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Police begin to move in and make arrests at the trucker protest in Ottawa on Feb. 18.Brett Gundlock/The New York Times News Service

Sondra Gotlieb, the wife of Canada’s U.S. ambassador in the early 1980s, once observed: “For some reason, a glaze passes over people’s faces when you say Canada.” She joked we should invade South Dakota to shake things up a bit.

Alas, most Canadians who have spent extended periods of time outside the country learn to take the dearth of local knowledge about their home and native land in stride. Besides the old clichés about our politeness, one is struck by just how little our country seems to matter to the rest of the world. Canada, when it gets noticed at all, is seen as benign and incidental.

Or at least it was.

It is too soon to know if the three-week-long occupation of central Ottawa forever changed Canada’s image abroad. But it is safe to say that, for some time to come, the mere mention of Canada in a foreign setting is less likely to cause a glaze to pass over people’s faces than to spark hurried inquiries about what the hell is happening up there in that frigid no-man’s-land.

For much of February, news feeds and broadcasts around the world were flooded with images of parka-clad protesters, undeterred by temperatures most of the planet could not withstand for three minutes, much less three weeks, occupying Canada’s capital city, in the shadow of the Peace Tower, in what was widely seen as a populist uprising against the country’s elites.

Rarely, if ever, has Canada been as much the centre of attention as during the past month. A perplexed world has wondered why our leaders seemed so powerless to end the occupation of the capital, and blockades of border crossings, that most functioning democracies would never have allowed to form in the first place. To many, something appeared to be truly rotten in the state of Canada.

Foreign media invariably cast the occupation of Ottawa by a “freedom convoy” of disgruntled truckers and other opponents of COVID-19 restrictions as proof of the creeping influence of Trumpism north of the U.S. border. Most focused on protest organizers who harboured extremist views and sought to overthrow a democratically elected government. But some foreign journalists did a better job than others in distinguishing between extremists who sought to leverage the protests to promote their own twisted ideas and the genuine sense of frustration most protesters felt toward governments they believed had abused their power.

For some right-thinking Canadians, seeing their country’s capital depicted in foreign media as a dangerous no-go zone was too much to bear. Several prominent domestic journalists tweeted their indignation at a New York Times headline saying police clearing the parliamentary precinct had arrested protesters at gunpoint. Some disputed the information outright, though video footage showing members of the Ottawa Police tactical team pointing their carbines proved the Times correct.

“I think we hit a hornet’s nest: Canada does not want to see itself this way,” Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir told Canadaland after the pile-on by Canadian journos.

The more foreign media investigated the situation in Canada, the more they arrived at the conclusion that the crisis was not so much the product of a backlash among anti-science nuts who had been duped by conspiracy theorists – if not Russian-led disinformation campaigns – than the result of a miserable leadership failure.

“Faced with this ruckus, Canada’s government should have drawn a clear distinction between harmful acts and obnoxious or foolish words,” a Feb. 19 editorial in The Economist said. “A wise government would listen to [the protesters] and respond politely, taking their complaints seriously and patiently explaining why COVID restrictions, though onerous are necessary for the time being.” Instead, the British magazine noted, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted condemnation of “the anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, homophobia and transphobia that we’ve seen on display in Ottawa over the past number of days.”

For some reason, foreign observers seem to discern the trajectory Canadian politics has taken under Mr. Trudeau more cogently than those in the domestic chattering classes. The corrosive impact of identity politics was always bound to eat away at Canada’s social fabric, just as much as the attempts of some conservatives to drive Canadians farther apart. That, after all, is the point of it, which is why journalists from countries where identity politics has thrived in some form or another for centuries can spot it a mile away.

The rest of the world, it seems, is starting to figure Canada out, after all.

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