Explained: the ‘Freedom Convoy’ and crisis in the Conservative Party

In the news recently, there have been two major stories: the ‘Freedom Convoy’ —a large (or so they lead you to think, but that’s been fact-checked) group of pan-America truckers in staunch opposition to vaccine mandates between Canada and the States — and an internal identity and leadership crisis in Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the Conservative Party of Canada, ultimately ending in the ousting of Erin O’Toole on February 2 after a decisive caucus vote. With these two situations, both of which have made the top of the news cycle in the past week, the right-wing of Canada finds itself at a point of maximum public strength but maximum political weakness; these two are evidently contradictory, and to explain them is challenging for there is a complex web of recent history, virology and political ideology that lead to the climaxes of both scenes and intertwine the separate events.

The root cause of the outrage

On Wednesday, January 14, the Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA) announced that the country’s truck drivers would be exempt from the mandate to make up for supply chain issues; however, a press release from three Cabinet ministers — Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, and Health Minister Jean Yves-Duclos — said the exemption was announced “in error,” leading to confusion amongst truckers, border employees, other politicians, businesses, and more. NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach handily criticized the government for creating confusion and wasting time that could have been better spent preparing for the changes.

Over the next two days, it was revealed that the announcement was indeed in error and that, in effect immediately, unvaccinated truckers entering Canada must test and quarantine; the Canadian Trucking Association estimated the number of those impacted as being around 12,000 to 22,000, or ten to twenty percent of the trucking population. The Biden administration also announced a mandate starting January 22, fought against by the nation’s own trucking organization, which joined with their northern counterpart to call for the removal of the mandates for economic reasons.

Vaccine passports are a relatively new thing to developed countries, and arose from the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to stop the spread, lower cases, lower hospitalizations, and attempt to eradicate deaths. It also serves as a way to prevent mutations of the virus (‘variants’) from reaching countries that are not the origin, although this often fails. COVID passes are incomparable in their widespread use to medical passports for those traveling to Africa and countries with yellow fever, Ebola, or other severe risks. These documents of proof seem to be much more intrusive in one’s daily life, with it limiting healthcare, entertainment, and abilities to attend indoor gatherings. To some, this is a blatant and heinous disregard for civil liberties.

Vaccine mandates enjoy strong support from the Canadian public, with the backing being highest for those working in long-term care homes, those going on international trips, those who work in healthcare, and employees of — or representatives in — the federal government, all of which have 75–85% approval. Surprisingly, even roughly half of the populus agree with requiring proof of vaccination for those under the age of five who are not exempt.

According to Prime Minister Trudeau, 90% of Canadian truckers are already vaccinated, and Alghabra states that despite the mandate, the numbers flowing into Canada remain the same and is on par with the general average for this time of the year. That 10%, however, are not taking this incursion on their rights lightly.

Video of House of Commons where Trudeau alleges that 90% of Canadian truckers are vaccinated

Before January of 2022, there still was — and continues to be — an unrelated growing disdain among the right-wing in Canada in response to restrictions imposed because of the spread of COVID-19, including limiting or banning indoor gatherings, closing nightclubs and restaurants, and setting barriers on who you are allowed to go and see, even if the Premiers putting the restrictions in place are themselves conservative; they have seen their support and VI plummet a decent amount since, amongst heightened political disagreements. The pandemic and ‘Charter rights’ played a big role in the 2021 election and the increased popular vote support for the right-wing to far-right People’s Party of Canada. The growing support for this kind of populism and quasi-extremist politics has played into the protest against measures, and also against the Trudeau government in general.

The initial journey, secondary gatherings, and the Sweetgrass — Coutts blockade

Around January 26th, truckers set off from Delta, B.C. and other parts of Vancouver, for a rather astounding 4,500km (2,800mi) trip toward Wellington Street, Ottawa, where Parliament Hill — the meeting place of the federal legislature — lies. From there, many truckers and regular passenger-car protestors from Alberta, Yukon, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Eastern Ontario tagged along at the back, with many onlookers stationed on highway overpasses and behind emergency shoulder barriers, cheering them and their cause on. There was a smaller but still notable amount of truckers forming a convoy to the same destination from Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.

