The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canada’s politics are increasingly playing out on the streets. The reaction could be dark.

A truck is towed in Ottawa on Feb. 20, after police worked to clear a protest that was aimed at covid-19 measures that grew into a broader antigovernment protest. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The most important fact about the Canadian truckers’ protest — now largely cleared from Ottawa, following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Feb. 14 declaration of emergency powers — was that it used … well, trucks.

Near as I can tell, parking gigantic transport trucks in the most intentionally obstructive way possible was simply not a tactic that had been attempted in a major North American city before. This, more than anything else, goes a long way toward explaining why the protest lasted as long as it did, why it baffled Ottawa police so thoroughly and why, ultimately, Trudeau chose to invoke the Emergencies Act to bring it to an end. It was, in a word, unprecedented.

What was decidedly not unprecedented, however, was the truckers’ conclusion that meaningful political change in Canada can be achieved only through means outside the parliamentary system.

As the world fixated on Ottawa, on the other end of Canada, about 20 masked protesters armed with axes and metal grinders smashed machinery and trailers at a natural gas worksite in northern British Columbia, spray-painting anti-development and pro-Indigenous slogans as they went. The attack — which prompted much whataboutism and talk of double standards from trucker defenders on the Canadian right — wasn’t really all that shocking. In recent years, a rash of similarly motivated railroad blockades, meeting disruptions and work site intrusions has played out in western Canada, as a certain faction of left-wing agitator participates in highly disruptive physical acts to impede natural resource extraction and enforce their understanding of First Nations’ sovereignty. As David Frum and others have observed, the truckers’ protest was probably at least partially inspired by the success of such tactics, which have undoubtedly spooked progressive politicians and journalists into taking more seriously far-left ideas about aboriginal rights and the environment than they otherwise might.

This growing popularity of using force and physicality to alter Canada’s political conversation can be partially explained (if not excused) by various unique dysfunctions of Canadian political culture.

It now seems pretty clear, for instance, that the rigidly controlled and conformist nature of Canada’s political parties has made them deeply unattractive to the country’s most politically passionate. Ideally, a democratic system should be open to a broad spectrum of ideas, but in Canada, this goal is compromised by ultra-hierarchical parties obsessed with excluding and marginalizing heterodox views. Instead, candidate disqualifications, caucus expulsions and lawmakers voting the party line more than 99 percent of the time are standard practice. If activists perceive the Canadian democratic system as sclerotic, unresponsive and corrupt, then a great many of them will choose protest and accordingly escape the moderating influences of participation in more organized political institutions. A leading figure in the trucker convoy, BJ Dichter, is an illustrative example — a onetime Tory candidate who traces his more radical turn to frustrations with the party.

Not all disgust with mainstream politics is rational, of course. Alongside valid criticisms of Canadian democracy’s very real deficiencies, many of Canada’s ideologues appear increasingly under the sway of crankish theories that simply assert, with unjustified confidence, the fundamental illegitimacy of the Canadian state. This includes QAnon-style conspiracizing on the right and rhetoric framing Canada as an illegal colonial abomination on the left. “Extremely online” radicalization of this sort encourages fantasies of rebellion, revolt and revolution free of any obligation of serious knowledge or pragmatism.

But regardless of what precise flavor of disillusion animates them, there remains little evidence that activists who engage in wildly disruptive, extraparliamentary politics are remotely persuasive to the broad Canadian public. If anything, they’re probably pushing the public in a more authoritarian direction.

About two-thirds of Canadians supported using the military to clear out the truckers, a tactic more extreme than anything Trudeau did, even with emergency powers. Similar numbers appeared in polls during the height of the left-wing railroad blockades of 2020, with 63 percent favoring police intervention to get rid of them. Perhaps most ominous, a recent Maru poll found that 71 percent of Canadians, regardless of party, “would vote for a strong-willed person to have enforceable law and order.”

These are worrying trends for Canadian freedom. Many of Canada’s most determined ideologues are becoming quite skilled at physically disruptive acts of political rebellion, often with motives that are extreme, ignorant or conspiratorial. Their tactics might be effective at bullying the political class into action in the short term. But in the long run, they simply wind up making the country’s order-obsessed middle class more supportive of equally radical countermeasures, including deploying police and soldiers against Canadians exercising their rights to speak and gather freely, and imposing stricter time, place, cost and manner restrictions on political activity more broadly.

The Canadian constitution promises “peace, order and good government,” a line often interpreted as a charmingly unambitious aspiration. A political atmosphere defined by perpetual chaos in the country’s streets might soon give it a far darker tone.