In recent weeks, a convoy of truck drivers from across Canada began arriving en masse in Ottawa. The “Freedom Convoy” traveled to the Canadian capital to protest new vaccination requirements for essential workers crossing the U.S.-Canada land border. The convoy has amassed significant support; its (now removed) GoFundMe raised more than $10 million (CAD) and it has been celebrated by several center-right and right-wing public figures, including Elon Musk, Joe Rogan and former president Donald Trump. The Freedom Convoy now touts itself as an “Anti ALL MANDATES Movement,” desiring to remove all public health mandates.
While the convoy’s supporters have characterized the protest as a peaceful movement, uninformed by “politics, race, religion, or any personal beliefs,” many supporters have been associated with or expressed racist, Islamophobic and white-supremacist views. When Tucker Carlson of Fox News interviewed Benjamin J. Dichter, cementing his place among the movement’s leaders, Dichter rambled and likened Canada’s western provinces to “a third-world country,” due, presumably, to immigration. In Ottawa, various reports captured maskless protesters brandishing Confederate, Nazi and “Trump 2024” flags. Police have launched dozens of criminal investigations and made at least 20 arrests, including for carrying weapons in a public place and assault.
The convoy has surprised onlookers in the United States and Canada, both because of the explicitly racist and violent perspectives of some of the organizers and because the action seems to violate norms of Canadian “politeness.” But the convoy represents the extension of a strain of Canadian history that has long masked itself behind “peacefulness” or “unity”: settler colonialism. It is not incidental that this latest expression of white supremacy is emerging amid a public health crisis. The history of Canadian settler colonialism and public health demonstrates how both overt white-supremacist claims and seemingly more inert nationalistic claims about “unity” and “freedom” both enable and erase ongoing harm to marginalized communities.
Canada, like the United States, has its origins in a settler colonial project. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, French and British families and soldiers began arriving along the east coast of the northern regions of “Turtle Island,” a name used by the Lenape and Haudenosaunee, with other Indigenous nations, to refer to North America. The settlement of Europeans rested on what historian Patrick Wolfe called a “logic of elimination” where Indigenous peoples were displaced or assimilated through genocidal policies.
In mid-18th century Nova Scotia, for example, Gov. Edward Cornwallis established an extirpation proclamation that commanded “all Officers Civil and Military, and all His Majesty’s Subjects or others to annoy, distress, take, or destroy the Savage” Mi’kmaq.
Through the establishment and amendment of federal policies, the Canadian state weaponized medicine, public health and science in support of settler colonial aims.