Skip to main content
opinion

Carleton MP Pierre Poilievre on Saturday announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative Party.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The thousands of protesters who gathered in downtown Ottawa for a second weekend were not part of a “nationwide insurrection,” as Diane Deans, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, alleged Saturday during an emergency meeting.

But a new force has arrived in Canadian politics, the culmination of growing populist resentments over the inequality of globalization, the presidency of Donald Trump that reflected those resentments, and new resentments over pandemic restrictions.

This populist conservative force is powerful and militant. And it has found a political voice in Carleton MP Pierre Poilievre, who on Saturday announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

Already, it looks like no Conservative will be able to challenge Pierre Poilievre

Ottawa mayor declares state of emergency over trucker convoy protests

Those who gathered at Parliament Hill and on nearby streets Saturday morning and afternoon were in the main friendly and cheerful, with many parents and children in the crowd. (Things became rowdier at night.)

The protesters were determined to continue the occupation of downtown Ottawa until vaccine mandates are reversed. On Sunday, I was given a tour of the support centre operating out of a parking lot in the city’s east end. The centre appears to be well run, fully resourced, and easily able to sustain – for weeks or months if need be – the hundreds of truckers and volunteer supporters who form the core of the occupation. (The CBC reports that police arrived at the support centre Sunday night and removed some supplies.)

Beyond that, those involved appeared to share the sense of esprit that you often see among people who believe they are part of something larger than themselves. Such movements, whether they originate from the left or the right, can generate fierce loyalty and determination.

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly has been severely criticized for the limp response by his force to these protests. He is clearly frightened by what he faces. “There is something that has changed in the democratic fabric of the nation,” he told the police board Saturday.

Demonstrations the likes of which have never been seen before “could afflict the nation’s capital year in and year out,” he predicted. This might be butt-covering but there could be truth in it as well.

How does this particular demonstration end? One version might involve city, provincial and federal authorities acting in concert to separate the truckers from their vehicles, which would then be towed away, while also shutting down support operations. This could take several days and would carry the risk of violence.

An alternative might be to whittle away at the protesters through a combination of tickets, injunctions and limited arrests, hoping the whole thing gradually fizzles out. But that might not be sufficient to force the most dedicated to move their trucks.

On Sunday afternoon, Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency, citing “the serious danger and threat to the safety and security of residents posed by the ongoing demonstrations.”

At the core of this protest is a group of men and women who are willing to defy civil authority in the name of what they truly believe is freedom. “Enough’s enough,” Randy Armstrong told me. He and about 20 family and friends have contributed about 10 trucks to the occupation.

“If you want to get vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you don’t, don’t. We need to respect each other’s wants and needs,” he said.

In a video released Saturday announcing his candidacy for the Conservative leadership, Mr. Poilievre stressed a similar theme. “We will make Canadians the freest people on Earth,” he promised. Those freedoms will include, “the freedom to make your own health and vaccine choices.”

Many Conservative MPs, including former leader Andrew Scheer, have expressed their support for the protesters. Others have broken ranks, including Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles MP Pierre Paul-Hus and Hastings—Lennox and Addington MP Shelby Kramp-Neuman, who said legitimate protest had descended into “two-bit hooliganism hiding behind a façade of veiled legitimacy.” Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson has left the Conservative caucus because of party members’ support for the protesters.

As for the federal government’s response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has offered nothing but derision, calling the protesters a “fringe minority” who hold “unacceptable views.” But the occupation is occurring in the capital of the country he leads. He cannot duck responsibility forever.

Canada’s politics are becoming increasingly defined by the issue of vaccine mandates. Political parties are being reshaped by it, the streets of Ottawa are seized with it. And no one knows how this ends.

For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.