‘What do you think about Ottawa now that the convoy’s gone? Back to dead?’ I was watching a YouTube video by Zot, one of the livestreamers who built up a following during the protests against Covid vaccine mandates that took over the city for three weeks in February, with the help of a large convoy of trucks. Two middle-aged guys – ‘Fun Travel 69’ and ‘Live from the Shed’ – called in to the show to exchange dark inferences about the mainstream media (MSM). Someone asked Zot what made him join the protests. ‘I’m from Ottawa,’ he replied. ‘Nothing ever happens in Ottawa.’

Like Zot, I grew up in Ottawa (some call it ‘Ottograd’) and know what it is to long for disruption, upheaval, anything to shake up the town. The closest thing we had was the invocation of the War Measures Act by Pierre Trudeau in October 1970, after a series of kidnappings by Quebec separatists. Soldiers with machine guns were posted across the city. Now, more than fifty years after his father called in the army, hundreds of enormous rigs were rolling into town and Justin Trudeau was trying not to repeat his dad’s heavy-handedness. All three levels of government – federal, provincial and municipal – studiously avoided confrontation (except with one another). You could see why. Close up, the trucks were massive: two storeys high with five, six ladder rungs to reach the cab.

The brainchild of Western Canadian right-wingers who had staged a similar protest two years earlier – the pro-pipeline, anti-environmentalist United We Roll convoy – the Freedom Convoy’s message resonated. Following the first critical mass of truckers, blocking off downtown streets, the people the occupation brought out were an extraordinary mix, though overwhelmingly white: born-again Prairie Christians, anti-communist Eastern European immigrants, New Age anti-vaxxers (‘my body, my choice’), loudmouth hockey mums, free-thinking Mohawks, dreadlocked weed-smokers, curious small-towners and their snow-suited kids, all brandishing the red maple leaf and other flags. The more fun it looked, the more people came out. Walking down Wellington Street a week into the occupation you could feel the giddiness, the elation. A mass of people who had never set eyes on one another, unless perhaps briefly online, were meeting in the flesh after all the lockdowns. No wonder they were hugging and dancing.

The giddiness only increased when the protesters saw what they could get away with. Not just stopping all traffic, blaring horns day and night and belching diesel fumes, but swarming unmasked into stores, harassing locals, and generally behaving like drunken frat boys. As the days passed, the party atmosphere gave way to greater organisation and less pissing in the streets. Volunteers built a stage across from Parliament Hill, a soup kitchen in Confederation Square and a fuel depot for distributing jerry cans of diesel to keep the trucks running in the freezing weather. A couple of parking lots on the outskirts of town were commandeered for use as encampments and staging posts. The organisers had said they wouldn’t budge until all vaccine mandates had been repealed, and it looked like they meant it. As the numbers grew, the declarations became more grandiose: they were going to bring the city to its knees, get rid of the government and – so the signs said – FUCK TRUDEAU! In response, the city laid on rows of porta-potties. No one knew how it would end.

Whoever was running the show was good at logistics, if not logic. Most of the vaccine mandates were imposed by the provinces, which have responsibility for healthcare, not the federal government. The only federal mandate concerned cross-border truckers and mirrored requirements imposed by the US: even if Canada were to remove it, the American equivalent would still be in place. Worse was the protesters’ delusional ‘memorandum of understanding’, which envisaged Canada’s unelected governor-general dissolving Parliament and negotiating directly with the convoy’s organisers. Meanwhile the fun became more family-friendly: bouncy castles, hockey games, horse rides, hot tubs, saunas, hog roasts, a performer on stilts … The word went out: bring the kids. It was good for optics, and the organisers knew it would make things harder for the police: no chance of tear gas. Tamara Lich, the key fundraiser and spokesperson for the truckers, is active in far-right politics and sings in a band in Medicine Hat, Alberta; during the protests, she was like a waitress counting her tips – except that she had millions in her hands (she also accepted crypto). A tree-planting comrade of my niece’s DJ-ed on the Wellington Street stage, as did the former head nurse at Wakefield Hospital, who is also a bar singer and anti-vaxxer. It was Carnival come early – to Ottawa, of all places.

How did they get away with it for so long? For the first two weeks, the city police pursued a policy of rigorous de-escalation. This meant ceding ground and avoiding conflict at all costs. It was curious, some people felt, that this approach was being adopted now: the Black Lives Matter and Indigenous land rights protests of recent years had been broken up with traditional aggressive policing. TikTok clips emerged of unmasked officers expressing ‘100 per cent’ support for the protesters and even hugging them. Only a small number of the occupiers – a couple of hundred – were actually professional truckers, though many owned vans and trailers. Nor did I see many people of South Asian origin, though Sikh or Pakistani truckers make up twenty per cent of the industry in Canada. Omer Aziz, a writer from a family of truckers, argued in the Globe and Mail that the impunity with which the protesters marauded through central neighbourhoods was ‘the clearest definition of white privilege’. And where frat boys and hockey mums congregate, homophobia is never far behind. ‘If Turdeau wants a man-date, he should go on Grindr.’ ‘Don’t be afraid of the police,’ a megaphone roared. ‘They won’t come after you. No red-blooded Canadian’s gonna take orders from Justin Trudeau.’

