Freedom Convoy | Truckers in arms

Protests against the vaccine mandate have paralysed Canada’s capital

But it was downtown Ottawa, the country’s capital, that saw the largest convergence of heavy duty trucks. The convoy, calling itself ‘Freedom Convoy 2022’ and numbering around 500, consisted of truckers who had driven from different parts of Canada to pressure the federal government. The immediate trigger for the protests was the coming into force of vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers. Until January, truckers were considered as essential workers and could freely cross the border with goods even as non-essential travel remained banned. But from January 15, any foreign trucker entering Canada needed to be vaccinated, while a similar rule, applicable to Canadian truckers entering the U.S., kicked in on January 22. Those not vaccinated have to show a COVID-negative test taken within 72 hours and go into quarantine for 14 days.

While many reports have characterised these protesters as loony ‘antivaxxers’ backed by the political right, the protest’s organisers, in a statement released on Facebook, have made their demands clear: terminate “the vaccine passports and all other obligatory vaccine contact tracing programmes, or inter-Canada passport systems” and “terminate COVID vaccine mandates and respect the rights of those who wish to remain unvaccinated”.

The federal government has shown little interest in engaging with the protesters or their demands. On February 11, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted, “Make no mistake: The border cannot, and will not, remain closed. Every option is on the table. So, if you’re participating in these illegal blockades that are taking our neighbourhoods and our economy hostage, it’s time to go home.”

Easing curbs

But several provinces, including Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and New Brunswick, have already announced an easing of restrictions. Many Opposition politicians have expressed sympathy for the truckers.

The groups behind the protests, who seem surprised by the scale of support they have received, raised more than $10 million through crowd-funding platforms, using the money to pay for the truckers’ fuel and boarding costs. Canadian law enforcement officials have hinted that the protests have received backing from outside the country, especially the U.S. Not surprisingly, one of the most high profile endorsements of the Freedom Convoy has come from former U.S. President Donald Trump. Although Mr. Trudeau has dismissed the protesters as a “small fringe minority” who “do not represent the views” of the majority of Canadians, it is evident that the protesters enjoy the sympathy of a broad cross-section of Canadians.

Numerous interviews with the protesters indicate that apart from the vaccine mandates themselves, a number of other factors — a deep-rooted loathing of intrusive government surveillance in the name of public health, fear that such intrusiveness could become permanent, resentment at the loss of a ‘way of life’ that did not involve masking up or discrimination on the basis of vaccination status — are roiling the protesters.

With industry getting restless over the disruption in supply chains and the truckers in no mood to back down, the Trudeau government is caught between a rock and a hard place: while negotiating with the truckers after having dismissed them as a ‘fringe’ would seem a sign of weakness, evicting them by force carries heavy political costs. Meanwhile, the Convoy has already inspired copycat protests in different parts of the world, including Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

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