On the same day that the convoy was at its strongest point, Trudeau infuriated the Ottawa-headed haulers by saying this, fuelling their hatred for him and speaking against their freedom of assembly and opinion on this particular political notion:

“The small fringe minority of people who are on their way to Ottawa who are holding unacceptable views that they are expressing do not represent the views of Canadians who have been there for each other, who know that following the science and stepping up to protect each other is the best way to continue to ensure our freedoms, our rights, our values, as a country.”

There were reports that there were 50,000 trucks involved in a convoy of around seventy kilometers — figures often touted by ardent supporters of the protests — but that was swiftly corrected by fact-checking outlets and journalists from well-known (and unpartisan) sources who brought to light the severely underwhelming numbers in comparison to the ample media coverage. Adrian Ghobrial of CityNews stated, ‘you’d be hard-pressed to find 100 trucks’ in the northern Toronto district of Vaughan Mills. Only slightly more promising numbers were seen in Thunder Bay, Ontario, as around 113 truckers continued the 1,500km journey to the capital.

8,000 to 15,000 people converged on the capital on Saturday, January 29, after three-or-so days of traveling, even under an extreme cold warning. Numbers slowly dwindled during the weekdays, although “highly determined and highly volatile … unlawful individuals,” as described by the Ottawa Police, persisted in their hundreds. Numbers are expected to peak this weekend of the 5th and 6th. Some of these trukers say they will stay until Prime Minister Trudeau resigns.

This isn’t the end of it; Trudeau and Alghabra — who called demands ‘quite unreasonable’ — have refused to meet requests, with protests currently persisting into a second week, all while new protests pop up across Canada (plus solidarity protests abroad). Freedom Convoy truckers will descend on Toronto — where Mayor Tory says he is bracing for impact, and healthcare bosses are asking employees to consider not dressing in a way that identifies them as workers of that sector— and have already descended on Winnipeg, M.B., where four people were injured when a driver plowed through a crowd in front of what seems to be the Manitoban Legislature, subsequently chased by protesters with Canadian flags in-hand. The video is circulating online.

As if these active demonstrations weren’t enough, a hundred anti-vaccine mandate protesters have been blocking the Sweetgrass — Coutts Border Crossing since January 29, blocking fifty civilian vehicles from exiting the blockade and preventing any exit or entry to emergency vehicles who require access to the village of Coutts; the point serves as the most important crossing for the Albertan meat industry, and its closure is critical for the functioning of that sector and the provincial economy. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were originally in the process of negotiating a break-up, but attempts broke on February 1, in which violence has occurred since, alongside head-on collisions caused by truckers driving in the opposite lanes of traffic to avoid RCMP capture. Premier Jason Kenney has threatened their arrest under the Critical Infrastructure Defense Act.

Extremism, vandalism, and impact

After reading this article, I suggest you read this long thread, which goes into far more detail about specific scenes during the rally than I ever could:

Although there is no doubt that there are reasonable and calm protesters just wanting to get their voice across, there are people to take it too far, including (as aforementioned) the far-right supporters of the People’s Party of Canada. Two of the most publicized incidents were the defacing of the statue of Terry Fox, and dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These incidents come amongst a flurry of swastikas, Nazi flags, and Canada flags turned upside-down, an unbearable amount of horn-blaring, alleged defecations on front lawns, and urinations on the National War Memorial, stealing food from the homeless, and more.

