Freedom Convoy protest, 5 February 2022 Freedom Convoy protest, 5 February 2022. Photo: michael_swan / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0, license linked below article

The Freedom Convoy is being driven by the far right and must be opposed, but the state’s draconian Emergency Powers Act is not the answer, argues John Clarke

The so-called ‘Freedom Convoy,’ falsely presented as an expression of the grievances of those who work in Canada’s trucking industry, is actually a highly dangerous far right front operation. Despite vacillation on the part of governments, and strong support for this initiative within the ranks of the police, a major confrontation between the ‘truckers’ and the state authorities now seems very likely.

The massively disruptive presence of the convoy in Ottawa, along with support actions across the country, have created a serious level of dislocation and disturbance that is forcing the hand of governments. A state of emergency has been declared in Ottawa, with the provincial government of Ontario following suit. Now, in an enormously alarming move, the federal government has invoked the repressive powers of the Emergencies Act. A serious effort to disperse the convoy has begun and their blockade of the vital road link between the US and Canada, at Windsor, Ontario, has already been cleared and police have claimed the main occupation around Canada’s parliament has been removed.

Far right action

Vaccine hesitancy and pandemic weariness extend well beyond the right wing anti-vaxxer movement and the convoy organisers have taken care to present their action as springing from the frustrations of ordinary working people. Because of this, there are some, even on the left, who have been taken in and accepted the convoy as a legitimate, if somewhat confused and contradictory expression of working class grievances.

The simple and clear reality is that this is anything but a spontaneous expression of justified anger that might be compared to the emergence of the Yellow Vests in France. It is a project of the far right that we need to view with the deepest political hostility and the evidence for this is utterly unassailable.

‘Operation BearHug/ Freedom Convoy’ was announced on a Livestream last month that made clear that the initiative had five leaders. Though that team has never been formally revealed, the key people involved can be fairly readily identified. They all have extensive links to the far right and to front operations promoting the separation of the western provinces from the rest of Canada.

Pat King is perhaps the most notorious of the leadership group and he frequently uses videos to promote his hateful views. He has suggested that Muslims are ‘flooding countries with refugees and manipulating the education system’ and that their goal is the ‘depopulation of the anglo-Saxon race- because we have the strongest bloodline.’ He has a history of holocaust denial and has suggested that Chinese and Hebrew may become an official languages of Canada. He is a fanatical and dangerous white supremacist.

The convoy was able to raise over $10 million from supporters before it took to the road. This incredible sum of money is attributable to the backing of a string of wealthy, right wing business owners,who oppose public health measures in the midst of the pandemic and who have little problem with the far right views of the key organisers.  The CEO of a telecommunications company in Manitoba, for example, explained that his donation was motivated by the view that conservative politicians haven’t ‘stood up for the right-wing’ because ‘they’re all in Trudeau’s pockets.’

The response of the police to the convoy has been remarkably lenient and this has often gone over to a facilitating role. The Ottawa police chief abandoned any pretence of trying to contain the  actions of the convoy and has now been forced to resign over his force’s inaction in the face of the massive disruption brought to the city.

There has been ample evidence of widespread sympathy for the convoy within police ranks. In fact, it is clear that the far right organisers have drawn around them those with police and military experience. Police on Guard, a group formed during the pandemic, says that it has ‘boots on the ground’ in Ottawa and proudly distributes video footage of its members playing an active role. The convoy’s head of security is Daniel Bulford, a former RCMP officer who was on the prime minister’s security detail. The ‘leadership team’ also includes Tom Quiggin, also with a background in the RCMP as well as military intelligence and ‘considered one of the country’s top counter-terrorism experts.’

The demands put forward by the leadership of the convoy, insofar as they address issues of public health and vaccination, are somewhat confused. They demand the right to cross the US Canadian border without being vaccinated when the US authorities have imposed exactly the same requirement. They also call for an end to vaccine mandates but these have actually been imposed by governments at the provincial level and the Trudeau government has no power to override them.