In fact, the police response was complicated by several factors: jurisdictional disagreements and misunderstandings between the provincial police (in charge of highways) and the federal Mounties (in charge of monitoring extremists), as well as the fact that former Mounties and army officers were advising the organisers and eliciting sympathy from their sometime colleagues. But the main problem was a lack of resources and a lack of foresight. Peak crowd estimates range from eight thousand to fifteen thousand. How could Ottawa’s 1200 officers control all those people? It wasn’t reassuring to hear that police officers were advising residents who were being harassed for wearing masks to take them off. Locals began to take things into their own hands: a 21-year-old civil servant, Zexi Li, obtained a court injunction to stop the trucks from blasting their horns, and in Ottawa South residents stood in front of a platoon of supply trucks, demanding they remove their Canadian flags.

But people kept pouring into Ottawa, especially on the weekends. Copycat protests sprang up in other cities. There were blockades on the bridge into Detroit and at the Alberta-Montana border. On Wellington Street, the mood was peace and love and Canadian unity, and in a strange way, the extreme weather helped. On the first two weekends of the occupation, the temperature dropped below -20° C. I thought of Victor Hugo on Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow: ‘Deux ennemis: le Czar et le Nord. Le Nord est pire.’ The protesters were winning one battle just by coming out in the cold: for this demographic, being able to deal with the weather is a badge of citizenship. But they also seemed to feel that they were witnessing history. I have never seen so many red maple leaves flying – and the crowds included plenty of flag-averse francophone Quebecois. A few flew it upside down, presumably in protest. When an Aussie on the main stage said that the Canadian flag could now be seen at protests in the US and Australia, a huge roar went up.

Patriotism doesn’t come naturally to most Canadians. Twice in my lifetime, Quebec referendums have brought the country to the verge of breaking up, and English-speaking Canadians accept that a loose, unassertive confederation is the best way of keeping the country together. Last summer, the discovery of human remains – the bodies of children who died after being removed from their parents – on the grounds of an Indigenous residential school in Kamloops made it much more difficult to feel any sort of national pride. The flag on Parliament Hill flew at half-mast for months afterwards. Yet now it was being brandished everywhere you turned – often at the end of a hockey stick – and the protesters were singing ‘Oh Canada’ every chance they got.

Didn’t they read the news? Apparently not. Many just wanted positive vibes, finding the MSM a real downer. ‘How can they prove all those people died of Covid? I don’t know a single person who’s died.’ Others had curated their internet feeds to show them only what they wanted to believe. Sensing I was missing out, I started following the Twitter accounts and livestreams of journalist-entrepreneurs like Zot. But I was going down a thousand rabbit holes. There was no one set of facts, just competing versions. Everyone was compulsively documenting events, documenting themselves documenting events, even precipitating events in order to document them and monetise them. Pat King, the most outspoken of the organisers, livestreamed his own arrest. James Bauder, the Prairie born-again Christian who started the convoy, believes God told him to do it in a prayer. Confronted by a journalist about the claim that Covid is a ‘plandemic’ – GlaxoSmithKline owns the Wuhan lab, Soros and Bill Gates are in on the action etc – Bauder unwittingly called everything into question: ‘Just because it’s a post does that make it a fact? There are things called postings to see what other people are saying … I’m actually looking for validation.’

There were some very dark aspects to the occupation and many of them involved money. It’s what kept the whole thing going: diesel is expensive and if the truckers couldn’t run their big engines, they were going to get cold quickly and give up. The financial effort began with a crowdfunding campaign through various Christian and right-wing channels. Then came the big endorsements – Canadian conservatives, Ted Cruz, Elon Musk, Donald Trump – and money poured in. It turns out that Canadians, as well as Americans, tune into Fox News. On GoFundMe ten million dollars were raised in a matter of days. When GoFundMe froze the account, the organisers switched to the Christian platform GiveSendGo, which bypasses Canadian banks, and raised another $8.2 million. Hackers investigated and revealed that 55 per cent of the donations came from the US. Americans were directly funding a movement whose stated goal was to overthrow the democratically elected government of a neighbouring country. I doubt most of them could find Ottawa on a map. Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, called it sedition. But the journalist Justin Ling, himself proprietor of a few choice internet rabbit holes, warned against the assumption that the arguments were imported along with the cash. ‘This extremist movement was born in Canada, raised in Canada and has proliferated in Canada.’

