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Rita Abrahamsen and Michael C. Williams are professors in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

The trucker convoy that rolled onto the streets of Ottawa late last month has become an unlikely cause célèbre for extreme far-right movements and anti-vaxxers around the world. The scenario that has unfolded is not how Canada sees itself, and it has led to widespread concerns about foreign influences on the protests.

These influences are far deeper and much more troubling than commonly observed. They go beyond foreign donations on GoFundMe, endorsements by right-wing personalities, or viral posts on extreme social-media platforms. While less immediately visible, the most important international connections are the ideological and political ideas that led to the rise of right-wing movements from Hungary and France to the United States and Brazil. For this reason, the protests may be more important for the longer-term forces they unleash than their immediate impact.

Three ideological strategies characterize recently ascendant right-wing movements, and elements of each are evident in the truckers’ protests. First, they are anti-globalist and anti-elitist. They claim to speak for the “real people, in real places,” those forgotten by the “globalist” elite that dominates the corridors of power. Second, they are opposed to the “administrative state” and the growth of non-legislative powers in the hands of bureaucrats and experts. Precisely for this reason, COVID-19 public-health measures have been a boon for the right, whose supporters see an encroaching state in each new regulation. Thus, vaccine mandates are a symbol that unifies and mobilizes opposition to an unrepresentative and overbearing state. Third, recent right-wing movements attack what they see as condescension from mainstream media and cultural institutions that disparages the values and concerns of ordinary people.

These ideas may be flawed and misguided, but they cannot be dismissed as the product of a narrow fringe. They are designed to mobilize a wider public that finds elements of the narrative persuasive. The success of radical right-wing parties in France in framing the gilets jaunes protests in these terms, and the narrative of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol espoused by Trumpist elements of the Republican Party, reflect this strategy. Given that, according to some polls, nearly half of Canadians have at least some sympathy with the protest, the important issue is not the activities of a radical fringe. It is the possibility that the protests give the politics of division wider appeal.

Canadian politics is at a crossroads. If the polarization of the political landscape seen in so many other parts of the world is to be avoided, political leaders need to face up to the challenges posed by the protesters. There are four possible responses leaders can take to the current protests, and similar ones that are likely to follow.

First, ignore them. The consequences of this strategy have been clearly displayed on the streets of Ottawa, and on the Ambassador Bridge.

A second approach is to demonize them. Here, the Prime Minister’s dismissal of the demonstrators as a “fringe minority” holding ”unacceptable views” risks reinforcing charges of elite disdain. It echoes Hillary Clinton’s famous “basket of deplorables” comment, which continues to serve as a rallying point on the populist American right. Mark Carney’s charge that the protest amounts to “sedition” supported by foreign funds similarly risks being presented as just another attack on honest people by a card-carrying member of the globalist elite. Such stances risk contributing to the politics of division.

A third option is for the right to embrace the political opportunities these narratives enable and the constituencies they can potentially mobilize. This is the tactic of many parties on the right abroad, and it is a key choice currently facing their Canadian counterparts. The danger is a radicalization of conservative politics.

The fourth, and most difficult, is to engage with the criticisms and concerns without giving into them. There is no doubt that the protest contains unpalatable, and even authoritarian, racist and fascist views, and that it has international connections to right-wing movements around the world. But it is also clear that it expresses sentiments that cannot be ascribed to such groups alone. Separating those concerns that can reasonably be discussed disarms those who claim that engagement with the other side is impossible. This is undoubtedly the most difficult position politically, but it holds out the possibility of blunting the populist strategy of division.

So far, Canada’s political leaders have not only failed the challenge, but have shown a striking lack of comprehension of the possible long-term consequences of the crisis.

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