The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Ottawa trucker convoy is rooted in Canada’s settler colonial history

Canada’s dark history of public health has a long past of hiding behind ‘politeness’

Protesters against vaccine mandates block the roadway at the Ambassador Bridge border crossing in Windsor in Ontario, Canada, on Feb. 9. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)
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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.

Less than a decade after Canadian confederation (1867), the establishment of the Indian Act (1876) bestowed upon the federal government sweeping powers regarding First Nations cultural practices, education, health and systems of governance. For example, Treaty No. 6 of 1876, signed between the Canadian state and the Cree peoples of Alberta and Saskatchewan claimed that if “Indians … being overtaken by any pestilence, or by a general famine, the Queen … will grant to the Indians assistance.”

In 1884, an amendment to the Indian Act required First Nations children under the age of 16 to attend residential schools. Many children were forcibly removed from their homes and received physical and psychological punishment for speaking Indigenous languages or practicing Indigenous customs and rituals. Along with these acts of cultural genocide and accompanying physical violence, the dire hygienic conditions of residential schools resulted in alarming rates of tuberculosis contraction until at least the mid-20th century. The horrendous conditions and treatment of First Nations children at residential schools, the last of which did not close until 1997, were the focus of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (established in 2008) and more recent reports of unmarked mass burial sites.

The Indian Act, along with its various amendments and allied settler colonial policies, led to economic and land dispossession and dire public health conditions of First Nations peoples throughout the 20th century. According to historian Maureen Lux, much of the federal government’s response to these conditions was neglectful and parsimonious.

After World War II, the Canadian state’s approach to First Nations, including the provision of health care, shifted considerably. The federal government intervened more heavily in cases of contagious illnesses, fearing that such diseases might spread from reserves to nearby settler societies. As anthropologist Lisa Stevenson has shown, between 1954 and 1964 as tuberculosis became the “Scourge of the North,” 8,600 Inuit patients were sent, sometimes forcibly, for treatment in southern hospitals. Many would never return.

The Indian and Northern Health Services, directed by the Department of National Health and Welfare, increased the number of Indian Hospitals, which were segregated community institutions, in its expansion of the Canadian welfare state.

The expansion of the welfare state thus perpetuated the project of colonialism, allocating goods and services to certain residents while maintaining segregation and racial hierarchy. This expanding state also hinged on ideas about individual freedom. Canadian liberalism characterized citizens as “free,” encouraging them through social programs to cultivate autonomy and individualism. Participation in modern Canada and its notions of “freedom” was encouraged, for both settlers and Indigenous populations. But while liberalism underpinned White Canadian prosperity, participation came with extreme costs to individual and collective health and well-being of Indigenous peoples.

For example, in 1947, anthropologist Diamond Jenness proposed a “blueprint for the enfranchisement and racial assimilation of Canada’s Indigenous populations,” as Stevenson described it, before a parliamentary joint committee. While advocating for the enfranchisement of Indigenous peoples, Jenness described “a solution that will be final and definite,” invoking the language of Nazis. In other words, freedom was promised to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples on the condition that they would no longer be First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

By contrast, the Canadian government, both at the federal and provincial levels, has intervened much less assertively into the public and private lives of White settlers. Physicians and public health officials have associated disease, and resulting mandates, with groups broadly viewed as “others,” including Indigenous peoples and immigrants of color. Yet, while impacts from the coronavirus itself have certainly been shaped by race, class and gender, Canadian public health mandates, in theory, make no such distinction.

The primarily White supporters of the Freedom Convoy argue that pandemic mandates infringe upon their constitutional rights to freedom. The notion of “freedom” was historically and remains intertwined with Whiteness, as historian Tyler Stovall has argued. The belief that one is entitled to freedom is a key component of white supremacy. This explains why the Freedom Convoy members see themselves as entitled to freedom, no matter the public health consequences to those around them.

Canada’s history of freedom then, was founded in the unfreedom of Indigenous people. This dynamic has been unnoticed and misconstrued by organizers, attendees and supporters of the Freedom Convoy. On the GoFundMe, the organizers claimed: “We are a peaceful country that has helped protect nations across the globe from tyrannical governments who oppressed their people, and now it seems it is happening here … We are doing this for our future Generations and to regain our lives back.” They are advancing a settler colonial genealogy that deploys the language of “freedom” and “unity” while engaging in actions that are harmful and violent.