It seemed a classically Canadian moment in a scene otherwise torn from the book of Trump America.
Between the intersection transformed into a mosh pit and the graceful Parliament buildings cluttered with “fake news,” “the Great Resist” and “Covid red pill” signs, a middle-aged man named Johnny Rowe perched on a median last weekend with an amplifier and a simple greeting.
“Welcome to Ottawa,” he called out to the hordes streaming down the middle of the street, many hollering “freedom.” “Thank you for coming.”
If the outside world is baffled by the scenes unfolding in the streets of Canada, they are hardly alone. Many Canadians, too, are dumbfounded, perhaps none more so than the government officials who have stood by largely slack-jawed as giant trucks stake out ground in the normally placid capital, shaking and honking at night as people cheer and dance, neighbors be damned.
The pervasive slogan, scrawled across trucks, hats, shirt and flags, is an epithet startlingly vulgar by Canadian standards that urges Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to go away. Some say he should be not just deposed but imprisoned over the vaccine regulations governments in Canada have passed.
It all seemed a rebuff to the cherished mythology imposed on its citizens from abroad and held by many Canadians themselves as moderate, rule-following, levelheaded — and just plain nice.
“It feels like a national nervous breakdown,” said Susan Delacourt, a veteran Canadian political columnist from Ottawa who like many of her fellow citizens is wondering what exactly is happening to her country right now.
On Monday, there were some signs of easing tensions.
Traffic resumed over the Ambassador Bridge, a major international route blockaded for a week, and officials announced that they were lifting some contentious vaccine pass requirements. But the government also invoked the Emergencies Act to end the protests, and in Alberta the police arrested 11 people and seized a large cache of weapons.
Is Canada witnessing the birth of a political alt-right? Is it a pandemic-induced tantrum that, once exhausted, will curl itself asleep, leaving behind a country bewildered but essentially unchanged? Or could it be, as some argue, that the so-called freedom convoy is not an aberration at all but a mirror to an integral part of the country that doesn’t fit the stereotype, and so is ignored?
Over the past two years of public health crisis, Canadians have followed their classic playbook. Even right-leaning provincial governments dutifully took their lead, for the most part, from public health experts, passing strict pandemic rules that citizens then followed.
While there have been some mask protests, more outrage was directed at local governments for not doing more to protect their citizens, and at politicians who broke the rules. Wearing a mask, and getting the vaccine, was deemed a basic act of civic solidarity. Canada has one of the highest rates in the world, with more than 83% of the population over the age of 5 having received at least two vaccine doses.
“Let’s take care of each other in this time of need, Canada,” Trudeau tweeted in March 2020, days after his wife showed symptoms and he became the first G7 leader to self-isolate. “Because that’s really who we are.”
Maybe it is because Canada, unlike the neighbor that overshadows it, was born not from revolution but from negotiation that its approach to rebellion now seems more than a little unconventional, even quirky. But one thing is clear: The members of the so-called freedom convoy are not bellowing “compromise” or “care for one another.”
The streets of downtown Ottawa echo with chants and slogans steeped in the language of the American Revolution, right down to the Don’t Tread on Me pennants. “Freedom,” yells a man in a red mask waving a Canadian flag. “Freedom,” comes the ardent reply. Though the flag, it should be noted, was held aloft in a quintessentially Canadian fashion, attached to a hockey stick.
The repeated invocation of liberty is just one reason — along with the American, Confederate and Trump flags spotted in the mix — many believe the unrest is essentially a U.S. import.
For two years, Canadians have been largely stuck at home, and many have spent more time in front of the screen than ever. As they did, they absorbed the American culture war being played out from Fox News to Breitbart, and Trumpian ideas took root in Canada, said Gerald Butts, a longtime friend of Trudeau’s and his former top political aide.
It was not just ideas.
Right-wing activists in the United States and elsewhere have lent more than moral support to their new kindred spirits in Canada. They are opening their wallets. At least some of the money that has allowed the protesters to keep their trucks fueled and cover other expenses has flowed in from untraceable sources on crowdfunding platforms and cryptocurrencies.
Canadian political veterans have taken note.
