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Opinion Canada must confront the toxic ‘Freedom Convoy’ head-on

People gather to support truck drivers on their way to Ottawa to protest coronavirus vaccine mandates for cross-border truck drivers, in Toronto on Jan. 27. (REUTERS/Carlos Osorio)

Long lines of truckers, calling themselves the “Freedom Convoy,” are headed across Canada to Ottawa from the West and from the East. Estimates of the size of the convoy vary. I won’t estimate. Bigger than a breadbasket, smaller than Hadrian’s Wall. Hundreds of trucks and personal vehicles, by some estimates.

Those taking part are on their way, ostensibly, to protest pandemic measures, including vaccine mandates for truckers, but that’s just the tip of the spear. The leadership of the group is promising to remain peaceful, but the convoy is made up of many individuals and far-right groups that have embraced the convoy as a Canadian version of the Jan. 6 rioting in the United States. The movement shares an affinity with Trumpist toxic authoritarianist politics. Indeed, the convoy has received attention from Donald Trump Jr. Police and security services are preparing for the worst as experts express concern about the online vitriol and journalists covering the convoy are harassed.

Time and time again we learn the lesson, or at least come across it, that teaches us that rage-soaked antigovernment types can’t be reasoned with. This time around, the convoy has produced an incoherent “memorandum of understanding” premised upon a misunderstanding of government and absurd demands. Of course, the memo should be ignored. It’s the product of a temper tantrum. But doing nothing is a risky, suboptimal strategy.

The convoy is, by and large, a fringe group — an unfortunate minority in which a further minority of insidious extremists lurk. They are bolstered by support from Conservative politicians and certain blustery media voices. They are driven by a generalized rage, misplaced anger about supply chain challenges and antigovernment sentiment. The lot of them, even as a national fringe, pose an outsize problem. They’re too big to ignore and too unreasonable to placate insofar as they represent a broader challenge. Either way, we shouldn’t ignore or placate them. Rather, the convoy and its supporters must be met with a counter-movement that refuses to give them an inch but, instead, focuses national, sub-national and local efforts on true threats to liberty, which do exist.

These types of groups are typically driven by attitudes, grievances and priorities of such a nature that they pose a particular risk to racialized folks and other groups that are traditionally the target of hate and violence. I’d call the convoy a canary in a coal mine, but the bird is long dead. For instance, we’ve known for some time that online right-wing extremism is on the rise in Canada as hate crimes continue to grow.

Canada’s response to the convoy should be a strict line of resistance that doubles down on, or in certain cases at least introduces, commitments to anti-hate resistance, pandemic supports, vaccine mandates and a media policy of refusing to platform, humanize, or, God forbid, glorify the convoy and its members beyond the bare necessity of speaking to their existence and outlining a program for pushing back.

The convoy speaks of threats to liberty. It would be close to something if the participants weren’t so far off. Threats to liberty are rampant in Canada, but not because of vaccine mandates. Rather, it is income and wealth inequality; worker exploitation; gendered, religious, racialized and other forms of hate violence; ongoing settler colonialism; and other forms of structural marginalization and oppression that compromise liberty. Same as it ever was.

The “Freedom Convoy” is a regrettable movement that offers a reminder that open societies will produce protest movements — as they should. However, when those movements are toxic, they must be denounced and resisted. In their place, we should adopt a politics of liberation that takes up more space and offers solutions to structural problems by remaking our institutions to ensure that they are fully inclusive, both morally and, just as importantly, materially.