The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Canada’s trucker protest is inflaming its national anxieties

The Canadian flag is reflected in a wheel hub as anti-vaccine mandate demonstrators gather as a truck convoy blocks the highway in Coutts, Alberta, Canada, on Jan. 31. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP)

Like many Canadians, in the past few days I have been peppered with questions from foreign friends seeking to know why a recent truckers’ protest, which rolled into Ottawa on Friday, has elicited such powerful and often highly emotional reactions from across this country’s political spectrum.

They’re right to sense something is afoot. On television and social media, representatives of both the right and left frequently seem to be on the brink of tears when discussing the event, suggesting that in just a few short days the irate convoy has already achieved a totemic importance in Canadian political culture far exceeding technical debates over what exactly the protesters “want” or whether they represent the interests of the broader Canadian trucker community.

In many ways, the protest feels almost exquisitely designed to inflame every current anxiety in the Canadian psyche.

First, the truckers are elevating the profile and power of Canada’s populist right at a time when their influence within formal politics is at a critical crossroads.

David Moscrop: Canada must confront the toxic ‘Freedom Convoy’ head-on

Canada’s Conservative Party failed in its third attempt to defeat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last September, despite a generally supportive media and a party leader, Erin O’Toole, who embodied a certain Platonic ideal of how an “electable” Tory prime ministerial candidate was supposed to think and behave. Unprecedented poll numbers for the right-wing People’s Party suggested there was some unease with O’Toole’s moderate approach during the campaign; his defeat quickly whetted appetites among the base for something different. The decidedly immoderate truckers, with their “F--- Trudeau” banners, upside-down flags and dystopian rhetoric — not just about the vaccine mandates they are ostensibly protesting, but the supposed drift of Canada into unfreedom more broadly — embody the temptation of the path not taken.

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Some pundits have interpreted the truckers’ emergence as conservative folk heroes as evidence that O’Toole’s leadership, already shaky, is now “unsalvageable,” and that he’ll be forced out to make way for a replacement to his right — probably Pierre Poilievre, a vastly more confident, combative politician who has accordingly become as popular with the truckers as O’Toole is not. For those who have long lived in dread (or hope) that something resembling Trump-style populism could emerge as the driving force of Canada’s second party, the truckers appear a harbinger.

Second, in being such overt right-wing populists and staging such an effective spectacle — in terms of legitimately capturing attention across the country and world — the truckers have reminded everyone that Canada is far less temperamentally homogenous than is often taken for granted.

As I’ve discussed many times, the covid-19 pandemic produced a lot of very tendentious commentary about how Canadians were supposedly inclined, by dint of some inherent national disposition, to respond in a compliant, even submissive manner to restrictions, mandates and lockdowns. That the truckers are flamboyantly against all of this has led some analysts to suggest they are wannabe Americans, or even Russian agents, because the alternative — that they represent a sizable, even popular, faction of homegrown Canadian opinion — threatens to undo years of productive patriotic mythmaking. A festival of partisan division and anti-government bombast in the nation’s capital is a painful unraveling of presumed consensus when the country’s politicians and journalists have leaned so heavily on confident rhetoric of cooperation and unity to get through the pandemic.

Third, and perhaps least complexly, the truckers may simply embody Canadians’ covid-19 fatigue. Even those who don’t sympathize with their politics can still easily view the protesters as simply manifesting fury at a pandemic that refuses to subside. Before the convoy, Canadian headlines were dominated by stories about extremely mild relaxations of what still remain some of North America’s harshest covid-19 restrictions — or, in the case of Quebec’s “anti-vax tax,” doubling-down in the opposite direction.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly exhausted Canadians and made Canadian culture and politics more obnoxious in countless ways. This, in turn, has made Canadians sensitive and irritable, and increasingly prone to reacting frantically to things that, a few months ago (and certainly a few years ago), would have produced far more tempered responses. It is a state of mind that has led people on the right to fantasize that they’re witnessing the beginning of a “regime change” revolution against the forces of statism, and people on the left, including Trudeau, to affect overblown Churchillian rhetoric and posture as if facing down an invasion of Nazis (which, to be fair, some seem to believe the truckers literally are).

On all sides, Canadians are acting high-strung, confused and crabby, and therefore far from their best selves. I wonder if that’s ultimately destined to be the frame through which we remember this.