The far right leaders seem, however, to have bigger goals than the elimination of some public health measures.  A ‘memorandum of understanding,’ put forward by the core supporting organisation, Canada Unity, was further developed at an Ottawa press conference called by convoy spokespersons. They called on the unelected governor-general, the Queen’s representative in Canada, to dismiss the parliament and replace it with a coalition of their representatives and some representatives of the opposition parties.

While others among the convoy leadership have now tried to distance themselves from this proposal, it gives some sense of the political thinking within the group. They have grand notions of a bid for power and, indeed, Pat King’s latest video calls on police officers to ‘stand down’ in the face of the convoy and warns them that they may be put on trial if they collaborate in suppressing the convoy. Such ideas are, of course, utterly disorientated but they offer a glimpse of the kind of people behind this dangerous initiative.

The very claim that a ‘truckers’ convoy’ is taking place is extremely dubious. Some 90% of truckers are already vaccinated and no representative body of workers in the industry has supported the action. Indeed, this is a workforce that has massive grievances, in the form of appalling working conditions and rampant wage theft. Those who represent the 20% of truckers who are South Asian have made it abundantly clear that vaccine mandates are far from their main concern and that they are focused on the major injustices they face. The minority of convoy participants who actually drive trucks for a living are mainly owner operators and not employed workers.

Long term strategy

This is the second time in three years that the tactic of a convoy of disgruntled ‘truckers’ has been employed by the far right. In 2019, a climate denying, pro-pipeline ‘United We Roll’ effort made its way to Ottawa. It was a more sedate affair but it demonstrated two things to its white supremacist initiators. Firstly, an action of this kind provided access to a periphery of right wing sentiment beyond the fascist core and, in line with this, mainstream conservative politicians could be counted on to offer their enthusiastic public support.

This focus on issues that can expand the influence of the far right is by no means confined to Canada. The pandemic crisis has produced significant opposition to health protection measures and this has been a gift to tactically nimble fascists in various countries. The present convoy is the latest effort to cash in on this opportunity and it has undeniably paid off for them, with the conservative mainstream again acting as their public champions.

Though trade union leaders have failed to give any serious lead, there is widespread revulsion and anger over this ugly display of far right sentiment. The disruptive presence of the convoy in Ottawa, complete with open displays of Nazi symbols and confederate flags, has generated community actions. The most successful of these, in which a lead given by a very small number of people led to a huge spontaneous outpouring of local support that shut down a procession of thirty trucks, has become known as ‘the Battle of Billings Bridge.’ There have been a number of other efforts to block convoy supporters in a range of Canadian cities, including the imaginative use of bicycles in Vancouver. Opinion polls, moreover, show a strong majority registering their opposition to the convoy.

The far right leaders appear to have no realistic exit strategy and the unsustainable levels of economic disruption and political crisis the action is generating make a serious confrontation highly likely. Very dangerously, the Trudeau government has now invoked the Emergencies Act. This provides special powers to limit the right to public assembly, to declare infrastructure ‘secure and protected,’ to freeze bank accounts and to impose serious prison terms on those deemed to have violated any measures that the authorities adopt.

However bitterly we oppose this convoy, no one on the left should support the use of such measures. The simple reality is that, if they are employed today against fascists, they will be used with much greater enthusiasm against working class struggles or the actions taken by Indigenous people. It is always a fatal mistake to think that the state power will contain the far right, when the only effective counter to an emerging fascist street army is the mobilisation of working class organisations and the communities that are the targets of its hatred.

This leads to the main lesson to be drawn from the capacity of the far right to attain such a major success. The fear and anger of the ‘lumpen petty bourgeoisie’ has filled a vacuum created by the passivity of trade unions and the weakness of the left at a time of deep societal crisis. The far right should certainly be confronted but we urgently need a mass movement that can advance the demands of workers and communities and fight back in ways that inspire hope and confidence.

Without such a response from the organisations of the working class, the momentum of the far right will continue to grow in the wake of the convoy and that is a prospect that is simply too dreadful to accept.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.