Convoy’s demands are incoherent, their violence is real

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Honk if you’re a stupid baby. Shay via Unsplash

A crisis of democracy

On January 29, a convoy of truckers who stand against public health measures descended upon Parliament Hill and downtown Ottawa after spending over a week travelling across Canada. The protesters have been there since, and refuse to leave until the government gives in to their demands. The protests initially started as a response to the federal government ending the essential workers’ vaccination exemption for cross-border travel, which means that truckers will have to be vaccinated to cross the border between the United States and Canada. If they remain unvaccinated, they will have to quarantine and test negative upon re-entry. Canada’s lifting of the exception happened almost simultaneously with the United States, who now require truckers to be vaccinated to cross their border.  People rallied around the truckers, stating that due to the supply chain shortages, a vaccine mandate for truckers was overkill and would cause adverse effects throughout the country – although it’s unclear how this would interfere with the supply chain more than sick and dying workers do.

 The Canadian Trucking Alliance and trucker industry groups have condemned the protests, stating that a large portion of the protesters are not actually truckers but business owners, and they do not support the actions of the convoy. The protest evolved from supporting truckers into a vague campaign for “freedom,” and the message has gotten muddled due to the lack of clarity within the group, which is overwhelmingly made up of White people, about what it’s trying to accomplish. Statements have been circulated that the protest is for Canada’s freedom, others have stated that it’s about ending all COVID-related mandates, some have stated that it’s about vaccines, and most factions of the group have embraced far-right rhetoric.

Mitch Diamantopolous, a professor of Journalism at the University of Regina, said this poorly articulated vision has made reporting on the convoy challenging. “I think it became very hard for the press to report on the movement because it became clear that it actually wasn’t one unified, homogenous movement. In fact, it was a kind of coalition or assemblage of very different groups who wanted very different things. Some of whom did not agree at all with each other, and some of whom in interviews appeared not to be able to express what they wanted themselves apart from vague abstractions, like freedom, and not being able to really articulate what they were after,” Diamantopolous said.

“Some people say they wanted to end all public health measures, which would mean that they’re in the wrong city since that’s provincial jurisdiction. Others talked about opposition to vaccines, which changes the conversation completely from where we started, and then of course you have the most obviously opportunistic, interventions of hate groups on the far right who latched themselves onto the convoy, viewing it as an opportunity for recruitment, and of course, the populist right wing faction of the conservative party, which was in the middle of making a play for leadership and saw it in backing the convoy and opportunity to build momentum. So this is not an easy story for a journalist to cover. It’s complex, it’s contentious, and the movement has unclear motives. Its actors are unclear, who’s paying its bills are unclear, and the purpose is unclear, and so this frustrates not just the press core, but it frustrates people inside the movement as well as people who are trying to understand what these people want, and can’t quite seem to get their arms around why this is happening. So I think the sort of chaotic character of this movement is what makes it different,”

The credibility of the protest has been scarred by several acts of vandalism, including defacing a statue of Terry Fox, several protestors seen dancing on the tomb of the Unkown Solider, the national war memorial being defaced, and there have even been reported indications of protesters harassing homeless shelters in Ottawa for food. Healthcare workers are also being harassed on their way to work in Ottawa and other cities across the country. There are currently 25 active investigations underway from criminal activity related to the protest in Ottawa. On February 5, two men were caught on video setting a fire inside the lobby of a downtown Ottawa apartment building and taping the doors shut. Yet, despite all this, the convoy has been allowed to continue unbothered by the police, who have been more interested in policing the counter-protesters.

Prime Minister Trudeau has repeatedly condemned the protesters’ actions. In a recent statement in the House of Commons, he said that the protest is on the verge of becoming illegal but that there are no current plans to bring in the military to end the protest. The police force in Ottawa is also worried about the potential risk of enforcing riot measures, or in general, the risk more forceful legal measures against the protesters could have for its officers. On February 6, Ottawa mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency in the city.

The protest has also led a lot of right-wing-oriented politicians to an opportunity to promote their political agenda. For example, Scott Moe of Saskatchewan has come out in support of the protest. He has also criticized the media coverage of this issue regarding the convoy and COVID, and stated that the reporting of the convoy has been one-sided and biased. Which, it largely has been, although not to the effect that Moe thinks.

When asked if he thought there was any truth to the skepticism surrounding the media or if it was just a political tactic, Diamantouplous said, “it is a political tactic to shoot the messenger. It’s not a new tactic. It’s not a novel tactic. It’s not a particularly courageous tactic and it’s not a tactic that I think reflects well on the statesmanship of people who resort to it. If you don’t like what the press is saying, you can either respond to those questions, recognizing that the press represents the public and they have a right to a straight answer, or you can evade public accountability and you can vilify the press.”

“And I think, unfortunately we’ve reached the stage in Canada, like the U.S. before us, where the ladder tactic is becoming increasingly normalized and accepted, and I think citizens in a democracy needs to be very, very skeptical of people who don’t want to be held accountable to the press and they need to ask themselves why? What do these people have to hide? In what ways did their interests diverge from the public interests that they don’t want to be held accountable for? And in this case, I think the motives are pretty clear. There are people who’ve been watching Donald Trump’s campaign against the press, with him scoring political points by pandering to an aggrieved confused base that’s angry but not quite sure where the problems lie. They’re eager to conclude when their leader tells them that the problem is a group of Latte sipping liberal journalists that are somehow – rather than let’s say, the economic and political elite of the country – are the elites.”

“That kind of libel of the profession is cheap politics. It’s anti-democratic politics, it’s populous posturing, and it’s really toxic because if you allow groups to simply discredit by definition preemptively those who are charged with holding them accountable, then who is going to hold public officials to account? If we’re just told that journalists are all liars and that they’re biased and that they’re liberals, or they’re lazy, or they’re not very smart or whatever kind of stereotype and convenient fiction that has fostered to discredit them. If you buy into that then what is the alternative? Is it online misinformation? Is it hyper-partisan pseudo-journalism, like Fox news or the angry populism of talk radio[?] Is that where people, turn when they no longer trust the press?”

The convoy, which started as a simple protest, has become a tipping point for Canadian politics. It’s a moment where the country will have to decide what direction it wants to take in regards to following in the footsteps of the United States and allowing certain beliefs to take a foothold, and whether or not we live into the stereotype of Canadian politeness or change the narrative forever.

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