Content warning: This article mentions the residential school system and describes appropriation of Indigenous cultures.
Months ago, a line of angry truckers sieged Canada’s capital, refusing to leave until all COVID mandates were lifted or the federal government’s resignation was tendered. The group — which labelled itself the ‘Freedom Convoy’ — reached Ottawa on January 28 and stayed there until February 23, attracting more Canadians, who protested in cars and on foot, to demand changes to the government’s pandemic response.
The protest triggered the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act — which authorizes the government to use special temporary measures to ensure safety and security during national emergencies — on February 14. The RCMP froze 206 bank and corporate accounts managing protest funds, and Ottawa police arrested more than 191 protestors.
In the increasingly trying times that have followed since February, Canadians wanted to have confidence in our governments and trust in our democratic systems. However, that isn’t always possible. So, how is Canada’s political system looking, six months after the Freedom Convoy?
Relations with Indigenous Peoples
The convoy has tried to create an illusion of being in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples by calling attention to two priorities related to them. The first is raising awareness about the impacts of residential schools, which forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families and forbade them from acknowledging Indigenous heritages and cultures, or speaking their language during the system’s operation from 1883 to 1996.
The second is bringing clean water to all Indigenous communities; long term drinking water advisories existed on 29 Indigenous reserves in Canada as of March 22. For more than a decade, advisories on 11 such reserves have remained unresolved.
The convoy has used the phrase “Every Child Matters” in terms of protest against vaccine mandates. They also drew attention to the day of Truth and Reconciliation, both of which aim to reflect on the abuse Indigenous children endured at residential schools.
Some Freedom Convoy participants also appropriated Indigenous drumming, and the convoy called for an Orange Shirt Day to take place during the protest.
Many Indigenous leaders and community members condemned the misappropriation. The Algonquin Nation also released a statement saying that it did not support the Freedom Convoy — which occupied its traditional lands — in any capacity.
Meanwhile, some Indigenous Peoples have criticized authorities for being lenient in punishing the convoy while cracking down hard on Indigenous-led dissent. For example, in 2021, the RCMP arrested 890 people for protesting old-growth logging in Fairy Creek. The RCMP were reported to have tackled, dragged, pepper sprayed and torn the clothing of those protesting the logging.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis, the current head of the Catholic Church, visited Canada and delivered an apology on behalf of the individuals within the church who were involved in the Canadian residential school system.
During the visit, the Pope met with Prime Minister Trudeau, during which the prime minister thanked him for acknowledging the truths about the residential school system, and recognizing its harmful legacy.
This discussion was a crucial show of support from the prime minister, as the Canadian government has an ongoing history of Indigenous occupation and oppression. In 2019, the government passed legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is an interpretation of the rights contained within international human rights as they apply particularly to Indigenous Peoples. Still, many Indigenous leaders say that the legislation does not go far enough in protecting their rights.
Economy versus environment
As per the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC)’s website, the Trudeau government has prioritized combating climate change and has subsequently taken steps to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.
However, the federal government faced backlash from climate change advocates for allowing the freedom convoy to continue before dispersing it. During the Freedom Convoy, the trucks idling on the streets of major cities emitted waste from their diesel engines.
Exposure to diesel emissions can lead to health conditions such as asthma and respiratory illnesses. The emissions can also worsen existing heart and lung disease, which can be exacerbated by COVID-19 symptoms. Emissions from the convoy’s engines also contributed to the production of ground level ozone — which damages crops, trees, and vegetation — and produces acid rain.
Previously, the Trudeau government has faced criticism for not taking enough action to combat climate change. Many environmental groups claim that the government’s actions are insufficient to meet the goals set out in the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change, a legally binding international treaty that operates using a five-year cycle of increasingly ambitious climate action carried out by countries.
The federal government has also approved several major fossil fuel projects, including expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline. This has been a point of contention for the prime minister, as those fighting for greater climate responsibility have regarded him to be a traitor from his infamous speech at an oil convention, in which he proclaimed that “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.” Likewise, others have criticized Trudeau’s climate policy and carbon taxes as “hurting Canada’s most vulnerable” and putting Canada at a disadvantage on the world stage.
In July, the Trudeau government pledged to reduce emissions from fertilizers by 30 per cent. It also pledged to meet that goal without implementing a mandatory reduction in nitrogen fertilizer use.
These measures are similar to the policies that the European Union (EU) set in place for all its member countries. Those policies enjoin them to reduce their livestock by 30 per cent to meet EU guidelines to protect the climate and biodiversity. Some believe that this reduction of emissions will trigger a farmers’ protest, similar to one that happened in the Netherlands in July, during which protesters carried Canadian flags as a symbol linked to the Freedom Convoy. This incident is not isolated — we have witnessed an international mirage of protests, during which participants carried Canadian flags as a symbol linked to the Freedom Convoy.
The plight of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC)
Less than a year after the 2021 Canadian Federal Elections, conservatives across the country are returning to the polls to cast their ballots for a new party leader. As I assumed in a previous article, the conservative caucus ousted Erin O’Toole, forcing him to step down as CPC leader.
Unlike smaller parties in government who present the same leaders for multiple elections, the conservatives allow their leader to run for one federal election. If, under that leader, the party fails to win a majority of votes, that leader is expected to resign or be pushed to resign by their caucus.
