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Why the Ottawa trucker protest could spark a new movement in Canada

While police may have broken up the Freedom Convoy on Ottawa's streets, the movement is likely just beginning, says a professor of American history who studies cults and conspiracy theories at King's University College in London, Ont.

'This pandemic has really exploded a lot of conspiracy theories, a lot of anger,' says Alison Meek

Police work checkpoints in Ottawa on Monday after officers cleared a trucker protest that was aimed at COVID-19 measures before growing into a broader anti-government protest that occupied the capital’s downtown core. (Cole Burston/Canadian Press)

The convoy protest in Ottawa could be the beginning of an amorphous new political movement fuelled by grievances against pandemic health restrictions, vaccines and a deepening devotion to anti-government conspiracy theories, says a professor who studies cults, extremists and conspiracy theorists in American history. 

Alison Meek, who teaches at King's University College at Western University in London, Ont., said while demonstrators have been cleared from border crossings and the streets of downtown Ottawa, their movement is far from over and could offer a troubling omen of what this country could face in the future.

"There's this anger that the government doesn't represent the people, that elections don't matter, that your voice is not being heard.

People are looking for scapegoats. That's what a lot of conspiracy theories are.- Alison Meek, professor of history at King's College at Western University

"I don't think they're done. I think it's just going to fuel into the next issue. So I don't think we're done by a long shot."

 

'It's not just about the mandates'

Meek said the demonstrations in Ottawa, Windsor, Ont., and Coutts, Alta., much like the demonstration that led to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, are not homogenous movements and are beginning to mutate into wider symbols of government resistance.

A police officer pepper sprays a demonstrator on Feb. 19 as officers work to restore normality to Ottawa while trucks and demonstrators continued to occupy the downtown core for over three weeks. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

For example, Meek said, the demonstrators are upset about the police action and not being given the legitimacy of a sitdown with the prime minister, but at the same time, they're also claiming they've won.

"It's feeding upon itself. It's growing. It's not just about the mandates. It's something deeper and darker that's coming into play."

That darker element, according to the professor, comes from conspiracy theories about vaccines or a sinister totalitarian government trying to control people's lives, and it's all being fuelled by people spending their time online while they isolate at home during the pandemic. 

"This pandemic has really exploded a lot of conspiracy theories, a lot of anger," said Meek.

"You get into that echo chamber. You go and you look at the Facebook accounts, the Twitter accounts, that align with your views, as opposed to if you were in an office, you might have different perspectives and hear different things that are coming into play."

Meek said the economic dislocation of the pandemic and the mixed messaging from government health authorities on vaccines, such as AstraZeneca, hasn't has only fanned the flames of cynicism. 

"It was like the Hunger Games trying to find that vaccine," she said. "Then they came out and said that's not the preferred vaccine.

"You can understand where people are confused. They need an outlet."

'People are looking for scapegoats'

For some, that outlet has become conspiracy theories. Some of the most popular right now, according to Meek, are that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the son of Fidel Castro or he's a closet fascist, and, by invoking the Emergencies Act to help the provinces deal with disruptive protests, he has declared de facto martial law. 

Police push back protesters in front of the Senate of Canada Building on Feb. 18. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"The Emergencies Act is not martial law, but that's the narrative that's out there," she said. 

Meek said what makes cults, extremist ideology, conspiracy theories and even racism so attractive to some people is seemingly simple answers to extraordinarily complex questions, often at the expense of a particular person or group. 

"People are looking for scapegoats. That's what a lot of conspiracy theories are. That's what a lot of extremists are. They want scapegoats to very complicated questions and very complicated answers. So somebody could say here, 'the bad guy is Trudeau' and it's simple, right? You get a very simple argument. Or, it's Biden in the United States. He stole the election." 

She said some of those simple answers have come in the form of anti-Black racism or anti-Semitism, which usually seethe in the background rather than out in the open in Canada, but have finally come to the forefront during the pandemic. 

"One of the things for me about the anti-vax conspiracy theories, and it drives me nuts, is seeing people wearing the yellow Star of David and comparing themselves to Jews in the Holocaust and that people who don't want to get the vaccine are as hard done by as Jews."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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