Amarnath Amarasingam is an assistant professor in the school of religion, and is cross-appointed to the department of political studies, at Queen’s University. Stephanie Carvin is an associate professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.
From the early days of the plans for a convoy to Ottawa, it was clear the protest was attracting a wide variety of participants, well beyond the original stated aim of protesting new cross-border trucker quarantine measures. Much like what we witnessed during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last year, the convoy became a kind of bug light for a variety of people with disparate interests, ranging from limiting government overreach to those demanding that the current government be dissolved.
While most seemed peaceful, several individuals were seen with Nazi flags, urinated on the National War Memorial, confronted employees at local businesses who demanded they be masked and harassed journalists who were covering the rally. At the time of writing, two things remain unclear: first, whether the rally participants, many of whom are still protesting in downtown Ottawa, will become involved in more serious instances of violence and, second, whether the protestors will leave feeling like they achieved something, even though their over-the-top demands were never going to be met.
The protests will not accomplish their stated aims of eliminating all pandemic mandates or removing the Prime Minister from office. One of the GoFundMe organizers, Tamara Lich, claimed at the rally that they are not leaving until “all of you and your kids are free.” It is not entirely clear what that means of course, and speaks to the often extravagant nature of their stated goals. But given the widespread and international media coverage, millions of dollars raised and having captured an energy that no political party has been able to do for some time, the organizers will be able to claim a kind of victory.
For these reasons, it is possible this movement will collapse under its own success. If many different actors claim success and seek to push the movement in competing directions, it will ultimately be unable to frame itself around a coherent narrative.
Additionally, it may be abandoned by those who simply took the opportunity to express anger and frustrations as we enter year three of the pandemic. As life in Canada eventually returns to normal, many may simply wish to return to their previous lives. It may also be abandoned by those who feel the movement has not gone far enough and leave in disappointment.
More concerning, however, is that the convoy could represent the maturation of a Canadian Tea Party-style populist movement. Having developed networks, links and fundraising tools, organizers will be able to push their views, goals and efforts to hundreds of thousands who have followed them on social media. This could have an impact on Canadian politics for years to come. For many of these actors, any policy move by the Canadian government – especially a Liberal government – is tantamount to treason. These sentiments used to be spouted in the dark corners of the internet, but they have ridden the wave of anxiety related to the pandemic into influencer status. Many of the Facebook pages related to the convoy have more than 200,000 followers.
However, an enduring populist movement is not guaranteed. Much will depend on the issues that the organizers of this movement choose to embrace. As well documented by now, many have been actively involved in anti-immigration movements and promoted conspiracy theories.
The experience of the 2019 United We Roll rally is telling in this regard. That convoy failed because although it was nominally a movement to support oil and gas workers, it was also inspired by a conspiracy theory that a cabal of Jewish leaders were using the Global Compact for Migration to engage in white genocide. As such, the basis of the protest was largely unintelligible and incomprehensible to most Canadians. Significantly, many of the organizers of the current convoy were active supporters of that 2019 movement. The difference now is that the convoy organizers have successfully tapped into the trauma of the pandemic and, as such, it has been a much more accessible vehicle for mobilization.
As a result of the populist groundswell that has arisen in response to the pandemic and public-health measures, these fringe activists now have hundreds of thousands of followers and have shown that they are able to fundraise effectively and organize quickly. In whatever way the rally in Ottawa ends, they have established a significant presence in Canada, which will have a louder voice in elections and policy debates going forward.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.