Frank Graves is president of Ottawa-based Ekos Research Associates and an adjunct professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University. Michael Valpy is a senior fellow at Massey College and senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.
Last month, national news agency The Canadian Press declared that the creators of the self-described freedom convoy, which occupied downtown Ottawa for three weeks and blockaded border crossings last February, should be styled Canada’s 2022 Newsmakers of the Year.
Indeed, they grabbed Canadians’ attention, displaying outsized placards and banners wherever they gathered, shouting “Freedom!” and other related slogans as they went. There is much speculation that they’ll return for a repeat appearance at some point this year – maybe coinciding (for the drama) with the timing of the federal Public Order Emergency Commission’s final report to Parliament on the mischief they caused, the political turmoil they unleashed, the millions of public dollars they cost and the great bleating failure of the authorities to deal with them properly.
Yet after six weeks of evidence before a federal commission, culminating in five hours of unprecedented testimony by the Prime Minister, the root causes of why these protesters did what they did, and how to respond to them if they do it again, remain largely elusive. The media’s reporting on their behaviour has also been largely empty of meaningful explanations.
The supposition that these protests have primarily been driven by a rejection of COVID-19 mask mandates and vaccination has been as flat-out wrong as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s dismissal of the convoy participants as a “fringe group.” Some fringe – they consistently have had the support of 25 per cent of the population, or one in four Canadians.
This was, in fact, a hugely significant manifestation of a polarized political landscape, one that is preventing Canada from taking a consensual path forward. The convoy has turned the historic meaning of freedom upside down and recast the contest between political parties for leading the country into the future.
The pot-banging opposition to masks and vaccines were surface-level flashpoints and rallying cries stemming from much deeper currents – ones that have been percolating for some time, that preceded the pandemic and will shift to other areas of dispute after the pandemic.
What is taking place is a redefinition of freedom in democratic states: a shift from a focus on who governs, to a new focus on the extent to which one is governed. This shift is directly contesting the democratic view by prioritizing the enjoyment of private independence.
What’s missing in the conversation about recasting the future is a recognition of three key issues: the rise of authoritarian (or what we call ordered) populism; the collapse of institutional trust; and the burgeoning role of disinformation transmitted largely, but by no means exclusively, by social media. All of these forces are fanning the flames of discontent in ways we could not have imagined a decade ago.
The same forces have surfaced time and again: during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; the presidency of Donald Trump; the movement toward Brexit; the recent election of a hard-right government in Sweden; and similar shoals breaking the once-placid surfaces of other advanced Western societies.
The roots of these new forces are complex but ultimately initiated by the collapse of shared prosperity and inclusive economics.
Those drawn to this new movement are most likely to be males under the age of 50 who are lacking university educations and are experiencing an erosion of social status. They are dramatically more likely to lean toward an authoritarian, or ordered, populist outlook, be dramatically less trusting of institutions such as government, media, academics and other professionals, dramatically more disinformed – and they are also dramatically more economically insecure.
These are people for whom the middle-class dream has collapsed – the dream of doing better than their parents, buying a home, retiring with a pension and having their children inherit a secure middle-class future.
Elon Musk may have cheered on the convoy truckers, but he and other oligarchs are building the autonomous vehicles that will replace those truckers. This is not simply a loss of income – this is a loss of status and identity and is coupled with a values backlash that produces an authoritarian reflex.
What will the Public Order Emergency Commission report to Parliament? Yes, probably that we need more intelligent and informed security responses in the future.
But in a just, good world, it would also report that the bigger problem facing democracy is how to recreate an economy of hope and shared prosperity. If we can’t understand this problem and form a plan to solve it, we will continue to face similar incidents of discord in the future.