Homegrown extremists were certainly in attendance. Pat King spoke about the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’ and talked freely of ‘bullets flying’. A swastika was spotted early on at Parliament Hill, alongside the usual regalia of the American far right: the Confederate flag, the Stars and Stripes, the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ rattlesnake of the Gadsden flag, which became the symbol for the storming of the US Capitol. These protesters may be Canadian but the world they inhabit has a lot of American furniture – one person detained by the police thought the First Amendment would protect him. More worrying was the discovery of a stash of weapons – long guns, handguns, body armour, ammunition – near the blockade in Alberta and the subsequent arrest of four people, two of them with links to a white supremacist militia, on charges of conspiracy to murder Mounties.

I was in Ottawa because my father had died a week before the protests, and my brothers and I were clearing out his room. On the face of it, no one could have been more MSM than my dad: he worked for decades as Canada correspondent for the Guardian and the Economist; he was also a frequent contributor (and loyal subscriber) to the Globe and Mail. But like many of the protesters I met, he preferred good news to bad (particularly when it came to Africa, his other field of expertise) and loved Ottawa. So, the good news: no other weapons were found. On 14 February, Trudeau invoked the Federal Emergencies Act, which allowed the police to freeze all financial transactions related to the convoy and to compel reluctant towing companies to remove trucks. The police, behaving in exemplary fashion, cordoned off the downtown core, set up checkpoints and gave ultimatums in both official languages telling everyone to leave.

Then, just as they assembled to clear the area, a massive storm hit Ottawa, dumping 30 cm of snow on the city. Officers advanced slowly up Wellington Street in riot gear, one or two steps at a time. The crowd resisted but was forced to retreat. Those who pushed back were carried off. The snow kept coming. ‘Il neigeait, il neigeait toujours … on ne connaissait plus les chefs ni le drapeau./Hier la grande armée et maintenant troupeau.’ (I kept hearing Hugo.) Now and then, Mounties on horseback broke through the line of protesters and the police were able to advance further. The hardcore protesters became hopelessly emotional, yelling insults and sometimes attacking. ‘Hold the line, hold the line!’ The final diehard truckers, holed up in their cabs, discovered that the police were quite willing to smash their windows in and drag them away. There were fines, arrests. Soon there was the roar of revving engines, high-pitched beeps as trucks went into reverse, then the growl of gears engaging as they gunned it out of town. The fun was over.

Or was it? Commentators seemed to agree that Trumpism had arrived in Canada. In the New York Times, Ross Douthat saw the convoy protest as another battle in the new class war: educated elites, or Virtuals, against those who work with their hands, the gilets jaunes or Practicals. This might seem plausible – except these particular Practicals were entirely reliant on digital communication not only for organising and fundraising but also for spreading and reinforcing their views. And the great majority of real Practicals, dependent on vehicles for their work, were strongly opposed to the blockades and the disruption, to say nothing of the anti-vaxxers’ demands. It seems unlikely that any single political party will be able to harness the energy of the heterogenous crowd I saw. In the early days a parade of Conservative politicians snapped selfies with these ‘ordinary folk’, but on 2 February the Tory party ditched its leader, Erin O’Toole, and has since shown itself to be deeply fissured. The people I met wanted a party, but not that kind.

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Vol. 44 No. 9 · 12 May 2022

Richard Sanger gives an excellent account of the trucker protests in Ottawa, which were under-reported both in the US and the UK (LRB, 21 April). Yes, Fox News was on hand in the snowy streets, but its dispatches were tendentious and unhelpful. I know this because, proud of my Quebecois ancestry and always curious about Canada, I visited Ottawa in February to observe the efforts of this odd bunch, in their attempted vastation with big scary trucks and ominous signs. Sanger rightly notes the bouncy castles, Confederate flags, the small-town stoners and the ‘born-again Prairie Christians’. But he missed the many posted notecards and letters of support from provincial schoolchildren and the woman carrying a sign saying ‘Jeffrey Epstein Raped Me,’ the man playing bongos inside his old car parked front and centre of the protest, and – a singular omission – the song being blared day and night from the sound stage, ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’. This tune (by the band Twisted Sister) is the anthem at most Trump rallies and it roused the truckers, who sang along. When a policeman threatened to arrest me for loitering, I said: ‘But this thing is historic.’ His polite reply was: ‘I don’t disagree with you, sir.’ It took the snowstorm Sanger mentions to send me back to Hawaii.

What made this episode peculiarly shocking to the country at large is the fact that Canadians often define themselves by describing how they aren’t anything like Americans.

Paul Theroux
Hale‘iwa, Hawaii

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