The Paranoid Style Comes to Canadian PoliticsBreaking News
tags: far right, Canada, Protest, COVID-19
ERIC MERKLEY is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto.
For the last three weeks, Canada’s capital has been occupied by a swarm of angry truckers and anti-vaccine protesters. This self-styled “freedom convoy” has intimidated Ottawa’s pedestrians, kept its residents awake at night with incessant horn honking, and forced many of its businesses to shutter. Elsewhere in the country, demonstrators used their vehicles to successfully blockade important border crossings, most notably the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit, Michigan, to Windsor, Ontario. They have forced the mayor of Ottawa, the premier of Ontario, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to declare emergencies. The protests are, in short, perhaps the strongest challenge to the rule of law Canada has faced in the last four decades.
The convoy protests were initially motivated by opposition to vaccine mandates imposed on the trucking industry, but they quickly began targeting a wider range of COVID-19 restrictions. Even more troubling, the protesters have also embraced a stridently antigovernment, far-right agenda. Some have waved Nazi symbols and Confederate flags, called for the arrest of political figures, and threatened violence. Leaders have demanded the overthrow of Canada’s democratically elected government in favor of a convoy-led coalition. It is not hard to see shades of the United States’ January 6 insurrection.
These protests do not have as much popular support as did the January 6 riots, and it is highly unlikely that they will be able to inflict the same degree of literal or institutional damage. Polling shows that three quarters of Canadians want the demonstrators to go home, and 68 percent support using the military to clear out the protests. (An overwhelming majority of Canadians, including more than 80 percent of self-identified Conservative Party voters and some 90 percent of truckers, are vaccinated against COVID-19.) But even if they are in the minority, millions of voters support the convoy, and the Conservative Party—the main opposition party—appears keenly interested in winning them over. As a result, many Conservative members of parliament have enthusiastically supported the protesters, including their party’s interim leader and the front-runner to replace her as permanent leader.
Over the last two decades, many democracies have struggled with rising political tensions, growing divisions, and successful illiberal movements. Not Canada. Unlike the United States, it does not exhibit strong patterns of “social polarization”—where partisan tribes are increasingly divided by race, religion, and other deeply held identities. Most Canadians do not wall themselves off from their political opponents, and there are few signs that they are becoming more extreme in their beliefs. India, the United States, and most of Europe have been hit by aggressive, powerful anti-immigrant movements, but Canadians remain broadly welcoming. The country’s residents are not open to undermining core democratic institutions in the pursuit of political power, and they broadly trust experts. Large majorities of Canadians continue to support restrictions and vaccine mandates to fight COVID-19, and 67 percent want further constraints imposed on the unvaccinated, whom they blame for prolonging the pandemic. The convoy protests are not tapping into a far-right zeitgeist.
But Canada is not free of nativists or other right-wing radicals, and they are making inroads in the Conservative Party.