The “Freedom Convoy” is a genuine threat to Canadian politics

In more ways than one, the far-right has occupied Ottawa: here’s what it was like on the ground

There I was, stuck between the blaring horns of misplaced nationalism and giant tractor wheels. Photo Caroline Marsh
Photo Caroline Marsh
Photo Caroline Marsh
Photo Caroline Marsh

On Monday morning, as soon as I got off at the Rideau train station, I could hear them. The wave of endless honking hit me as I walked onto Wellington St. Welcome to Ottawa, now the angry trucker capital of the world.

The “Freedom Convoy”, a group of mostly right-wing truckers fighting the federal government’s new vaccine requirements, has been in Ottawa since Jan. 28. Their political momentum has been felt on the national sphere. Shows of extremism and vitriol demonstrated by protesters made it clear that this was not solely about vaccine mandates, but a show of political derision.

Having witnessed the convoy first-hand on Jan. 31, it is clear that this movement must be taken as a serious threat. The mass mobilization of thousands of Canada’s fiercest right-wingers can and will have devastating effects on our national conversation surrounding COVID-19 restrictions, masking, and vaccination policies. I believe that our government needs to take immediate action and put an end to Ottawa’s occupation by right-wing extremists. We cannot take this lying down.

The convoy’s impact on conservative politics is already visible—Erin O’Toole, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, was ousted in a secret ballot vote from his fellow caucus members on Feb. 2, which will end up affecting all Canadians.

There is a pent-up rage underpinning the entire convoy, and that rage has morphed into conspiratorial catharsis.

In this secret ballot vote, Erin O’Toole was removed from party leadership: out of the 118 votes cast, 73 Members of Parliament voted to give him the boot. O’Toole was, when compared to others in the CPC, somewhat of a moderating voice between the crazies and the clueless. 

It is clear that the far-right MPs within the CPC have taken over the party, aligning themselves with the honking hooligans metres away. These members see the potential of figures like Maxime Bernier and his People’s Party of Canada to take away even more Conservative voters in the near future, which is why they have chosen extremism and removed O’Toole. Whoever will be replacing him as permanent party leader will likely be much more politically extreme.

The strain this convoy has had on those inside parliament was evident to me as I watched live footage from the House of Commons. Even with their microphones, the MPs’ speeches were overshadowed by honking trucks. This Monday, Jan. 31, was their first session of the year—the tension was palpable. 

The smell of diesel filled my lungs as I took in the demonstration, trudging through the slush-covered roads. As I approached a large group gathered around the National War Memorial, a man raised his voice at me. “Lower your mask, brother. You’re free here.” Stupidly, I complied—better sick than sorry. Reports of locals getting harassed for wearing masks scared me into trying my best to blend in. The screeching of sirens and horns amplified as I walked through the parked trucks, making my way to Parliament. The mocking chuckles of flag-toting passers-by let me know that this was not a safe environment.

A question that was constantly on my mind as I witnessed the thousands of protesters was, “What on God’s green earth are these people doing here?”

Francis Christian, one of the many speakers, put into words what many in the crowd were feeling.“We’re only here today, really not because of COVID, but because of what these idiots have been imposing on us for decades.” There is a pent-up rage underpinning the entire convoy, and that rage has morphed into conspiratorial catharsis.

A Gadsden flag being flown in a street of Ottawa. Photo Caroline Marsh

Having followed this story online all weekend before arriving in Ottawa, I noticed the direct white supremacist messaging had been toned down by Monday. Besides one Nazi salute my colleague Eric Pahmer noticed, I saw no swastikas, no confederate flags, no fourteen words, all of which I had seen on Facebook and Twitter only days prior. The message of Monday's demonstration was clear: there was to be no more overt signs of right-wing extremism. “Love, respect, honour,” repeated the crowd ad nauseum, emphasizing their alleged peacefulness.

As I walked along the convoy, I encountered trucks filled with free food, socks, and supplies for the truckers. It was some distorted form of mutual aid, one I hadn’t seen before. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that during the weekend, protesters were harassing shelters for the unhoused, as well as locals simply walking around their city. Fuck these people.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, this reckless horde will have a lasting impact on Canadian politics. Many Conservative MPs have rushed to the defense of this group, choosing to ignore the blatant white supremacist rhetoric. Some, like interim Tory leader Candice Bergen, have spoken on their peaceful nature in the House of Commons. Others, like MP Pierre Poilievre, were out in the crowd, cheering on the truckers. After witnessing how the CPC has chosen to respond in light of what’s been happening this week, I can say with confidence that there is no going back. 

In political science, the term for the amount of acceptable ideologies and their range in a given society is called the Overton window. It defines where we draw the line as a society. What the Freedom Convoy has done, as seen by the climax of the Conservative leadership crisis, is push the Overton window to the right. By platforming people who are openly anti-science, anti-vaccine, and anti-mask, the Canadian right has been emboldened.

Provocative signs held up on a truck. Photo Caroline Marsh

As the sun began to set on Monday, the fatigue began setting in. The other Link journalists and I had been in Ottawa since 8 a.m. and I was frozen to the bone. The honking was still raging  as I walked away from Parliament. At a busy intersection not too far from the canal, a horde of tractors entered the scene, blaring their horns louder than anything I had heard all day. The Link’s co-news editor, Jaime Kerr, happened to call me as I was face-to-face with a tractor. As I picked up his call, all I could do was scream back at the noise. That’s when I knew it was time to head home.

Several days have passed since The Link went to  Ottawa and I likely have coronavirus now, seeing as I’ve been sick since Tuesday. That’s what I get for interviewing anti-vaxxers. The convoy is not over, and it would be foolish to make that assumption. The convoy had raised millions of dollars through their GoFundMe before it was taken down so this movement is far from finished. Like it or not, the “Freedom Convoy” currently has the upper hand. We all have the right to be worried—I know I am.