Duane Bratt is a political science professor and Chair, Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies, at Mount Royal University in Calgary
After a 3,400-km trek from Red Deer, Alta., the United We Roll truck convoy arrived in Ottawa on Tuesday with nearly 200 semi, flatbed and pick-up trucks. Throughout the multi-day journey, the convoy of protesters attracted media coverage at every stop on the way. This attention meant that no federal politician, from the Prime Minister to the leader of the Official Opposition, could miss the anger emanating from Alberta and other parts of Western Canada over the federal government’s oil and gas policy.
There were four specific anti-oil policies that the convoy was protesting: the delays around the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline and the cancellation of the Northern Gateway Pipeline; Bill C-69, which makes changes to the environmental assessment process for Canada’s resource sector; and Bill C-48, which would ban oil tanker traffic off the northern coast of B.C. Protesters found it hypocritical that tankers delivering foreign oil to refineries in Saint John or Montreal are fine, but tankers delivering Canadian oil to overseas markets would be banned. Finally, the protesters want to repeal the federal carbon tax, which they see as a simple government cash grab.
Why was a convoy to Ottawa so important? Throughout the fall of 2018, there were similar protests throughout Alberta. They attracted politicians and generated lots of media attention in the province, but there was very little discussion outside of it. Since the issues being raised were under federal jurisdiction, organizers realized that it was necessary to generate national awareness. There was also a major historical precedent: In 1935, in the depths of the Great Depression, a thousand unemployed men from the West commandeered freight cars to ride the rails as part of the “On to Ottawa Trek” to protest the handling of government-run relief camps.
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Protests on Parliament Hill are common, so the convoy needed to find a way to make itself stand out. There were several ways to do it.
One was the size of the protest. This wasn’t relevant for the oil and gas protesters, because their demonstration was relatively small.
Second was to find a unique issue. There have been annual right-to-life and pro-marijuana demonstrations, but ones that are pro-oil and gas are rare.
Third was to travel a lengthy distance. Local protesters or those from a couple of hours away are common, but going across the country, while done before, is still significant. It illustrates the passion of the protest.
Fourth was to arrive in an unusual fashion. Some protesters previously had arrived by snowshoe, or brought cows with them. In this case, it’s hard to miss a convoy of trucks! Trucks are big, loud, colourful, and able to snarl traffic.
Unfortunately, the convoy’s pro-oil and gas message was diluted by two factors. The first was unfortunate timing: the convoy arrived in Ottawa in the midst of a major political crisis. The Trudeau government is being rocked by the SNC-Lavalin scandal, which has already claimed the cabinet resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Justin Trudeau’s Principal Secretary, Gerald Butts. This meant that the government’s attention was elsewhere; the convoy was the media’s second item, instead of leading the coverage.
The second factor was the infiltration within the convoy of white nationalists who used it to protest the UN Global Compact, immigration, and racist causes. By not properly vetting participants, a percentage of the media coverage and social media commentary was not about oil and gas policy, but about the more odious aspects of the convoy. In addition, because the convoy lacked one key spokesperson, it allowed everyone to claim to speak for the group, even on matters that were unconnected to the stated goal of promoting oil and gas. This meant at best a disjointed message, and at worse a racist message.
Protests do not always lead to public policy changes, but they can be considered successful if they put an issue on the agenda. In this respect, the convoy was worthwhile. If it had been able to avoid the missteps, its impact would have been even more powerful.