Terry Fox was a marathon runner, humanitarian and activist, and is one of the most well-known Canadians for his ‘Marathon of Hope’. He, as an amputee, attempted a cross-Canada run from St. John’s in the east to British Columbia in the west to raise money for cancer research, but was forced to stop in Thunder Bay after his own cancer reached his lungs. He ran a total of 5,373km (3,339mi). After his death, he was posthumously venerated in countless ways, including having buildings, roads, and statues named after him. A statue of him stands on the direct opposite side of Wellington Street from Parliament Hill and the Centennial Flame. Instead of respecting his legacy, Freedom Convoy protesters draped him in flags, caps and signs bearing ‘Mandate Freedom’, ‘He will not divide Canada’, and ‘My body, my choice’. When these were removed by police, they were put back up immediately.

“He’s our city’s hero, national inspiration and an unifier. [sic] Whatever your cause, you don’t get to appropriate his legacy and you don’t touch his statue. Ever.” — Mayor of Port Coquitlam, B.C.

Secondly, protesters were seen sickeningly dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which serves as a memorial to Canadian soldiers who died in battle and were never identified. It also serves as the place of death of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was shot twice in a terror attack in 2014 which saw a gunman enter the Parliament Building in an attempt to assassinate politicians, before being killed by RCMP Constable Curtis Barrett and House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers.

General Wayne Eyre, Chief of Defense Staff; Anita Anand, Defence Minister in government, and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, all strongly condemned this, amongst the President of the Canadian Legion, Bruce Julian, and several presidents of vehicle and truck associations:

“Generations of Canadians have fought and died for our rights, including free speech, but not this. Those involved should hang their heads in shame.” — Eyre

“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and National War Memorial are sacred sites for our country. I urge all Canadians to treat them with solemnity, out of respect for those who have fought and died for Canada. The behavior we’re seeing today is beyond reprehensible.” — Anand

“This kind of behavior sets back any positive movements or support that this rally might have.” — Watson

“They jumped on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and parked vehicles on the surrounding grounds. This sacred memorial site commemorates those who fought and fell for the very freedoms that allow people in Canada the right to protest peacefully. We are dismayed and saddened by this overt lack of respect.” — Julian

Far-right protesters additionally flew (and continue to fly) extremist symbols, one of which appeared in the background of a CBC interview with St. Albert — Edmonton MP Michael Cooper, who had come to congratulate and back up the truckers in their cause against the mandate and against Trudeau. Many signs have also been seen which read ‘Treason Trudeau’ or words alike, which accuse the Prime Minister of being seditious and Machiavellian, alongside his Liberal Party colleagues who are also receiving similar missives.

Shepherds of Good Hope, a homeless charity in Ottawa, have also been under immense struggles and pressure thanks to the convoy protesters, with people living under their care being assaulted and truckers demanding free food from them in a long-lasting and tiring altercation which was described as ‘mob-like’. Unattended trucks, left running, were ditched in front of their building, which limited access to emergency services and made it harder to reach people who required help or were overdosing. The CEO stated that this behavior could have cost the charity multiple lives, but it is pleasing to say that there have not been any reported deaths yet. Alongside this, the blaring horns make general life in Ottawa hell; even videos of interviews with politicians outside the meeting place of the House of Commons are completely drowned out by them.

Please consider donating to the Shepherds of Good Hope.

This wouldn’t be complete without mentioning a certain legislator. Randy Hillier is the MPP for the Ontarian provincial riding of Lanark — Frontenac — Kingston, and was elected in his post in 2007 as a Progressive Conservative until his removal from the party in 2019. He was suspended for walking out of a community question period dominated by questions about autism, saying, “Yada, yada, yada,” which he says was directed at a New Democratic Party MPP. He leads the unofficial and unregistered Ontario wing of the People’s Party — ‘Ontario First’. Given this, it’s easy to assume that he is against vaccines and restrictions — and of course, he is. But the extent he disagrees with the mandates and all is quite unparalleled and sickening: through Twitter, he, an elected politician, used language signaling full support for insurrection on Parliament Hill in a similar way to what Trumpist Americans did on January 6th, 2021, to the U.S. Capitol. Reporting it didn’t work (so much for preventing violence). For context, those barriers have been there since the 2014 terror attack.

