Making Sense of Canada's Trucker Protests
Is the so-called 'Freedom Convoy' a rightwing astroturf campaign or just a misguided movement equating pandemic mitigation with oppression? Or both?
What began as a small group of Canadian truckers protesting COVID-19 vaccine mandates has turned into an international cause célèbre, with growing questions about rightwing backing for the so-called “Freedom Convoy.”
The protests, which began in late January against vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers, have snowballed into a broader movement against Canada's pandemic-related measures and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of big-rig truckers and their supporters have jammed key roads, where some protesters defaced national monuments and waved flags featuring swastikas while calling on Trudeau to resign.
So let’s sort through the reality and the political spin. I’ll start by saying that protests and strikes against oppressive systems are unequivocally good things. We cannot simply vote away the ruling class. But is that what’s happening in Canada? Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi says no:
What’s unfolding in Ottawa is not a grassroots protest that has spontaneously erupted out of the frustration of local lorry drivers. Rather, it’s an astroturfed movement – one that creates an impression of widespread grassroots support where little exists – funded by a global network of highly organised far-right groups and amplified by Facebook’s misinformation machine. The drama may be centred in Canada, but what is unfolding has repercussions for us all.
Vanessa Balintec of CBC News explains that “with 90 per cent of truck drivers vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance, the majority of the industry is sitting out the convoy protest.” Balintec adds that issues like driver abuse and wage theft are not being addressed in the protest:
Truckers in Peel Region say the convoy protest that has gripped Ottawa for more than a week isn't addressing the real problems they face — and they're trying to shift the conversation away from COVID-19 vaccine mandates and toward stopping abuse and wage theft in the industry. Attar Sodhi, a 37-year-old Brampton resident and truck driver, says very few of the protesters in Ottawa are South Asians, who make up more than half of the truckers operating in the Greater Toronto Area, according to some estimates.
Writing for Jacobin, Emily Leedham argues that the trucker convoy “is a right-wing, pro-business social movement, purports itself to be the people’s champion of liberty — yet it couldn't care less about the hardships and burdens of its fellow workers.” Leedham explains:
The convoy has received plaudits from the likes of Elon Musk and Jordan Peterson, sympathetic coverage from conservative media, and acclaim from some Canadian members of parliament. … But a closer look at key “Freedom Convoy” participants reveals that many of the concerns of the protesters have little to do with workers’ rights or labor issues within Canada’s trucking industry. In fact, Convoy organizers have previously harassed workers on the picket line and ignored calls for support from racialized truckers fighting against wage theft.
For many of the truckers involved in the protest, this is indeed about “freedom.” But freedom from what? In my view, it is freedom from collective responsibility — freedom from measures that protect vulnerable populations in a deadly pandemic. Listen for yourself:
Adam D.K. King, who holds a PhD in sociology and covers labor issues, sums up the protests as “a ‘revolt’ of petit-bourgeoisie owner-operators, financially backed by wealthy right-wing grifters — not the vast majority of exploited trucking workers.” King questions the motives of the convoy’s backers:
The extent to which this convoy is actually about trucking or truckers is debatable. The network of far-right, wealthy organizers and donors backing the convoy certainly calls claims of authentic connection to working-class truckers into question. The convoy’s two principal organizers are known figures of Canada’s far right. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network draws a range of further connections between the convoy and far-right, racist, and xenophobic extremists.
King’s perspective is echoed on social media:
Whether the trucker protests are a carefully-orchestrated rightwing astroturf campaign or a genuine grassroots movement, the larger cultural and political context is the resistance to pandemic mitigation measures. Millions upon millions of people in North America (and around the world) perceive protection of the vulnerable as an unacceptable inconvenience and an infringement on their rights. They want “freedom” to get infected and to infect others. That view is being mainstreamed by both ruling parties in the U.S. and by ‘legitimate’ media figures.
For more on the mainstreaming of mass death, read Dr. Steven Thrasher: