A Canadian cross-country protest morphed into vitriol and criminality this past week, after truck drivers from Western Canada embarked on a “Freedom Convoy” eastward to Ottawa in late January. The convoy opposes a law that went into effect on January 22, mandating proof of vaccination for truckers crossing the U.S.-Canadian border. But as the demonstration moved across the country, some protesters started to display U.S. Confederate and Nazi flags. Others defaced Canadian national monuments and harassed workers at a soup kitchen for the homeless, with more than a dozen police investigations now underway. Others still have blocked a busy border crossing between Alberta and the United States since January 29 or continue to block main streets in downtown Ottawa, where businesses have closed since January 27. These scenes defy longstanding perceptions, within the country and globally, of Canada as a place of civility and order. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that the demonstrators represent only a “small fringe minority,” noting that 90 percent of Canadian truckers are fully vaccinated. The outrage of the protests has, meanwhile, conspicuously resembled the style of right-wing populism represented in the U.S. by Donald Trump. Ottawa’s police chief says that a “significant element” of the convoy’s participants are actually from the U.S., while the Canadian Trucking Alliance claims that many of them “do not have a connection to the trucking industry.” What’s going on here?

Parker Donham lives in Kempt Head, Nova Scotia, and worked as a journalist in Canada for more than 30 years, including for 15 years as a co-host of a weekly public-affairs program on the CBC television network. To Donham, the convoy is rooted more in regional idiosyncrasies and pandemic fatigue than in an ascendent, pan-Canadian right-wing populism—though a growing nationwide antipathy toward Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party, is playing a role. Canada doesn’t suffer from the deep partisan polarization of the U.S., Donham says, and Trump-style populism remains marginal, despite the country’s voters being split nearly evenly between liberals and conservatives. If Trump ran for national office in Canada, Donham says, he’d be rejected by a resounding majority.


Michael Bluhm: Who’s protesting and why?

Parker Donham: Canada is a big, diverse country with a range of cultures. We Canadians tend to think of Alberta as a Texas North, with an economy and culture driven by the extraction of oil—and the most environmentally unsustainable oil in the world, in the form of the tar sands. Nothing about the cavalcade suggests that it reflects anything other than a largely region-based group of people who are sympathetic to Trump and right-wing populism.

That said, we’re meanwhile wrapping up the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, getting into the third year, and it’s frustrating for everybody. I find it enormously frustrating.

About 50 years ago, a Boston University sociologist, Edgar Z. Friedenberg, moved to Canada and took up a position at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He wrote a book called Deference to Authority: The Case of Canada. I have always thought that phrase captured something quite significant about Canada—most particularly about Atlantic Canada, the four provinces closest to the Atlantic Ocean. If you look at compliance rates and the percentage of people who want pandemic restrictions to continue, they’re way higher in Atlantic Canada than in other parts of Canada. But there’s been a shift even here. With omicron, we’re faced with a more widespread but apparently milder variant. It seems to have peaked and be receding, so a lot of people are anxious to get their lives back to something more like normal. That’s what you’re seeing.

Zbynek Burival

Bluhm: How do the people participating in this in the convoy—and does Canada’s Conservative Party—connect to the broad, right-wing, populist movement that’s elected disruptive leaders worldwide?

Donham: The Conservative caucus in Parliament has members who’re very right-wing, and very much in sync with Trumpian views, but also elements of what used to be called the Progressive Conservative Party—we sometimes referred to them as Red Tories. That group has shrunk, and Canadians are more polarized now than we were. Erin O’Toole, the Conservative leader who lost a vote of confidence on February 1, had to walk a fine line—and he wasn’t able to do that very successfully.

A reasonable Republican in the U.S. is faced with the problem of having to win a primary: If they sound too reasonable, they’ll lose the primary. There’s some of that going on here. There’s even some of it in Atlantic Canada—maybe with 10 percent support among conservative voters—whereas in Alberta, it’s more like 50 percent. That element exists in Canada, but it’s far from dominant.

Bluhm: What’s driving that element?

Donham: Let me start by saying what’s not driving it. There are three significant television news networks in Canada: CBC, CTV, and Global. There’s no Fox, let alone One America News Network, or anything like them. Efforts to found such a network in Canada have failed quickly and decisively. There just isn’t much of a market. On the other hand, it’s very easy to watch Fox News from Canada. Most cable subscribers have access to it.

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