When it comes to the three hundred and thirty-eight of those in the House of Commons representing all Canadians, things appear to be much tamer than supporting the invasion of the Centre Block, but there is still silence on the extremist symbols. The Conservative Party is quite visibly split between supporters of the protests but not the extremists, and supporters of the truckers but refusing to comment on the symbols, passing them as ‘freedom of speech’. As many as forty Conservative MPs are still to speak out against the Nazi flags.

Even Elon Musk decided to join in with the online effort.

Liberals and New Democrats are staunchly against both the protest as a physical demonstration and its root cause with many ministers holding their ground and saying that ‘Vaccines are the only way out of the pandemic’ and ‘90% of truckers are already vaccinated’ — including Trudeau, Alghabra, Mendicino, Freeland, Singh, and many backbenchers. Suggests that the military could be called in have been touted, but it’s “not in the cards right now,” says the Prime Minister, an action which could mirror his father’s use of the War Measures Act in 1970 to quell separatist movements.

Erin O’Toole’s sudden departure

Everyone knew from the day of the 2021 election that Erin O’Toole’s days as the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada were numbered, with him failing to defeat a Prime Minister who has faced various scandals and visits to the nation’s Ethics Commissioner Office. But it all came quite suddenly: on the morning of February 2, Mr. O’Toole found himself fighting for his political life as a vote of no confidence was brought against him in his own caucus. He had been roundly criticized in the past for flip-flopping on issues, including carbon taxes and — indeed — the Freedom Convoy protests, and despite winning the popular vote, he was more than forty seats short of beating Trudeau in any manner. The protest response pushed the line for many MPs.

Subsequently, he lost that vote, 73 to 45, and his resignation came into effect immediately. Elected in his place as interim CPC leader and interim Opposition Leader was Candice Bergen, who served as the party’s deputy head. Her first spar in the House of Commons in her new role was against Finance Minister and DPM Chrystia Freeland over truckers, something O’Toole was light on speaking about. She is one of the party’s strongest voices, amongst Michelle Rempel-Garner, Pierre Poilievre and Gérard Deltell.

Via parlvu.parl.gc.ca

Hence, the CPC will be picking its fourth permanent leader since 2015, after Harper failed to win re-election against Trudeau, Scheer against Trudeau in 2019, and O’Toole against him in 2021. This instability has been the source of some mockery from the Liberal Party, although it is important to point that they suffered a similar problem from 2006–2015 with Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.

It seems that the pre-2003 split of a Progressive Conservative (red tory) faction and a Reform (right-wing) faction has prospered as a new divide within the party under O’Toole, with some seeing him as subtly pandering to the further-right and some seeing him as being a ‘copy-cat’ Trudeau or ‘Liberal in disguise’. It’s for this reason that some are foreshadowing a split back to the two old parties only twenty years after the Conservative Party of Canada was founded, but that is unlikely for the moment being. Such a split would likely make the Liberals more successful.

The next leadership election will likely be based around two major topics: the economy, and partisan unity. While it is too soon to know who all the candidates are, what the rules will be, or when it will be, the long-presumed front-runner in any future Conservative leadership race — Pierre Poilievre, the party’s finance critic — announced his candidacy on Twitter on February 5, the first person to do so, advertising it as a direct bid for Trudeau’s job. It is also certainly too early to say whether he will.

The time will tell to see if the Conservative Party becomes re-united under Poilievre or another new leader, or whether it will crumble further into the political cracks, thanks to the convoy or other political affairs.

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British political journalist, Labour member, and NDP supporter, who is staunchly obsessed with Canada and its politics. twitter.com/krissiepolcom

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Krissie

Krissie

British political journalist, Labour member, and NDP supporter, who is staunchly obsessed with Canada and its politics. twitter.com/krissiepolcom

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