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Reading those words likely sets off alarm bells for a lot of people. They are a reformulation of – and very obviously an allusion to – the Trump presidency’s famous slogan, “Make America Great Again.” These words, in all their iterations, are reminders of white supremacy, police brutality, and right-wing uprisings.
Upon first glance, “Make Canada Free Again” might sound like the calling card of a Canadian right-wing nationalist group. But, actually, these were the words chanted by thousands of poster-wielding anti-vaxxers in Ottawa last weekend.
But calling them anti-vaxxers is not completely accurate. In reality, the goal of the protest in the nation’s capital is to oppose the federal government’s January mandate that unvaccinated Canadian truckers crossing the Canada-US border must quarantine for 14 days. Upon Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement of this mandate, truckers were outraged: How could they make a living if they could only complete one cross-border trip every 14 days? It would destroy their livelihood.
To contest the PM’s order, truckers from Vancouver took to the streets. They rallied up a convoy and began a long trek eastward to Ottawa, home to the PM himself. Along the way they picked up immense support, resulting in GoFundMe donations totalling over C$10 million and the arrival of a 45-mile-long convoy outside Canadian Parliament on Friday, 28 January 2022. They call themselves the Freedom Convoy.
But the protest actually started out peacefully. Allegedly, it is not about being anti-vaccination, but anti-vaccination-mandate. The Freedom Convoy is in Ottawa to speak out against the prolonged restrictions and lockdowns placed by the Canadian Government upon the population. Upon writing, the Convoy is still working to those aims. The truckers want their lives back. Want their free choice back. More importantly, they want their hope back. That is what the protest is about.
Thousands of people from across the country came to show their support; unfortunately for the Freedom Convoy, many of these thousands were, not anti-mandate, but anti-vaccination. And after years of the Government’s Covid restrictions, these anti-vaxxers were ready for a fight.
The protest descended into chaos. Over that first weekend of January 28 to 30, Ottawa residents were insulted and harassed. Important national monuments dedicated to Canadian heroes, like war veterans and Terry Fox, were desecrated. Within this past week of February 7 alone there have been over 60 criminal investigations concerning property damage and theft, the Mayor of Ottawa even declaring a state of emergency.
The foul-tasting cherry on top of this collective action has been the presence of hate symbols among the protesters – signs reading “Make Canada Free Again”; anti-vaxxers donning Stars of David reminiscent of those worn by victims of the Holocaust; and, in one case, someone waving around a Nazi flag.
These actions proved costly for the protesters. Instead of asserting themselves as a valid protest group, the Freedom Convoy secured their place in the national–and international–arena as right-wing conspiracists. Indeed, because of some extremist and hateful actions, the entire movement has been tainted. Those Canadians who oppose the protest – which, it seems, might be the majority of the Canadian public – now label all protest supporters, no matter how extremist, as fascists. GoFundMe has ceased to give protesters their money. Trudeau himself has called the protesters “tinfoil hats” and refuses any discussion with them.
Many Canadians feel that the labelling of the Convoy as fascist, and other such terms, is unfair. Indeed, it appears that the Freedom Convoy’s initial goal was valid: truckers have very fickle job security; throw a wrench in their process, rules, and regulations, and suddenly they are not making money for two weeks at a time. Do they have the right to be angry about Trudeau’s 14-day quarantine mandate? Of course. Do they have the right to publicly demonstrate this anger? Absolutely. Protest organiser Tamara Lich even made it clear before anything began that the Convoy would not tolerate extremism of any kind, and that the protest would – and should – be peaceful.
But there are details about the protest – and, more importantly, the protest organisers – that the supportive public does not know (or perhaps, even, does not want to know). Despite organisers’ passionate call for a peaceful and non-extremist protest, many of them have been recently tied to extremist, racist, or far-right organisations. A few examples include James Bauder, a conspiracist who supports the far-right QAnon movement and believes that the pandemic was a “political scam” created by powerful governments; Patrick King, a supporter of the separatist and far-right Maverick Party; and Tamara Lich, the very person who condemned extremism in the Ottawa protest, was also seriously involved with Canada’s yellow vest protests and their associated xenophobic rhetoric.
It is important to remember that the protest organisers’ actions speak louder than their words. Given the problematic histories of many of the Freedom Convoy’s leaders, it is becoming clearer that the protest’s anti-mandate message – its professions of peace and freedom and hope – might be a smokescreen for a right-wing uprising. Indeed, there is no better way to amass support for an extremist movement than to disguise it as a valid crusade for what the majority of people in a democratic society desire: freedom.
This is what makes group situations, like the current protest in Ottawa, challenging. If extremists use mainstream concerns to cloak their hidden agendas, does that make the mainstream concerns – in this case, the public’s desire to end Covid mandates – invalid? If the answer is yes, then extremist groups could easily silence the rest of the world simply by appropriating all valid political causes; that way, the causes become associated with extremism and, therefore, obsolete. If the answer is no, though, how do we approach such situations? Perhaps the solution is to take on a more nuanced understanding of such situations – to parse out the valid parts of a protest whilst ignoring the problematic ones.
Canada’s Freedom Convoy has indeed presented a frustrating moral dilemma. It is one that I think, however, merits further investigation.
By Serena Celeste
Serena is a current postgraduate student at UCL completing her master’s degree in Human Rights. She is interested in all areas of politics, though is especially passionate about human rights research and the intersection of political science and psychology.