Editor’s Note: Andrew Cohen is a journalist, a professor at Carleton University, and author of “Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
For days, the army of truckers and their disciples has been honking, marching, demanding and posturing. The “Freedom Convoy” has come to this sleepy capital to protest a mandate that requires truckers entering the country to be vaccinated or comply with testing and quarantine requirements.
At first blush, their protest feels American. Some wave banners emblazoned with “Make Canada great again,” “F–k Trudeau,” or “Trump 2024.” Others carried a Confederate battle flag. They shout “freedom,” while authorities fear chaos and send the prime minister and his family to “an undisclosed location,” much like the Secret Service hid Vice President Dick Cheney on September 11, 2001.
This protest has been celebrated by some in the United States, perhaps in the hope that revolution is flowering in frozen Canada. Among the vocal are Tesla CEO Elon Musk and former President Donald Trump. American truckers are said to be inspired to plan their own mobilized march in Washington, DC.
That conservatives in the United States are moved by a protest in Canada – that they even notice Canada – likely emboldens the Canadian truckers. After all, to fabulists such as broadcaster Tucker Carlson, Canada has become a dark, surveillance state led by “no more fearful despot in the world than Justin Trudeau.” O Canada! Truckers are your salvation!
Carlson, Trump and Musk see something monumental here. They’re wrong. Whatever the facile comparisons, familiar symbols and fearful words, this Canadian protest isn’t a grassroots revolt or even a Prairie brushfire. More likely, it’s a winter carnival, ephemeral, a flaring of anger – and one that is very, very Canadian.
Forget comparisons to January 6, 2021. The thousands of protesters here – police estimates on the weekend were 5,000 to 18,000 people, far short of the boasts of 50,000 trucks that organizers had claimed – are not just white, male and Christian. According to reports, they are of mixed ethnicity, a reflection of a heterogenous Canada, which admitted more than 1% of its population in immigrants last year.
A reporter roaming the crowd on Parliament Hill described a “festive” mood – not just a gnarled, baying brigade of old-stock Canadians lugging a catalogue of grievance. She noted breathlessly that the leaders include a Jewish and an Indigenous Canadian.
What unites them is their opposition to lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates. Some, she found, distanced themselves from the more militant truckers who oppose vaccination outright, spread misinformation and traffic in hatred. Some 90% of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, and their umbrella association has disowned the protestors.
The reality is the truckers live in a country that is among the most highly vaccinated in the industrialized world. Canadians have embraced restrictive measures – wearing masks, closing schools, shops, gyms, offices – their governments have imposed, particularly measures targeting the unvaccinated. In Quebec, the most aggressive jurisdiction on the pandemic, which threatened (but this week dropped) a plan to tax the unvaccinated, the provincial government is popular.
The reason Canadians generally obey their government is not because we are “better people,” as one Canadian mocks his country’s penchant for sanctimony. We do it because we are prudent, cautious and moderate, given to compromise and accommodation, sometimes to a fault. Canada is a progressive place of little social unrest where issues that remain contentious in the US – abortion, same-sex rights, voting rights, immigration – are settled.
The national consensus prefers a loss of liberty over a loss of life. As a society, Canada is less willing to accept the staggering number of deaths from the virus as the United States (which has some three times those in Canada, adjusted for differences in population).
Among the protesters in Ottawa, there were certainly bad people, as Trump would say. Some carried a swastika. Some danced on the War Memorial. Many urinated everywhere. And as professor Josh Greenberg incisively argues, the absence of violence does not make this peaceful. The protestors are intimidating and unsettling by their presence alone.
But there are no guns, no nooses, no body armor. No incidents, assaults, or fisticuffs. Vulgarity, yes, cacophony, yes, and a volley of taunts and threats from the many tribunes of the far right who have joined the parade.
If there has been no bloodshed it is perhaps because those with other opinions have stayed away (a counter-demonstration by pro-vaccination activists was canceled) and the authorities have stood by. “Please leave,” politicians implore, politely. Call this Canadian nice.
Astonishingly, though, there have been no fines. No deadlines. No ultimatums or restrictions. The officials ask but do not act, frustrated residents complain but do not march, the protestors shrug and do not leave (at least not all of them).
Meanwhile, roads are blocked and many businesses downtown are closed. The parliamentary precinct is paralyzed and so is the political class.
Canadians, once said to defer instinctively to authority, now accept an absence of it. The city will not ticket trucks clogging roads because it may anger them. It will not impose a curfew or ban. The police talk about “de-escalating” and congratulate themselves that there has been no death or destruction.
With this laissez-faire strategy, the protesters might well occupy Ottawa, as they threaten, for months. But they will persuade few. They have little currency in a country where freedom matters less than order.
In fact, had freedom been so fundamental, Canadians would have elected the right-wing People’s Party promising it last year. Instead, they re-elected Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, who denounce the mob.
The worst of the protesters may be deplorables, but they are our deplorables, peculiarly and certifiably Canadian. As long as they are not stopped by the police, tolerated by the public and ignored by lawmakers, they will be free to sit on the sidewalk, sleep in the cold and honk into the wind.