The protests started in Canada by truck drivers against mandatory vaccines against Covid-19 complete a week this Friday (4), amid fears of an escalation of violence and a possible reconfiguration of national politics.
Attendance to the acts dropped sharply over the week – from a peak of 15,000 people on the streets of Ottawa to just over 200 trucks and other vehicles that continue to block streets and roads in the nation’s capital. But further demonstrations are planned for the next few days in Toronto, Canada’s most populous city and main financial center, and in Québec, capital of the province of the same name.
“I’m here for freedom. This whole thing has been going on for two years and it seems like every day there’s something more. We don’t need a vaccine passport,” Paul Aubue, 64, said in an interview with Britain’s Guardian newspaper, adding that the family convinced him not to receive the coronavirus vaccine. “People are born and die every day, that’s nature.”
Owner of a trucking company — and therefore with financial, not just ideological, motivations to join the acts — he left the province of New Brunswick, located in the far east of the country, on the border with the US state of Maine, to join the protesters in Ottawa.
Like Aubue, many have initiated acts at first against the vaccine requirement for truck drivers crossing the US border. As the movement gained strength, some of the protesters also started to target Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his policies to combat the pandemic.
As a result, some of those present at the Ottawa blockade say they will only dismantle their makeshift camps in trucks and trailers when the federal government lifts restrictions — although almost all the rules they oppose are provincial in scope, that is, not dependent on the Trudeau’s endorsement.
“Our movement has grown in Canada and around the world because ordinary people are tired of government orders and restrictions on their lives that now seem to be doing more harm than good,” said Tamara Lich, one of the movement’s main organizers.
The protesters raised more than 10 million Canadian dollars (R$ 41.7 million) in a virtual fundraiser. The GoFundMe platform, however, has suspended the availability of the money as it seeks to verify how it will be spent. Representatives of the company were summoned by Canadian lawmakers to testify and explain the platform’s guarantees regarding the release of funds.
The dissatisfaction of residents of the capital with the turmoil caused by the acts is growing. There are reports of harassment, intimidation and violence, in addition to the fact that everyday life has also been affected. Several stores have kept their doors closed, and store owners are on high alert, as protesters include, among their protest tactics, entering malls without a mask, for example.
The local police announced the opening of investigations into incidents such as the depredation of monuments and public property and the presence, among the protesters, of flags with Nazi symbols.
Peter Sloly, chief of police in Ottawa, even raised the possibility that the Armed Forces would be called in to act to contain the acts. According to him, this would be justified by the information that a large number of weapons were being smuggled to the demonstrators.
Trudeau, however, ruled out this alternative. “These cards are not on the table right now,” the prime minister said, adding that officials must be “very cautious before mobilizing the military in situations against Canadians themselves.” The position of the police has therefore been one of monitoring.
So far, 30 traffic tickets have been issued, and three people have been arrested. While Sloly described the protests as “intolerable and unprecedented”, some accuse the police of taking the protesters too easy. The indigenous cause, for example, is a sensitive issue for Canadian society, and activists linked to it often accuse the authorities of repressing possible protests by members of the so-called First Nations with disproportionate violence.
“It’s okay for angry white men to protest because they are politically aligned with you, but it’s not okay for indigenous people to peacefully protect their own rights,” indigenous lawyer and teacher Pam Palmater told APTN News.
On Friday, Ottawa police issued a statement saying they would put more officers on the streets and implement “a strategy of increasing containment” to restore order in the capital. “The hate, violence and illegal acts that Ottawa residents and businesses have suffered in the last week are unacceptable under any circumstances,” the corporation said. According to the note, the police will give orders for some truck drivers to move and, if they refuse, their vehicles will be towed.
As of this Friday, 85% of Canadians have received at least one dose of the immunizer against the coronavirus, 79.5% have completed the first vaccination schedule and 41.9% have taken the booster dose.
A survey published by the Abacus Data institute this Thursday (3) points out that 68% of respondents say they have very little in common with the so-called “freedom train” protesters. The other 32% say they identify with the truck drivers and other groups that joined the acts.
Asked how they viewed the demonstrations, 57% described them as “offensive and inappropriate”, while 43% rated them “respectful and appropriate”. 1,410 Canadians were interviewed between January 31 and February 2. The survey also probed the views of respondents based on their political convictions. The largest shares of support for acts against measures to combat the pandemic come from parties on the right of the political spectrum.
Although the share of Canadians on the streets and support for the acts are minority, the dimensions of the movement can change the Canadian political landscape. The main opposition party, the Conservative Party, has shown broad support for the protesters. Erin O’Toole, who led the acronym since August 2020, was deposed by her co-religionists on Thursday. The official justification for the change of command was the electoral performance in the last elections, won by Trudeau’s Liberal Party.
Behind the scenes, however, rumors are that O’Toole’s stance on the “freedom train” contributed to his downfall. At first, the now former leader sought to distance himself from the protesters’ demand. Then he showed some support, but not with the emphasis that might have been expected.
Last weekend, O’Toole met with protest representatives and spoke out in favor of the right to peaceful demonstration, but criticized “individuals who desecrated” memorials and monuments in Ottawa.
The Conservative Party is now under interim leadership, and one of the favorites to fill the vacuum left by O’Toole is Pierre Poilievre. On social media, he has been posting in support of protesters who, in his view, are “peaceful, kind and patriotic” and are choosing “freedom over fear”.
“If you go to the supermarket and find products on the shelves, thank the truck drivers. If you find empty shelves, thank Justin Trudeau,” Poilievre said in one of his videos.
For him, the demand for proof of immunization against Covid is a “vaccine revenge” designed by the prime minister against the truckers class.
For political analysts, the fact that the “freedom train” attracted representatives of American extreme right groups to Canada, such as followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory and the Proud Boys (considered terrorists in the country), could be the trigger for the radicalization of the local politics. The comparison is based on what happened in the US, especially since 2008, with the rise of the conservative Tea Party movement. At the time, the most radical wave changed the composition of the US Congress and reshaped the country’s political rhetoric.
In Canada, more moderate speeches traditionally tend to bring greater electoral dividends, but the political consequences of the “freedom train” are still unclear.
“If Canadian populism sticks to this anti-government, anti-immigration, anti-refugee and racist guise, and if some elected officials feel that this segment of the population is useful, that will influence the discourse in terms of how we actually do politics in Canada,” he said. Amarnath Amarasingam, a researcher on extremist and populist movements at Queen’s University in Canada, told the Guardian.
“If it’s like the US, it will be just as destructive.”