Canada’s protests have settled down but could echo in politics
TORONTO — Traffic is quiet around the Canadian Parliament. Police in riot gear have taken away the Ottawa protesters, who had vowed to never give up. The relentless blare of truckers’ horns has gone silent.
However, the trucker protest grew until it shut down a few Canada-U.S. borders posts and key areas of the capital city. It could echo for many years in Canadian politics and maybe even south of the border.
The protest was initially aimed at cross-border truckers with a COVID-19 mandate but also included fury over the COVID-19 restrictions and hate of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It reflected disinformation in Canada as well as simmering populist anger and right-wing anger.
“I think we’ve started something here,” said Mark Suitor, a 33-year-old protester from Hamilton, Ontario, speaking as police retook control of the streets around Parliament. Protesters had essentially occupied those streets for more than three weeks, embarrassing Trudeau and energizing Canada’s far right. Suitor believes that protests will lead to a division of the country. He welcomes this.
“This is going to be a very big division in our country,” he said. “I don’t believe this is the end.”
While most analysts doubt the protests will mark a historic watershed in Canadian politics, it has shaken both of Canada’s two major parties.
“The protest has given both the Liberals and the Conservatives a black eye,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. Trudeau’s Liberals look bad for allowing protesters to foments weeks of chaos in the capital city, he said, while the Conservatives look bad for championing protesters, many of them from the farthest fringes of the right.
The conservatives “have to be careful not to alienate more moderate voters, who are generally not sympathetic to the protesters or right-wing populism more generally,” said Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal.
The self-styled Freedom Convoy shook Canada’s reputation for civility, inspired convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands and interrupted trade, causing economic damage on both sides of the border. The streets surrounding Parliament were occupied by hundreds of trucks, which was part protest and part parade.
Although authorities quickly reopened the border posts, Ottawa police did not issue any warnings for the past few days. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of protestors blocked the streets and besieged Parliament Hill.
Truckers ignored warnings about possible arrest. They could have their rigs taken and their bank accounts frozen as a result of the emergency powers invoked by Trudeau. Truckers parked in the streets around Parliament and blared their horns, defying a court injunction against honking. This was issued after residents complained that the truckers were making the neighbourhood unlivable.
“It’s high time that these illegal and dangerous activities stop,” Trudeau declared in Parliament a few days ago, speaking just a few hundred meters from the protests.
Authorities launched the largest ever police operation in Canadian history on Friday. They arrested a number of Ottawa protestors and increased the pressure on Saturday, until the streets in front Parliament were clear. Police eventually arrested at least 191 persons and tow away 79 vehicles. As pressure increased, protesters began to retreat.
The Ottawa protests — the movement’s last major stronghold — appeared to be largely over by Sunday. Police checkpoints and fencing remained.
Steve Bell, Ottawa interim police chief, said that the number of illegal protesters had dramatically declined over the last 24 hours.
Authorities claimed that 206 bank accounts were also frozen by the federal emergency act.
COVID-19 became as political a topic in Canada as it was in the United States.
Coronavirus health restrictions became a political cudgel for Canada’s far right, which accused Trudeau of authoritarianism. But while the restrictions clearly benefitted the far-right People’s Party of Canada, things are more complicated in the Conservative Party.
Some Conservative leaders have only recently embraced the opposition to vaccine mandates or coronavirus restrictions.
The protests might open the doors to populism like the one that Donald Trump used to ascend to the White House.
Pierre Poilievre is running for the Conservative party’s next leader. He has supported the protesters and bet that the voters will support him. It is not clear if that will propel him to the top or if he and Trudeau, the next Liberal party leader, would be a good or bad thing.
“Poilievre is clearly playing by the populist playbook right now,” said Béland. “If he becomes Conservative leader, the party might effectively shift towards Trump-style populism. However, it’s unclear whether enough Canadians support this vision to make it appealing beyond the party’s base.”
Fox News personalities and conservatives such as Trump cheered on the protests. Millions of dollars have been donated to the protesters across the border.
An Associated Press analysis of leaked donor records revealed that 44 percent of the almost $10 million in contributions to support protesters came from the United States. A number of prominent Republican politicians have expressed their gratitude for the actions taken by the protesters.
Experts say that the U.S.’s support for the Canadian protesters is actually aimed at invigorating conservative politics in America, where midterm elections are imminent.
Some Americans have responded.
“When I say democracy is fragile I mean it,” Bruce Heyman, a U.S. ambassador to Canada during the Obama Administration. “Stand up for our friend Canada and let your voice be heard.”
Even though Ottawa was looking better, there were signs that protests have not ended completely.
Late Saturday afternoon, Canada’s border agency informed travelers that operations at the key truck crossing from Canada into the United States was being hampered by protesters.