Stephanie Carvin is an associate professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Last week, at the public inquiry into the Trudeau government’s use of the Emergencies Act, leaders and organizers of the truckers convoy – Tamara Lich, Pat King, Tom Marazzo, Benjamin Dichter, James Bauder and others – had an opportunity to present their side of the story.
They told the commission that the protest was chaotic, with only vague objectives, no plan and no way to control a movement that soon showed up across different cities and border crossings in Canada. Stories of support and solidarity were mixed with reports of conflicts about money, mistrust, suspicion and worries over how far some of the convoy participants, especially Mr. King, would go in trying to create an impossible situation for the governments of the City of Ottawa, Ontario and Canada.
And while it may have been frustrating for the residents of Ottawa to see their tormenters platformed for a full week of testimony, an underlying lesson has emerged that has significant implications not just for the commission, but also for Canadian politics more broadly: There was not one, but two convoy realities.
There is the convoy that most Canadians witnessed or experienced this past winter, in which thousands of protesters effectively took hostage a city and several border crossings for weeks. Having traded air horns for bullhorns, the convoy sought to compel the federal government through a campaign of endless honking, slow rolls targeting schools and airports, and disruption to the lives of Ottawa residents, which many participants gleefully relished.
Then there is the convoy the participants believe they joined. This reality was described by its leaders as a “lovefest” and like “Woodstock.” They argued that Canadians by the thousands came out to end the torture of vaccine mandates through hugging one another and expressing their democratic right to protest.
Whatever the findings of the inquiry commission in relation to the federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act, one reality cannot be reconciled with the other.
For example, convoy organizers repeatedly testified that they did not believe things they did not see; when they did see them, however, they did not believe the events to be true. When asked about repeated police notices to leave the secured “red zone” in Ottawa, convoy organizers replied that they never saw them, did not read them, or that their lawyers told them differently.
Did they notice the frustration of the citizens of Ottawa? Convoy leaders claimed they only received hugs from Ottawa residents. They never heard any complaints, they said, only support and gratitude.
What about the suffering of downtown residents from the convoy trucks’ constant fumes and noise? They answered about how their relatives suffered from being alone during COVID-19 lockdowns.
In other words, what we learned is that no police warning, no city warning or no declaration of emergency was going to convince convoy supporters that they had to leave. They believed they were right, and therefore it was true. There was no evidence or argument that would convince them otherwise. Indeed, if anything, the testimony only showed that they still believe they have the right to be there.
But the implications of this bifurcated understanding of what happened goes beyond the convoy and Emergencies Act itself. It suggests that our politics will continue to be divided – not in terms of ideas, but in terms of realities.
When one enters the convoy supporters’ reality, there is no need to ever leave. Indeed, there is now an entire media ecosystem in Canada that is dedicated to reaffirming the movement’s beliefs, broadcast through endless livestreams, Twitter mobs and frenzied Facebook groups.
A bottomless well of content has sprung up to offer reassurances that convoy supporters are right – that they are victims of a dictatorship, but also heroes of their collective fairy tale. They provide themselves reassurance that everyone else, including the media, authorities, schools and even concerned friends and family, is lying. In this reality, the only accurate information is what confirms what you already believe to be true.
In this sense, the police-enforced end of the protests likely did not burst any bubbles. It only further polarized the two realities.
None of this is to say that the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act was necessarily justified – we still do not have all the evidence as to whether the high threshold to invoke it was met. But last week, we learned our politics will need to get used to dealing with these two realities for the foreseeable future.