Image: Maksim Sokolov, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
On January 15, 2022, the Canadian government announced that American truckers who were not vaccinated against COVID-19 would not be allowed into Canada. A week later, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a reciprocal ban on unvaccinated Canadian truckers entering the United States. On the same day, convoys of trucks, plastered with slogans calling for “Freedom” and the end of vaccine mandates and other public health measures taken to combat the pandemic, left British Columbia’s west coast for Ottawa. Their funding was unclear and their strategy vague, but they hoped to pick up more support on the trek eastward.
Three weeks later, the “Freedom Convoy” was the biggest story in Canada and was causing ripples around the world.¹ On Valentine’s Day, the federal cabinet invoked Canada’s Emergencies Act for the first time since it was passed in 1988. By the time this happened, central Ottawa had been under noisy occupation for two and a half weeks. The Ottawa Police Department was either unable or unwilling to do much about it. A shorter-lived but highly costly blockade of the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor had been cleared by the Ontario Provincial Police on February 12. Numerous smaller protests at provincial capitals and other border crossings occurred during the same period and afterward, albeit not with the same level of disruption.
The Convoy was divisive. So was the Trudeau government’s response. While public opinion had been turning against the Convoy as the occupation wore on, the declaration of emergency divided the country, largely along partisan lines. Initial polls suggested that about two thirds of the public supported the decision, although support has fallen since then.
The partisan nature of the split in public opinion was dramatic. Supporters of the Conservative Party of Canada and the People’s Party were overwhelmingly either sympathetic to the Freedom Convoy or opposed to the emergency declaration. By contrast, most supporters of the Liberals, Bloc and NDP supported the government’s actions. The occupation coincided with the Conservative Party’s leadership review, in which Erin O’Toole was removed, no doubt in part as a result of his decision to get his party to distance itself from conservative populist opposition to COVID-19 mandates. He is highly likely to be replaced by Pierre Poilievre, who has strongly supported the Convoy in the face of criticism by his beleaguered rival, former federal Progressive Conservative leader and Quebec Premier Jean Charest.
From our perspective, there is plenty of blame to go around. The long-run effect both of the populist upsurge and the Liberal government’s decision to use vaccine mandates and its response to the occupation as wedge issues will probably make our politics nastier and our country more difficult to govern. If Canada could ever claim immunity from the populist waves that have been washing up on the shores of other democracies since the financial crisis of 2008, its holiday from history is now over.
There is no sensible scientific debate about the efficacy and safety of vaccines. They are tested rigorously before approval. Along with antibiotics, vaccines have been an incalculable boon to humanity in its struggle against infectious disease. It is only because of our immense privilege of living in a world with a massive apparatus of scientific medicine that this could even emerge as an issue. Our grandparents faced a crueller world: all the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic pales in comparison with the constant burden of infectious disease that had been the lot of humanity since the agricultural revolution. The speedy development of vaccines based on messenger RNA in the pressure of the pandemic is a modern miracle.
Viruses do not respect individual autonomy. Precisely because no vaccine is perfect, infectious diseases can only be controlled once the population as a whole has sufficient immunity. Because the safety of each depends on the immunity of all, the evolution of new forms of antiscientific disinformation is a threat as grave as the biological evolution of new variants of pathogens. We are completely opposed to people who distort these basic scientific truths.
But however clearcut the scientific issues may be, they do not resolve the value question of how much coercion is legitimate to address vaccine hesitancy and resistance. Vaccination has always inspired scepticism and opposition, no doubt because it asks people to override basic intuitions about avoiding impurity on the basis of scientific principles that all of us who are not experts must take on faith. This was not much of a problem in the high-trust societies that emerged in the West after the experience of the Second World War. Organized vaccine hesitancy began as part of the ecologically sensitized counterculture of the 1960s, in which people were sceptical of “better living through chemistry” and enthusiastic about the natural and organic.
Ideas have migrated between hippie subcultures and evangelical and libertarian ones for decades. As the social trust of the postwar years has eroded on left and right, discredited claims such as that MMR vaccines cause autism have led growing minorities of parents to try to seek exemptions for their children from shots, sometimes leading to outrbreaks of diseases thought to have been suppressed. Long before the COVID pandemic, authorities had to wage battles with dissident health care workers about annual flu vaccines.
The perpetual crises of the COVID years have turned a counterculture into a mass movement. It is therefore unfortunate that partisan politics was injected into this issue, first by Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party and then by the Liberal Party’s decision in the 2021 election to use vaccine mandates as a wedge issue. While it is perfectly reasonable to push and nudge people to use vaccines, and to require those who work with the vulnerable to do so, there is room for legitimate disagreement over the merit of requiring everyone who works in the federal public service or boards an airplane to be vaccinated on pain of losing their job or their mobility rights. While we do not pretend these questions are easy, we regret that long-term thinking about polarization dynamics goes out the window in the political hothouse.
Questions also remain about the proportionality of invoking the Emergencies Act in response to a protest that seriously disrupted life in downtown Ottawa and involved various unlawful activities, but in which no one was hurt. The Ottawa Police Department seems to have been too slow to act, but it is not clear why that creates a federal emergency. Exceptional powers need to be used exceptionally. Pierre Trudeau’s 1970 declaration of the War Measures Act in the face of the October Crisis remains divisive half a century later, and in retrospect seems to have been excessive. It remains extremely unclear why ordinary police powers could not have addressed the Ottawa occupation.
This is not to let the “Freedom” Convoy off the hook. Genuine freedom arises out of a recognition that we live in a society in which we must each respect and recognize one another. People who live and work in downtown Ottawa were disrespected by what became an unruly street party. Some of the leaders of the Convoy – notably Pat King – clearly have ties to the racist far right. All of them failed to make basic distinctions between protest and breaking the law or seeking to overturn the government. While civil disobedience is sometimes morally justified, we do not think the “Freedom” Convoy’s cause is in that league.
The real legacy of these events will be the transformation of the Conservative Party. There has of course always been an antigovernment and populist element on the right of the Canadian spectrum, exemplified by the Reform Party and its successors and domesticated by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. The focus of this antigovernment sentiment has traditionally been public spending and taxes, along with allegedly burdensome regulation of industry and individuals. Poilievre is a part of this neoliberal tradition of right populism, as his enthusiastic embrace of hard money and even cryptocurrency makes clear.
But the Trucker Convoy brought something new into play: a more paranoid sense that the government is not just expensive and intrusive but actively out to make ordinary Canadians sick for mysterious malevolent reasons. The focus is less on economic issues and the enemy becomes urban and educated Canada generally. Traditionally left-wing themes about the “working class” and “freedom” are tied into a hostility to science and technocracy. Whether or not Poilievre really believes in this new kind of populism, he – like Bernier before him – is comfortable talking its language.
As we write, in the summer of 2022, the mandate wars have died down somewhat. There is no guarantee they will not flare up again if, as expected, there is a new wave of COVID infections in the fall and governments feel obliged to take intrusive measures again. But even if they do not, the cleavage in Canadian society exposed by sounds of truck horns and images of Red Ensigns and Confederate flags are not going away soon.
¹See the highlights of the Inroads listserv discussion of the Convoy, The Occupation of Ottawa.