”Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.