Preliminary Lessons of the Convoy Movement
Over the coming months – and years – there will be much discussion, debate, perhaps even official inquiries, regarding the far-right occupation of Ottawa by the so-called “truckers convoy” and associated border blockades. As well, we should not forget smaller and limited duration copycat convoys in multiple urban centers that have occurred or are planned. However, it is not too soon to consider some important conclusions from these events.
- The fact the convoy was not blocked on the outskirts of Ottawa - or at least prevented from digging in and staying – did not result from a “failure of Intelligence”. Like January 6, 2021 at the US Capitol anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account could see the extremist views and history of the leaders and organizers and what their intentions were. Rather, again like January 6, it was a failure of imagination. Or more accurately, the effect of an apparent institutional mental block when it comes to the far-right threat in this country. It can be attributed to the systemic and deeply rooted right-wing and even white supremacist biases within CSIS, the RCMP’s National Intelligence Coordination Centre and other police agencies at both the provincial and local level.
- A large proportion, perhaps a majority, of Canadians were shocked not just by the aforementioned failure but the clear evidence of sympathy and support for the far-right mob by numerous members of the Ottawa Police Service. The convoy was not only not stopped, Ottawa police reportedly directed them toward downtown and the Parliamentary precincts. Over the following days and weeks numerous photos and videos appeared on social media showing police officers fraternizing with the “occupiers”, taking selfies with them and giving them “thumbs up” encouragement. Even after being given explicit orders to prevent fuel and other supplies from being delivered, on many documented occasions police officers stood by while wagonloads of fuel-filled jerry cans were pulled past them. For an institution founded on hierarchical Command and Control principles, this sort of blatant disregard for direct orders is unprecedented and requires careful examination. In the end the police did end the blockades and occupation, but only when public demands became irresistible and political leaders took extraordinary measures. Invoking emergency acts was arguably only necessary – if at all – in order to force the police to belatedly carry out their duties since they had more than sufficient authority and resources under existing laws to end these actions.
- Perhaps related to the above, there are many substantiated reports of retired - and even possibly serving - police and military officers providing logistical and tactical coordination for the “convoy”. Again, this parallels the key ringleaders of the attack on the US Capitol and the membership of groups like the III%’ers, Oath Keepers and other far-right militia type groups in the US. This is not coincidence. The culture and practices of these institutions that supposedly exist to protect “democracy” both attract and cultivate individuals holding these sorts of extremist views. This brings new urgency to the demand to “defund the police” and radically re-imagine what community safety and security look like.
- The cross-border and in fact international character of the far-right is evidenced not just by their ideological similarities but their clearly demonstrated organizational links; the significant number and dollar amount of donations from outside of Canada, the enthusiastic foreign support for the violent occupation and the amplification of the “convoy” leaders messaging by prominent figures such as Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson exemplify this phenomenon.
- Even mainstream pundits, including former Republican operatives, have expressed the view that the Republican Party is now completely dominated by extreme far-right views. Some have even speculated whether the Party “has gone full Nazi”. A year ago, or even prior to January 2022, one could take solace in the belief this was one contrast between the US and Canada where the equivalent mainstream party appeared to be still committed to science-based public health policies and the basic principles of democracy. The ousting of Erin O’Toole (who at least attempted to project a middle-of-the road image) and his replacement by an interim leader who is an unapologetic supporter of the “convoy” has shattered that illusion. And the front-runner in their upcoming leadership contest has expressed similar support for the ideology and goals of this movement while – like the interim leader – making half-hearted attempts to distance themselves from the most extreme examples of the harassment, intimidation and violence carried out by the occupiers. And then there are the many Conservative MP’s who welcomed and partied with the mob. This may harm their electoral prospects in the short term – or not – but they may be quite perceptively playing the long game.
- What is that “long game”? Observers have pointed out that many of the convoy participants did not express extremist views – though they were not uncomfortable in their proximity. They feel frustrated, alienated, financially and culturally insecure. The pandemic brought these vague feelings of unease to a head but they won’t disappear with the end of the pandemic. People are experiencing the impact of forty years of neo-liberalism and corporate-led globalization. Income and wealth inequality are at levels not seen since the 1920’s. Employment is increasingly precarious or soul destroying as the “Great Resignation” arising at the two-year mark of the pandemic has illustrated. This is a regime implemented by the Liberal Party as well as the Conservatives – perhaps with even greater enthusiasm and effect. A “return to normalcy”, business as usual, will not resolve this crisis of legitimacy. Until there is radical and transformative change in our economic and political systems, the dissatisfaction and alienation of a large part of the population will only fester and grow, providing fertile ground for far-right ideologues.
- There is an even greater threat hanging over our heads like the proverbial “Sword of Damocles” – it is called Climate Change. Or perhaps we now should be referring to it as “Impending Climate Catastrophe”. In 1928 the NAZIs received a mere 2.6% of the vote, less than half of what Maxime Bernier’s analogous Peoples Party garnered in the last federal election. By July 1932, with the social dislocation created by the Great Depression, their support swelled more than ten-fold to 37.3%. And perhaps we will need to add the vote garnered by the right-shifting Conservatives in the next election to get a measure of the proportion of the population vulnerable to such far-right blandishments. As concerning as the current political trends are they will only be amplified by accelerating breakdown caused by climate disasters both here and around the globe. If anti-immigrant prejudice is concerning already, imagine how it will multiply when thousands, perhaps millions, of climate refugees from the most vulnerable regions of the world beg for refuge in countries like ours that may remain habitable longer than others. This could provide the impetus for an unabashed fascist movement to make a bid for power if it is not nipped in the bud by massive popular resistance.
- It may be comforting to think that the answer to the far-right radicalization of a large proportion of the population is dialogue and bridge building. We can certainly hope that will be the case and wish “the best of luck” to those attempting it. But if so, it will be the first time in history a nascent fascist movement has been so neutralized. In Italy and then Germany such efforts didn’t even slow things down. In Canada and Britain - where Nazi supporting organizations sprang up and flourished (part of our history largely buried from public awareness) - they were only defeated when met with organized resistance and driven off the streets despite efforts by the police to protect them. More recently in Ottawa, the militant but non-violent mobilization by neighbourhood groups that has come to be known as “The Battle of Billings Bridge” demonstrated what can and must be done. Similar counter-protests happened in Vancouver on Saturday February 5 that blocked, diverted and splintered an attempted convoy invasion of Vancouver provide the same lesson. They not only accomplished what the police would not but did so in the face of police opposition to such community counter-mobilizations. These are examples we need to learn from and build on through alliance building and increasing our capacity for successful resistance to fascism.
The Battle of Old Market Square, 1934, Winnipeg MB
The Battle of Billings Bridge, February 2022, Ottawa ON