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People hold a sign against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and vaccinations during a rally against COVID-19 restrictions on Parliament Hill, which began as a cross-country convoy protesting a federal vaccine mandate for truckers, in Ottawa, on Jan. 29.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Omer Aziz is author of the forthcoming book Brown Boy: A Story of Race, Religion and Inheritance.

They came in droves from all over the country, packed into cars and pickup trucks, cheered on by supporters along the way. They saw their freedoms under attack and converged on the nation’s capital in an attempt to force the resignation of a democratically elected government, using intimidation and threats to showcase their power. Desiring greater liberty, some displayed Confederate flags and Nazi swastikas, defiled national monuments, desecrated the memory of war heroes, and demanded that federal leaders be overthrown.

What I am describing happened in the United States on Jan. 6, 2021, and is still going on in Canada. The truckers’ movement is no longer a demonstration for freedom or vaccine mandates, but a well-funded assault on democracy. As one organizer put it, their mission was to “compel the government to dissolve government.” We must be clear about what took place in Canada last weekend: an attempt to alter government policy by force – while masquerading as a rally for freedom. More dangerously, it was a movement insidiously co-opted by white nationalists and their far-right allies.

Over the past two years, the feeling that our freedoms have been encroached – through government-mandated lockdowns and requirements to present medical certificates – is almost universal. The pandemic has taken a huge mental and financial toll on families, especially working-class ones who were struggling even before COVID-19 started. We are living through one of the greatest wealth transfers in history from the middle class to the elite. Everyone is hurting – but not everyone was protesting in Ottawa.

The issue that prompted these protests was opposition to cross-border vaccine mandates that require unvaccinated truck drivers to quarantine for 14 days upon returning to Canada. That is 14 days of being without work – although the solution is one that approximately 90 per cent of truckers have abided by, which is getting vaccinated. Still, listening to some of the protesters, I have empathy for people whose livelihoods have been disrupted and who feel deep uncertainty about the future. No one has enjoyed this pandemic and the ruptures it has caused in our lives.

Calling COVID-19 vaccine mandates a ‘crime against humanity’ isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous

I come at this from a unique perspective. All my uncles on my mother’s side of the family are truck drivers. They immigrated to Canada 20 years ago and built a successful trucking business. They employ a dozen people, and make cross-border trips. I asked one uncle, who is vaccinated, what he made of the convoy, which was officially condemned by the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

“When you are a trucker,” he said, “it is not just a job, but a profession. Some people don’t know anything else. They’ve been truckers their whole lives. It’s not an option to just go and do something else. Truckers are essential workers. If you don’t have truckers, you don’t have food.”

That said, having seen racist signs and symbols in the crowd, he could not support the protests, he told me.

My uncle pointed out that all of the Sikh and Muslim truck drivers he knew – and South Asians constitute roughly one-fifth of all Canadian truckers – were vaccinated. And, indeed, what I didn’t see at the protests were many black or brown or Asian people.

The demand to be exempted from rules that bind everyone else is the clearest definition of white privilege I can think of. This is the thing about democracy that the convoy organizers, in all their innocence, do not understand: that rights come with responsibilities, and freedom comes with duties. This vaccine mandate is no different than other areas of compelled action – wearing seatbelts, getting the measles shot, showing ID before purchasing alcohol, paying your taxes. We don’t change legislation by force, or litter and blockade a capital city if we don’t get our way. At some point, the protesters will have to meet the consequences of the law if they try to shut down the centre of government.

What is especially distressing is how many members of one political party in particular have been goading and supporting this convoy. At least the mask is off, and the Conservatives are now being honest about where their sympathies lie. While some Conservatives condemned the Confederate and Nazi symbols, others were willing to look the other way. Some of the party’s grassroots energy is shifting toward the white nationalist movement, and the Tories will have to take ownership of any destruction these protests cause. Every Canadian should ask themselves: What would happen if the protesters got their way? Would the government be forced to resign? Would our democracy fall? It’s a chilling reality to ponder, and one that the freedom organizers, and evidently some politicians, envisage as our future.

The images from the weekend – Terry Fox’s statue vandalized, the National War Memorial urinated on, the symbol of Hitlerism flown on Parliament Hill – will be hard to forget. But they do not represent Canada. The rest of us are the silent majority, and we will fight to preserve and protect this inclusive, democratic project called Canada. Our collective future – including the future of truckers – depends on it.

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