To me, this logic seems fair; if in their first election, a candidate fails to attract voters from other bases or the undecided block, then it makes no sense for a party to keep running the same ticket in hopes of a better outcome.
This fight is the same one that’s ensued in previous leadership races within the CPC; social conservatism versus other social ideologies. In the first race after Stephen Harper’s resignation, it was Andrew Scheer versus Maxime Bernier, a social conservative versus a libertarian. In the second race, it was Erin O’Toole versus Peter Mackay, in which the Conservatives chose the more socially conservative candidate.
Today, the top runners for the federal CPC leader are Jean Charest and Pierre Poilievre; another moderate conservative and traditional conservative, respectively. Poilievre promised to represent Freedom Convoy participants as their prime minister, while attacking Prime Minister Trudeau for “controlling” Canadians and their right to freedom of speech. Charest, on the other hand, criticized Poilievre for this, saying that “Laws are not a buffet table… from which you choose what you want. Because what you’re really saying to people is [you’re] above the law.”
Both candidates are beneficial for the CPC; Poilievre will likely unite a fragmented party, bringing in the social conservatives who have previously felt alienated from the party. Charest would present a unique opportunity for the CPC to gain new grounds and possibly give the LPC a run for their money during elections; however, he may risk alienating the CPC’s further right and socially conservative wings.
Either way, the conservatives find themselves in the same boat they were in 2015 and in 2020; whomever they choose in September will be the fourth conservative opponent that Prime Minister Trudeau could face in an election, should he choose to run again.
Freedom convoy or civil disobedience?
There has always been a debate of what constitutes civil disobedience and anarchic behaviour versus resolute and peaceful protesting that ensures democratic governments do not overstep their boundaries into totalitarianism. This debate has resurfaced in the face of mass protests, and people are falling on either side of the aisle.
We’ve seen this debate surface after riots protesting the G7 and G20 conferences; we’ve seen this debate take place after the Black Lives Matter protests. Now, we’re witnessing it again during the Freedom Convoy, and during the subsequent protests in other parts of the world.
Protests are common and should be present in any democratic state. However, a siege of the capital city lasting more than three weeks is a security violation that should not have been able to take place.
Mainstream media showcased the protesters as being part of a predominantly racist riot. However, earlier this summer, I visited Ottawa and spoke with the few participants of the convoy still standing in front of parliament. Some, who held a colourfully worded flag about Prime Minister Trudeau, told me that they participated in the convoy as a way of asking for the government to listen to them.
When I asked additional participants for their opinion about the reports that the convoy was filled with white supremacists, they denied that the profile represented them and their cause. Most went on tangents about how they come from multiracial families, while some even showed me their proof of vaccination and declared that they weren’t anti-vaccine, but pro-freedom.
As I walked away from the encounter, I felt that I had gained a new perspective on these protestors. They weren’t scary, violent white supremacists that were trying to overpower the government — at least, not the people I spoke with. Instead, they were genuinely scared about the circumstances that they were living through. Whether or not we agree with their stance, we can all understand the sensation of fear.
Their fears might be valid. They might also be imagined because of ignorance or too many conspiracy theories. This doesn’t matter; what matters is that their fear is genuine to them. We do not have to believe in their anxiety for it to exist. Alienating them and casting them aside will only push them further away and into the arms of radicalism.
All this to say, while we must not accept those that proudly depict racist and discriminatory beliefs, symbols or flags, we mustn’t group the entire convoy under that image. The problem is that the word ‘freedom’ has been soiled. Far-right movements have hijacked the word’s definition into meaning ‘freedom of hate’ instead of freedom of consciousness, religion, and life.
The one element of the Freedom Convoy that I genuinely supported is the participants’ desire to be heard. Whether that desire is true or not, I don’t know — however, it is something I can respect.
As a triple-vaccinated Canadian with a moderate trust in the Canadian government, I respect opposing viewpoints from mine. A democracy fosters debate and communication between opposing views. When issues become taboo and are not socially allowed to be debated, we lose our authority to impose mandates and laws.
As I write this, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a U of T professor, during which they advised me to let others voice their concerns and reveal their ignorance while doing so. If you are confident that you are correct, prove it, don’t censor dissent. If any demographic becomes silenced, then they will grow in numbers. We must not make Freedom Convoy participants martyrs in the fight against misinformation.
In retrospect, the Freedom Convoy was a lens into the state of the Canadian political turmoil that we currently find ourselves in. Whether you support the LPC, CPC, New Democratic Party, Green Party, or the People’s Party of Canada, you can admit that none of the current political parties nor their leaders have successfully gained both the trust and support of Canadians.
So, although the convoy may have been the noise of a loud minority, it’s evident that our last two elections have sounded the horn of democratic stalemate, as they have produced minority governments and low voter turnout rates.
I think this trend is an effect of Canadians becoming so disenfranchised from their political systems that they no longer believe in the country’s electoral process. In my opinion, this isn’t because they don’t trust it, but because they don’t feel represented by any candidate on the ballot. When citizens of democracy refuse to participate in said democracy, or feel that they must vote strategically to avoid the election of a party — instead of electing a leader whom they believe will be beneficial for the country — we must start questioning the health of our democratic state.