The protest convoy could cast a long shadow in Canadian politics

The key lesson of Ottawa's siege might be that it's difficult to get populist, anti-democratic anger to leave once you've invited it in and allowed it to get comfortable.

The anger is real — and no one in any party seems entirely sure of what to do next

A crowd of protesters gathers in downtown Ottawa during the second weekend of the truck convoy's occupation of the parliamentary precinct on the night of Feb. 5, 2021. (Felix Desroches/CBC News)

The key lesson of Ottawa's siege might be that it's difficult to get populist, anti-democratic anger to leave once you've invited it in and allowed it to get comfortable.

It may have been inevitable (or at least foreseeable) that some kind of tumult would result from the imposition of vaccine mandates. In 1885, compulsory vaccination in Montreal to deal with a smallpox outbreak caused a riot. In 1919, loud public opposition scuttled an attempt to implement compulsory vaccination against smallpox in Toronto.

A century later, the vast majority of Canadians have trusted public health officials enough to get vaccinated against COVID-19. There is similarly high support for requiring vaccination for certain settings and occupations, as well as for people entering the country.

But those attitudes are not universal. And if there is deep disagreement, it's exacerbated and amplified by social media's power to cultivate resentment, the American tilt toward populism over the past decade and the simple fact that everyone has been living with the pandemic for two years.

An adviser to the government in Denmark — where officials are lifting restrictions — recently warned that the end of the pandemic could be harder than the start.

Canadian leaders must now figure out how to respond. Some of them seem to be figuring that out in real time.

Authorities may be unable to clear the streets in front of Parliament but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was intent on putting some narrative space between the occupation and "the story of this pandemic" when he addressed the House of Commons on Monday.

"This blockade, and these protesters, are not the story of this pandemic," he said. "They are not the story of Canadians in this pandemic. From the very beginning, Canadians stepped up to be there for one another, to support their neighbours, to support the elderly and to support our frontline workers by doing the right things, by wearing masks, by getting vaccinated and by following public health restrictions."

WATCH | Trudeau defends pandemic restrictions:

'This pandemic has sucked for all Canadians,' Trudeau says

2 years ago
Duration 1:02
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about the ongoing protests in Ottawa during an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Monday, saying that all Canadians are tired of the pandemic, but they know the best way through it is to continue to listen to science and continue to lean on each other.

Trudeau offered some empathy ("we are all tired of this pandemic") and perhaps a hint of encouragement ("these pandemic restrictions are not forever") as he aimed for a unifying message.

"We should not be fighting one another. We should be coming together to fight the virus," he said. "This is not a fight against one another. It is a fight against the virus."

But he was direct in his criticism of the past week's events in Ottawa and didn't retreat from the federal government's own vaccine mandates.

The Conservatives are keen to hear the prime minister apologize for his handling of the issue and for some of what he has said about those who protest against his government.

"Does he regret calling people misogynist and racist?" interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen asked on Tuesday night.

WATCH | Party leaders spar over pandemic measures:

Trudeau stands firm on COVID-19 decisions

2 years ago
Duration 3:36
Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen used today's question period to challenge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates.

Liberal MP Joel Lightbound seems to agree that the government has been more confrontational than necessary.

Other Liberals might be happy to see that 62 per cent of Canadians oppose the convoy. In the crude math of multi-party politics, that might look like a clear win for the government. But if there are hearts and minds that can still be persuaded (or at least talked down from a state of rage), the government can't be entirely absolved of its responsibility to try.

The Conservatives are entangled in questions about their own approach to the convoy. Bergen herself was revealed last week to have advocated against calling for the protesters to go home — apparently in hopes that her party could "turn this into the PM's problem."

Five Saskatchewan MPs and Sen. Denise Batters pose at a protest against COVID-19 restrictions in Ottawa. From left to right, MPs Warren Steinley, Kevin Waugh, Andrew Scheer, Sen. Denise Batters, MPs Fraser Tolmie and Rosemarie Falk. (Kevin Waugh/Twitter)

The convoy's stated purpose has been the undemocratic overthrow of the current government so that the country might be ruled by some impossible arrangement of the Senate, the Governor General and a committee of citizens selected by the protest organizers. Still, several Conservatives embraced the travelling caravan as it made its way to Ottawa.

Since then, major roads have been blockaded, citizens have been harassed and terrorized, swastikas and Confederate flags have been displayed, the War Memorial was desecrated and businesses have been forced to close. A legal injunction was required to put an end to the incessant noise from truck horns.

The Governor General's office at Rideau Hall has been inundated with phone calls demanding the dissolution of Trudeau's government. The Ottawa Police Service says it has opened more than 60 criminal investigations related to the protest.

Conservatives' convoy enthusiasm is waning

It seems safe to assume that officials in Ottawa will never again allow a convoy of large trucks to burrow itself this deeply into the capital's downtown. In their own responses to local protests, police forces in other cities have shown they've learned what not to do from Ottawa's example.

But if the closest political analogy for the convoy is the Tea Party movement that emerged in the United States a decade ago, the big question is whether the convoy's anger and anti-democratic spirit will be allowed to become entrenched in Canadian politics.

While Conservatives are doubling-down on their argument that the prime minister has been divisive, their enthusiasm for the convoy does seem to have waned since the show got to town.

Last Friday, Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus described it as an "occupation controlled by radicals and anarchist groups." Greg McLean, a Conservative MP from Calgary, walked back his comments comparing the scenes in downtown Ottawa to a winter carnival and tweeted on Sunday that "illegal blockades must end now."

Bergen now says she wants the prime minister to convene a meeting of all party leaders to talk about how to resolve the situation. As of this writing, Pierre Poilievre hasn't tweeted the hashtag #TruckersNotTrudeau in six days.

In his own speech to the House of Commons on Tuesday night, Conservative MP Michael Chong ripped into the prime minister even as he called for an immediate end to the blockade.

"Canadians do not have the right to harm other people or to interfere with the freedoms of their fellow citizens," he said. "It is time for the protesters to end the blockade in Ottawa and the blockade at the border crossing in western Canada."

That might be the sound of Conservatives realizing that, however much they dislike Justin Trudeau, hitching their wagon to this convoy is going to leave them stuck in a place they don't want to be.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.