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The Canadian truckers’ protests could have global implications
In the long run, the truckers’ protests could lead to economic and political instability.
Since late January 2022 protestors have been gathering with their vehicles in Ottawa, occupying the main downtown street which hosts the Canadian Parliament, the Bank of Canada, and the Prime Minister’s Office. Hundreds of truckers have since been ostensibly gaining support towards the so-called ‘Free Convoy Movement’—a barricaded protest against the COVID-19 vaccine mandate issued to cross-border truckers. Though the movement began with occupying Ottawa to demonstrate discontent towards the vaccine and quarantine mandate, the protests have evolved into a platform for organised far-right groups based in North America. It is important to note that the protest against the vaccine is not representative of all truckers stationed in Canada. According to a report, “just 10 percent of the cross-border drivers refused the jabs, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), meaning that from 15th January they can no longer cross back into Canada without quarantine.” The haulage industry has disavowed the protest making it clear that the blockade is not representative of the public sentiment towards vaccines in Canada. For a nation that has provided at least one vaccine dose to 84 percent of its population, the anti-vax narrative displayed is unusual, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed as a ‘fringe’ compared to larger community sentiments. The questions that arise are who these individuals are and how should state authorities intervene in the matter? The unrest at the Ambassador Bridge has severed significant trade routes between Windsor in Ontario and Detroit. Another convoy has occupied the main road from Manitoba to Ontario, with certain protesters attempting to block access to Ottawa’s airport. Assessing the present mood, Brian Brase, a trucker organising a protest called the ‘People’s Convoy’ has said that ‘a US demonstration will begin in California in March, other supporters will drive to D.C’. The protest shifted the popular umbrella sentiment to include not just truckers, but also individuals who find vaccine and mask requirements increasingly unnecessary. As days go by, the Canadian police in the capital are upscaling their response to protests after more than 4,000 anti-vaccine demonstrators gathered exhibiting ‘aggressive, illegal behavior’. Instances of police dressed in riot gear to box protestors in have been ongoing; however, the complexities of maintaining lawful and peaceful situations have been growing. The minority of roughly 10 percent truckers are at risk of losing their livelihoods due to their unvaccinated status, sending a political message not only to the nation’s capital but to the United States as well.
"Assessing the present mood, Brian Brase, a trucker organising a protest called the ‘People’s Convoy’ has said that ‘a US demonstration will begin in California in March, other supporters will drive to D.C’."
The Canadian Parliament has made it clear that the protests do not represent Canada’s collective identity regarding vaccinations; however, the implications of these obstructions created by the movement are felt by many. The Ambassador Bridge witnesses about a quarter of all US-Canada trade due to a lack of alternate routes. The auto industry is heavily reliant on the transportation of parts and even a minor delay in the industry poses a risk of a complete shutdown of the automobile plants. More than two-thirds of the US $511 billion in goods traded annually between Canada and the US is transported by road and The Detroit International Bridge Company, owners of the Ambassador Bridge, have urged Canadian officials to repeal the vaccine mandates. It is evident that the protests are being based around class identity, however, in fact the obstructions are worsening the conditions of the middle and lower-middle class. Nearly half the businesses in Ontario have shut down pre-protest and continue to be shut as a large majority of businesses have complained that the protest has drastically affected their finances. The obstruction led to the financial stagnation of the Canadian economy. The Ambassador Bridge is responsible for US $13.5 million per hour according to the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce. As the Canadian Parliament and major organisations have condemned the protests, the question arises as to who is funding these demonstrations?
"Nearly half the businesses in Ontario have shut down pre-protest and continue to be shut as a large majority of businesses have complained that the protest has drastically affected their finances."
The ‘Free Convoy Protests’ have received significant media coverage gaining sympathy from right-wing groups in the United States. The movement itself has evolved into a rallying agenda for right-wing parties to exploit legislation and mandates of pandemic restrictions. Certain US truckers have further agreed to send convoys over the weekend to a fourth border crossing connecting Buffalo, New York, and Fort Erie, Ontario. Politicians such as Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump have publicly shown support for the protests with large crowd-funding sites from international donors being the primary source of funding. The movement has generated up to US $8 million for demonstrators as showcased in a ‘GoFundMe’ page for the Canadian Blockade. Due to the apparent ‘peaceful demonstration’ turning into an unlawful occupation, the website has since removed the fundraiser from the site. However, the ‘Canadian Freedom Convoy’ has shifted its fundraising to the website ‘GiveSendGo,’ a site that is known for welcoming far-right extremist groups, which have previously held the legal defense funds for Kyle Rittenhouse and Proud Boys Chairman, Enrique Tarrio (via Cauterucci, SLATE). Irrespective of funding aid, the role of the right-wing in the movement is undeniable as protestors have carried Confederate flags and flags with swastikas, representing sentiments of right-wing extremist groups. This makes it apparent that the protests intended, to protect the livelihoods of anti-vaxers have transcended into an echo chamber of conservative sentiments with the branding of alt-right and extremists being displayed globally.
