by Bradley C.S. Watson
Very odd things are happening in Canada, not the least of which is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fleeing the capital city for security reasons, or so officials say. Canadians are a notoriously compliant, unquestioning, deferential lot. But this hasn’t stopped thousands of them from gathering near the parliament buildings in Ottawa to effectively shut down the central part of the city.
The trigger for this unprecedented protest is a vaccine mandate for long-haul truckers, whose big rigs now line the streets, horns blaring between a variety of protest chants, some of which are more printable than others (“Truck Trudeau,” and variations thereof, has been a common refrain). Last week, as the convoys moved toward and converged on the capital from the east, west, and south—numbers are disputed, but it seems certain they formed the longest convoys in history—it became clear that the list of grievances had grown to include just about everything associated with some of the most enduring, draconian, and nonsensical COVID restrictions in the world.
Despite the efforts of Canadian media to downplay and distort events in Ottawa, it is easy to see right through them. In the absence of genuine grievances, it would be impossible to convince thousands of people to act—people who are not, I should add, in the professional protesting class that forms an entire subset of Canadian society. These are not the laptop class but working people who live paycheck-to-paycheck and have families to feed. They cannot afford to take weeks off from whatever work remains to them and march around in minus 35-degree wind chills for frivolous reasons.
In fact, many of the protesters have said they are themselves vaccinated, as have many of the thousands of ordinary citizens who, also in sub-zero temperatures, cheered the convoys on as they passed. But they have also said they are robustly for freedom of choice, not to mention the right of people to make a living. They are understandably less keen on policies that are manifestly worthless for halting COVID and have significant trade-offs and costs, including empty shelves in Canadian supermarkets.
The extent and disingenuousness of elite attacks on the protesters has astounded even me—a reformed Canadian who grew up on a steady diet of Canuckprop. It’s not as though Canadians are unused to organized protests. To the contrary, they have become quite used to preferred protesters, such as “indigenous peoples,” occupying things—including people’s houses—and the government doing essentially nothing for months or even years at a time. Trudeau himself has boasted of his participation in protests which suit officially approved views, such as Canada’s copycat Black Lives Matter disruptions which, if possible, were even more inane (though less violent) than their American counterparts.
The revulsion of the elites stems from the fact that, having encouraged a culture of near-permanent protest, the protesting has now metastasized, and the folks who this week control the streets of Ottawa simply don’t travel in bien-pensant circles, or have the ears of those who do. And they are also very much in the faces, and parking spaces, of the elites.
While it’s true that most of the protesters appear to be considerably whiter than Justin Trudeau in blackface, not all of them are. Nevertheless, this helps make them a particular object of the prime minister’s ire and contempt. Before the truckers even arrived, in high dudgeon and with a tone of condescension that only someone named Trudeau can muster, the prime minister insisted they were nothing more than a “small, fringe minority.” In Trudeau-speak, “fringe” means any position not approved by elite opinion. More recently, he has refused to meet with protesters, claiming, implausibly, that they are racist, and, more plausibly, that they fill him with disgust.
It appears some tiny handful of individuals amongst the protesters—motivations and paymasters unknown—have behaved badly. At last count, if the media are to be believed on anything, a single Confederate flag was fleetingly waved by an individual who was (uncharacteristically) masked, a Nazi flag was unfurled on the periphery, a couple of monuments were not treated with the respect they deserve (protesters quickly cleaned them up and began guarding them), and a downtown soup kitchen’s operations were briefly interfered with—vagrants have rights!—but beyond these incidents, not much to note, except righteous indignation on the part of many crowd members, and calculated disgust on the part of their fringe prime minister.
But elite hope springs eternal that, given time, someone, somewhere, will do something seriously wrong.
Meanwhile, Jim Watson, the marionette mayor of Ottawa, has informed the protesters that they have already “worn out their welcome” (if this is what passes for an official welcome in Ottawa, we must wrack our brains to imagine what an official slight must look like) and complains that hinterland protesters take an enormous toll on people in the prosperous capital. Perhaps two years of COVID restrictions have not, at least for those in his line of work.
Notwithstanding the chaos around Parliament Hill, parliament in fact reconvened on Monday, with Trudeau in absentia. In a statement particularly rich with irony, one of the prime minister’s lackeys immediately lectured the press on the importance of parliament meeting in person—which it has refused to do for much of the last two years, because of COVID. And it has refused to do so with the assent of mostly neutered and co-opted “opposition” parties.
Canada, once a beacon of Westminster-style parliamentary government in North America, has had no responsible government for much of the time its irresponsible government has been exercising extraordinary emergency powers—unless one counts occasional Zoom meetings, and appearances by the shielded prime minister at his cottage. Elites were fine with all of this—but peasants blocking roads in ways that inconvenience lawmakers when they finally do decide to show up for work? Unacceptable and un-Canadian!
Parroting the politicians and raising them, Canadian state media, in the form of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, has been on an incessant search for lone wolves, Confederates, neo-Nazis, and science-denialists in the overwhelmingly good-natured, if occasionally angry, crowd. Like the pod people they appear to be, reporters from multiple Canadian news outlets read credulously from the same script.
And in an apparent attempt to jump the largest shark in the theater of the absurd, state media has suggested that the Russians are behind the protest! The BBC has even gotten in on the act, quoting government ministers who make their livings pointing out various “reprehensible” acts protesters are alleged to have committed. Not to be outdone, CNN reports that protesters devote themselves to taking “meals away from the homeless.” A velvet revolution is being photoshopped to make it appear to be clad in chainmail.
As is so often the case in Canada, those few politicians (mostly Conservatives) who are not quite fully on board with official storylines tend to behave like deer in the headlights, set back on their heels by demagogues who dominate the field, forced to condemn things they obviously don’t support, as when a Conservative member of parliament was attacked for merely being in newsreel footage in which somebody in the background is displaying a Nazi emblem—in what appears to be an attempt, however misbegotten, to condemn, rather than endorse, fascism. An appropriate, if not characteristically Canadian response to such cynical chicanery might be to say to one’s accusers: Go to hell. Go directly to hell. Do not pass go. Do not collect 78-cent Canadian dollars.
Fortunately, these pathetic attempts at J-6ing are not working with wide swaths of an increasingly international audience—though they maintain their hold in the echo chambers of Canadian official opinion.
A notable exception to the mendacity and pusillanimity of those in the Canadian opinion-forming classes is Conservative Member of Parliament Leslyn Lewis, who stood with the protesters, both literally and in spirit. As a black woman who immigrated to Canada from Jamaica, she not only marginally bests Trudeau on the racial and gender authenticity fronts, she is also one of the rare known vertebrates among Canadian politicians. Appropriating a tried and true leftist trope, she forcefully insisted that this is what democracy looks like, and the people in fact rule the government, not the other way around. She stood, in other words, with ordinary citizens who have their backs to the wall and are attempting to petition a willfully, characteristically, endlessly obtuse government for a redress of real, as opposed to phantasmagorical, grievances.
The chorus of the greatest Canadian trucking song goes like this:
With nothin’ more to lose
Too much oil money
Not enough booze
Nowadays, truckers don’t have enough of either. In Canada, that’s a combustible combination. Let’s pray they storm the border and head to Washington next.
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Bradley C. S. Watson is Philip M. McKenna Chair in American and Western Political Thought and Professor of Politics at Saint Vincent College. He has authored or edited many books, including Living Constitution, Dying Faith: Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence, and Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea.
Photo “Freedom Convoy” by Naomi McKinney.