I’ve been enduring streets occupied by people who don’t believe in vaccination, downtown areas taken over by honking vehicles, and road blockades by anti-government loons, some of them violent and threatening, for almost two years. But that’s because I’ve been living much of that time in Europe, where such vehicular displays of political impotence have been part of the background noise for many years.
So I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at headlines this week such as, “Thousands protest COVID-19 restrictions in France, inspired by Canadian convoy.” Put aside the fact that these protests don’t claim to be against health restrictions, but against the proof-of-vaccination requirements that allow us to end those restrictions. The larger irony is that the Canadian “truck” protests are a deliberate knock-off of a larger convoy-based protest movement in France.
Canada rather than France is in the world’s headlines, however, because municipal authorities in two or three of its cities failed to deal with a small but noisy group of vehicles blocking major streets and border crossings, thus allowing a community of conspiracy theorists and anti-democratic activists to encamp themselves in public spaces and generate far more attention, and inflict more damage on the economy, than their tiny numbers and political irrelevance ever warranted.
Now this has become a federal issue and provoked the first-ever use of Canada’s potentially draconian Emergencies Act. That legislation may have been necessary to empower federal and provincial police to reopen streets and remove weapons. But it should stop there. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government ought to think twice before considering any further action – and take some lessons from ways European leaders have responded to vehicular protest movements.
Ottawa’s current “truck” protest was originally planned by people who said they wanted a Canadian copy of France’s gilets jaunes (or “yellow vests”) movement. During 2018, it sent right-leaning drivers and truckers protesting against French environmental policies and taxes, often using their vehicles to block roads, occupy city centres and do battle with police. At the peak, as many as 100,000 people were occupying French cities that year (compared with the few thousand protesters and couple hundred large vehicles protesting in Canada).
In December of 2018, President Emmanuel Macron took action – by caving. He and then prime minister Édouard Philippe cancelled the carbon tax on fuel that had been the original source of the protest, and he gave a speech acknowledging the “pain” felt by the protesters. It helped defuse the violence – but it also sent a message that fringe groups without electoral support from any major party could successfully hold governments hostage using vehicles.
Canada’s knock-off convoys started shortly after – at first as an attempted “yellow vest” pro-pipeline convoy to Ottawa in 2019. The same individuals then began planning a noisier anti-government “freedom convoy.” As reporters have noted, the Facebook page for the current Ottawa occupation was registered in 2019, long before the pandemic or vaccination existed. The vax-mandate issue was a late add-on.
It was an inevitable one, though, because by the end of 2021 the combination of vaccine conspiracy theorists and far-right activists had been holding occupations, blockades and attacks across Europe for more than a year.
Most European leaders avoided Mr. Macron’s mistake of treating their claims as legitimate, or the equally grave mistake of seeing them as a major threat and outlawing them or crushing them with excessive force.
But there were incidents requiring response. In October, thousands of Italian anti-vaccination protesters, who had been occupying cities for weeks, stormed the country’s parliament in Rome, injuring more than 30 police officers protecting the legislature and nearly shutting it down in scenes that resembled the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington. Police also found the organizers discussing violent acts against politicians, hospitals and media figures, and raided and arrested dozens of them.
But the larger response from Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government offers a lesson: Recognizing that Italians overwhelmingly oppose the protesters and want full vaccination, Mr. Draghi acknowledged the right to protest while adding extra proof-of-vaccination requirements that kept the not-yet-vaccinated out of public life.
Likewise in Germany, where the anti-vaccination far right shut down streets in many cities and held lengthy motor-convoy protests through 2021, including one in December in which a torch-bearing mob attacked the house of Saxony’s health minister.
Recognizing that the protesters have negligible political support, Germany’s coalition government maintained the right to protest, but is now planning to make vaccination compulsory for all citizens, as a growing list of European countries have done.
Mr. Trudeau should learn from these leaders: Stop acting like it’s an emergency or a serious movement, beyond the current need to enforce traffic laws and deal with violent threats. Stop giving the protesters the fearful credibility they crave. Instead, recognize the public revulsion at the protests as a powerful vote for the vaccinations that will end the pandemic.
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