The US government has urged the Canadian Parliament to use federal powers to ease the growing economic disruption caused by the movement. With the projected losses getting steeper with each hour, it is natural to assume the Canadian government is under tremendous pressure, particularly from the US. As the government is aware of Biden’s ‘Buy American’ mandates, there is a genuine fear that increased subsidies on US production of electric care and batteries could undercut Canadian factories. The vulnerability of Canada showcased as an unreliable supplier has had consequences already with Toyota suspending production on 12 February 2022 in Ontario, and Ford looking at flying in auto parts leading to production cuts and shortages. The Ontario Court has further frozen funds donated to the protestors via the app ‘GiveSendGo’ and has passed legislation to reinstate civil order in the national capital. As of 15 February 2022, Justin Trudeau has enforced The Emergencies Act, the first civil servant to do so since his father Pierre Trudeau, to curtail the continued protests. The decision was not as obvious as it seems as Trudeau has maintained a non-military approach to the movement and states that the government is still not bringing them in. Rather, the Act is enforced to suspend the citizens’ rights to free movement or assembly. The act will be targeting all protestors and not merely truckers further possessing the ability to freeze personal and corporate accounts by the finance ministry on suspicion.
"The vulnerability of Canada showcased as an unreliable supplier has had consequences already with Toyota suspending production on 12 February 2022 in Ontario, and Ford looking at flying in auto parts leading to production cuts and shortages."
The movement has inspired sentiments internationally as similar protests have emerged in Australia, New Zealand, and Belgium. Recently, at least 500 vehicles in several convoys attempted to enter Paris at key arteries but were intercepted. On 14 February 2022, the French police issued 4,500 euros fine plus two years in prison for anyone blocking the roads in the capital. Despite the warnings, over 7,200 police personnel are currently blockading important entry points into central Paris due to protestors’ unrest. The Netherlands and New Zealand also witnessed protestors attempting to block roads in front of their respected parliaments.
There is a growing cause of concern regarding such ‘copy-cat’ movements as well surging unrest withing major capitals in the world. The Canadian protests could evolve into a wider alignment of political views and movements, bringing together conservative political sentiment and pandemic-induced discontent. Themes of freedom, anti-masks, and anti-vaccines—a narrative witnessed throughout the pandemic—appear to be reappearing at the global stage. The US Capitol Riots have displayed that civil unrest and political divisions are divided by a thin line in democracies.
Possibly, the biggest downside of the emerging protests could be seen in the economic sector. In Canada, however, several truckers have since tried to distance themselves from the protests as the obstructions have failed to advance any labour issues and in turn have hurt rather than helped the haulage industry. This could be a silver lining.
"The Canadian protests could evolve into a wider alignment of political views and movements, bringing together conservative political sentiment and pandemic-induced discontent."
Trudeau had received 32.6 percent of the votes cast in the recent 2021 federal election, providing him a thin political plank. Domestically, these protests could have long-lasting and possibly regime-altering implications for Canada’s politics. Though the protests has been dubbed as a fringe minority, it should not be underestimated by the Canadian government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must be wary not to dismiss the threats as several have claimed that they would not back down until Trudeau leaves office. The demonstrations may not be able to gain any benefits for truckers in the long run; however, it is set to damage the political strength held by Trudeau. Naturally, governments which are unable to control civil disturbances lose faith with the voters as the blame is not shifted to the state police, but the higher authorities. The loss of businesses and gradual economic devastation would lead to national pressures which Trudeau would have to address during his campaign. It is evident that Trudeau’s political presence has been threatened as his soft approach towards the demonstrations may turn a few voter’s heads. It is unlikely that the Trudeau and Biden cabinet will repeal the vaccination requirements for truckers, therefore, placing the spotlight on Trudeau’s domestic action plan.
Ayan Barman (ORF)
4 March 2022