A Canadian cross-country protest morphed into vitriol and vandalism 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 is a Canadian journalist based in Kempt Head, Nova Scotia, who worked for 15 years as the 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 populist movement—though a growing nationwide antipathy toward Justin 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.

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