Canadian truckers’ convoy: American spinoff or domestic cascade?

Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

Americans sometimes remark that our neighbors to the North pride themselves on a culture of “peace, order, and good government.” Well, maybe, but consider what has happened in Ottawa over the last two weekends. Outraged by a federal regulation requiring that Canadian truckers entering the country from the U.S. must be vaccinated, convoys of Canadian truckers converged on the Federal Capital during the last weekend of January and the first weekend of February, blocking traffic in the center, honking their horns incessantly, spouting obscenities and engaging in occasional violence.

Not only that: The influence of the “Truckers’ Convoy” began to spread across Canada. By the second weekend of the protests, the original objection against border restrictions had broadened into a wholesale condemnation of the government’s COVID-19 mandates. As Ottawa closed down, other demonstrations sprang up in Vancouver, in the prairie cities, in Toronto and Quebec. At border crossings between Alberta and Montana, and between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, truckers blocked traffic in both directions.

The movement soon resonated across the border: On Feb. 6, Brian Brase, co-organizer of a group calling itself “Convoy to D.C. 2022,” claimed that truckers from across the U.S. were planning to repeat Ottawa’s experience in the American capital. The message soon diffused to Europe, which has had its own “no vax” movement. On Jan. 30, a group of truckers drove around The Netherlands, and pressure began to grow for a “World Freedom Convoy” to converge on Brussels on Feb. 14.

Looking at the burly Canadian truckers waving flags, shouting slogans, and honking their horns outside the federal parliament reminded more than one journalist of the Jan. 6 insurrection in this country. Indeed, signs reading “Make Canada Great Again,” confederate flags, and even the occasional swastika could be seen as the truckers’ convoy crossed the country and zeroed in on Ottawa. It soon became clear that although the truckers had their own beefs against Canadian COVID restrictions, they were backed — and may even have been sparked — by other actors. For example, far-right organizer, James Bauder, “an admitted conspiracy theorist who endorsed the QAnon movement and called COVID-19 ‘the biggest political scam in history’” may have given the movement its initial impetus.

Was this new movement a spin-off of the far right in the United States — or was it something home grown?

By early February, police officials had noted “a significant element” from the United States involved in the protest. Soon, a number of far-right social media platforms glommed onto the movement. And as it spread, the encompassing frame of “freedom” displaced the truckers’ more occupational framing. It even forged ties with the Christian right: When GofundMe stopped serving as a crowdsourcing site, the movement’s leaders turned to a site called GiveSendGo, founded by Christian fundamentalist Jacob Wells.

To the distress of Canadian decision-makers, U.S. Republican politicos soon picked up on the movement. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and evangelicals like Franklin Graham were quick to cheer the truckers on. A Fox News commentator, Harris Faulkner, described their movement as “mainstream,” not fringe. Not to be outdone, as the mayor of Ottawa was declaring a state of emergency, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) enthused “God Bless the Canadian truck drivers.”

But there are differences between the Jan. 6 insurrection and the Canadian truckers’ convoy — and they are significant:

First, despite occasional incidents of pushing and shoving and racist outbursts in the streets of Ottawa, the movement so far has been relatively peaceful. True, a driver in Winnipeg was booked for allegedly driving his vehicle into a group of people and investigations of hate speech have been opened in Ottawa, but — so far — Canadian outrage at the government’s COVID restrictions has been remarkably restrained.

Second, there was no Canadian equivalent of Donald Trump to cheer the protesters on. Only days after the convoy began to block the streets of Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a press conference in which he condemned them for their excesses. From the other side of the spectrum, Conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford condemned the truckers’ actions as “an occupation.” Even more dramatic was the response from the head of the Ottawa Police Service, who vowed a crackdown on “unlawful” protest.

Third, the isolated acts of violence and desecration in Ottawa have triggered widespread condemnation — and not only from Ottawans driven to distraction by the constant blaring of air horns. When a small group of truckers reportedly harassed staff members of a soup kitchen, the shelter received over 10,000 individual donations. There have been few Canadian voices to characterize the movement as “legitimate political discourse,” as the Republican National Committee described the Jan. 6 events.

The broad geographic reach of the Trucker’s Convoy, its rapid diffusion, and its employment of a broad repertoire of contention resembles in many ways the cycles of contention that scholars have examined in the United States and elsewhere. There are two different forms that such cycles can take:

  • A cascade of contention, like what happened in East-Central Europe when Communism fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s; or
  • A tipping point, in which a spiral of contention reaches its peak and suffers a reversal, as civilian and state responses reverse the momentum.

At this writing, the Truckers’ Convoy looks like a cascade. Canadian authorities certainly seem to think so; on Feb. 7, the mayor of Ottawa declared a state of emergency, and the chair of the city’s police board declared that the protest had triggered a “nationwide insurrection.”

But the scattered excesses of the movement, its linkage to extremist elements outside the Canadian mainstream, and the unified response of all three levels of government and public opinion suggest that it may be a tipping point — especially as the pandemic winds its way downward and the Canadian provinces begin to relax their policies to defeat it.

We will see whether Canadians — unlike Americans after Jan. 6 — are quick to recognize danger in their midst and condemn what they see as threats to “peace, order and good government.”

Sidney Tarrow is Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell University and an adjunct professor at the Cornell Law School. His most recent book is “Movements and Parties: Critical Connections in American Political Development,” from Cambridge University Press.

Tags Canada Canadian trucker convoy COVID mandates COVID-19 pandemic in Canada Donald Trump far-right agenda Far-right politics far-right protesters Freedom Convoy Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on politics Jan. 6 Insurrection January 6 Capitol attack Justin Trudeau Ottawa Ted Cruz Truck driver

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