“We ran the longest federal election campaign in history in 2015, and we spent $42 million, right?” said Butts.
By comparison, in just a few weeks, the truckers raised about a quarter of that.
“One of the most concerning things about this movement,” Butts said, “is it’s shown how easy it is to pour millions of dollars of dark money into Canadian politics.”
The question now is how might that play out in the months and years ahead.
Traditionally, Canadian politics is a fight for the center, not for the fringes of the ideological spectrum. Political analysts point out that the far-right People’s Party of Canada, whose leader, Maxime Bernier, is a champion of the trucker protest, did not win a single seat in last year’s parliamentary election.
But, populism isn’t totally alien to the country, points out Janice Stein, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. A populist, the brother of the Ontario Premier Doug Ford, was once mayor of the country’s biggest city, Toronto, and for years, the Reform party rallied around a sense of Western alienation and socially conservative values.
“There’s a worrying tendency in Canada to define everything pushing against our founding myth as an import from the United States,” Stein said. “We have mythologized our niceness: ‘We are not polarized like France and Britain, and the only major democratic country in which the center has held is Canada, and that’s because we’re so nice and so caring to each other.’”
Canadian politics may in fact be more genteel than in many other places, but not because Canadians are innately kinder. That has just become a lot clearer.
“This is a myth-busting moment,” Stein said.
Sooner or later, the trucks will depart, but will the movement the prime minister dismissed as a “small fringe minority” continue to grow? Some have their doubts.
“This is a one-off political expression,” said Paul Summerville, co-author of the book “Reclaiming Populism,” which argues that Canada’s strong socialized medicine and affordable education system has given the country a sense of fairness and equal opportunity, inoculating it against populism.
“People are tired, they are angry,” said Summerville, a former investment banker in Victoria, British Columbia. “This is a very specific moment that has to do with people feeling very uncomfortable for the last two years, because of the pandemic.”
The unrest has infuriated many Ottawa residents, who have led counterprotests against what they view as an intimidating occupation of their city. But they have also drawn huge crowds of supporters, particularly on the weekends, when the downtown has been turned into what feels like a raucous tailgate party, alternative news convention and brewing witch hunt, all at the same time.
Strangers stop for impromptu conversations, hug and beam at one another, smiling widely — which after two years of mask wearing offers an emotional balm. One woman paraded the streets with a sign exhorting people to show her their teeth.
It does not take long to hear stories of personal suffering, and to understand why an ordinarily rule-abiding people might decide that a little rebellion is called for.
“Every single one of these people, has been catastrophically hurt,” said Rowe, the protester, lowering his megaphone for a moment. A Bikram Yoga instructor from the city of Kingston, two hours away, Rowe listed his losses over the past two years, tears brimming in his eyes: his home, his business and half of his retirement savings. And then there was the death of his brother-in-law.
“The suffering has gotten to a level where they have nothing to lose,” he said.
Compared with many countries, Canada was let off easy by COVID, with far fewer deaths per capita than the United States. But it came at a heavy cost.
Restrictions have been heavy and long. Almost two years after the pandemic hit Canada, the country remains in various stages of lockdown, with indoor dining banned in the country’s two largest provinces, Ontario and Quebec, until only recently. Residents of old-age homes were locked in for the better part of a year across the country. Students in Ontario missed more in-class learning than anywhere in North America, local newspapers state.
Recent polls show that most Canadians disagree with the tactics of the so-called freedom convoy, and worry that the country’s democracy is being threatened. But, many feel sympathy for protesters, particularly younger Canadians.
“Imagine storm clouds on horizon,” said Darrell Bricker, chief executive of the polling company Ipsos Public Affairs. “That has to discharge somewhere. This is part of the discharge.”
Among those people watching the scenes unfold in Ottawa is one of the city’s two poet laureates, Albert Dumont. An Algonquin elder, Dumont rejects not just the protesters’ notion of freedom, given its effect on local residents, but the whole idea that Canada was ever particularly nice, or even tolerant.
“My dad didn’t get to vote until 1960 — that’s not long ago,” he said. “There was a time when Canada was ugly and very cruel to Indigenous people.”