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Behind Canada's trucker protest, disruptions and divides

Published : Feb 11, 2022 19:35 IST T+T-
Police say Ottawa is 'under siege' amid the trucker convoy occupation.

Police say Ottawa is 'under siege' amid the trucker convoy occupation.

The convoy has spread to United States border crossings and inspired copycat demonstrations around the world.

For nearly two weeks, Canada's unassuming capital city has been occupied by a convoy of unruly protesters who oppose the country's COVID-19 measures. At the end of January and in frigid temperatures, horn-blaring demonstrators rolled into town and set up camp, parking their trucks and cars across Ottawa's downtown core, disrupting traffic, shuttering businesses, and harassing and intimidating residents.

Now, "Freedom Convoy" protests have spread beyond Ottawa, blocking traffic and disrupting trade at the busiest border crossing in North America.The protest movement has become a global rallying point for opponents of pandemic restrictions, inspiring copycat demonstrations in the U.S., France, Australia and New Zealand. In the meantime, Ottawa's mayor on February 6 declared a state of emergency — and police, outnumbered by protesters, have characterized the occupation as a "siege." But how did we get here?

Opposition to vaccine mandates

The "Freedom Convoy" originated late January in response to new coronavirus vaccine mandates for cross-border truck drivers imposed by Canada and the U.S. While roughly 90 per cent of cross-border truckers are vaccinated, there is a small minority who fear losing their jobs or livelihoods over their unvaccinated status.

The truckers' convoy quickly morphed into a broader crusade against pandemic restrictions and other far-right grievances. Some of the convoy's organizers — prominent far-right figures — have espoused Islamophobic or white nationalist rhetoric in the past. Though over 80 per cent of Canadians are vaccinated, and polls show that a broad majority of Canadians support COVID-19 measures, that support has been slipping in recent weeks. Hundreds of cars and trucks joined the convoy as it traveled across Canada, arriving in Ottawa on January 28.

Far-right links

Some protesters have been seen wearing Nazi symbols and waving racist flags. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed those protesters as a "small fringe minority." But experts say there are "overt links" between the trucker convoy protest and an international coalition of far-right extremism. A GoFundMe campaign for the convoy raised $7.6 million (€6.65 million) before it was shut down (and the donations refunded). "A great deal of that was anonymous and clearly funded by American far-right actors," says David Hofmann, an associate sociology professor at the University of New Brunswick who studies far-right groups. As well, social media accounts are used to "feed far-right echo chambers, to make people think that the far-right elements of the truckers' convoy are more numerous and louder than they actually are," said Hofmann.

Fears for safety

Natalie Lyle said she hasn't felt safe since the convoy arrived. Lyle lives with her family in downtown Ottawa and works at a vaccination clinic at a school. She says she's afraid to leave the house for fear of harassment. "I'm asking myself: Can we go outside? What's going to happen?" But for Lyle, even being inside doesn't feel safe: Protesters have been gathering near her home, and one day she found her building's lock had been tampered with.

When Lyle saw videos of prominent Canadian QAnon figure Romana Didulo — who has called for the execution of anyone helping vaccinate children — at the protest not far from her home burning Canadian flags, she became especially anxious. "Here I am, on the school clinic team, whose goal it is to get children and their families vaccinated," she said. "I started to feel really scared, because there's no security at the school clinics, anyone can just walk in. It could be irrational, but the threat felt very real."

Residents on edge

Residents report the widespread use of fireworks, protesters blocking intersections and abandoning cars and trucks, illegally consuming alcohol on the streets, as well as using snowbanks as toilets. Noise has also been a problem: Convoy protesters were blaring powerful air horns and sirens day and night over a week, preventing residents from sleeping, until a local court granted an injunction. Last week, staff at a local homeless shelter were allegedly verbally abused by protesters who came to the shelter demanding to be served.

Mary Huang, president of the community association in Centretown, one of the neighborhoods affected, says members are being abused and attacked for wearing masks. "A local ice cream shop had a staff member assaulted and pushed to the ground because he was wearing a mask," Huang said. It was not clear whether the attacker was part of the "Freedom Convoy" protests. The organization has set up a "safe walk home" service and grocery delivery assistance for vulnerable members who are afraid to leave the house for fear of abuse.

Businesses hurting

Thousands of people live in downtown Ottawa and the area is home to hundreds of businesses. Forty-eight percent of businesses in the downtown core closed before or during the protest, and 76 per cent of the businesses surveyed have said the protest has hurt their business financially, according to a survey by a coalition of local business associations.

Stewart Cattroll owns a restaurant in the downtown core. He says he's had to implement safety measures for staff. "Many protesters refuse to wear masks and will yell at the staff and other customers and demand that they remove their masks," he says. Cattroll says the restaurant is down thousands of dollars due to the disruptions caused by the convoy. "Given the already precarious state of the business as a result of two years of the pandemic, the convoy may be what forces us to permanently close our doors."

Residents are increasingly frustrated at the inability of the city police, and any level of government, to solve the problem. "The local police so far have made very little effort to arrest protesters, to enforce Ottawa's traffic laws, and demand that the protesters reopen Ottawa's streets," Cattroll says.

Convoy dividing Canadians

Though a recent poll showed that the majority of Canadians support imposing more restrictions on the unvaccinated, the "Freedom Convoy" has garnered support from nearly a third of the population. Canada Unity was founded by James Bauder, a self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist and QAnon movement adherent. Many of the organizers have connections to fringe right-wing groups.

Yet some protesters say those causing trouble on Parliament Hill are in the minority. Betty Lee McGillis lives in Aylmer, Quebec, part of the National Capital Region. She brought her grandchildren downtown over the weekend to participate in the protest, and says she had a positive experience on Parliament Hill. In Quebec, vaccine passports are required to access most nonessential services. McGillis says vaccine mandates like this are segregating society. "Those horns and those disruptions are a small price to pay to win back the freedoms our forefathers fought for on the battlefield," says McGillis. "We want to leave Canada the kind of Canada we grew up with."

No signs of slowing

Police on January 9 issued a fresh threat that they would arrest protesters who shut down Ottawa's downtown core. The police force is also calling for 1,800 officers in reinforcements from provincial and federal levels. Earlier this week, police said they had made 22 arrests, issued more than 1,300 tickets and were investigating 79 open criminal probes.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to defend the COVID-19 restrictions in the face of the convoy and lambast the protest movement. The prime minister warned that the blockades at border crossings — including at the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, which carries 25 per cent of all trade between the two countries — are threatening Canada's economic recovery. "Blockades, illegal demonstrations are unacceptable, and are negatively impacting businesses and manufacturers," Trudeau said in the House of Commons. "We must do everything to bring them to an end."