In the two weeks that protesters have taken over the streets of Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, a fringe movement by some truckers ostensibly against covid restrictions has exploded into a global spectacle. On the ground, the movement reflects the northern spread of American right-wing ideology across the border. But the spectacle is very real, causing some residents to leave their homes and overwhelming downtown businesses and organizations.
The self-described Freedom Convoy has come to encompass broader anti-government views, including far-right viewpoints. Just over 400 trucks remain in downtown Ottawa, and protesters now demand more than an end to vaccine mandates. Some now call for a full end to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government — and some want to form their own.
Hate symbols — including Nazi swastikas — have appeared, and local residents have reported being harassed and assaulted by protesters. A youth services provider closed a downtown drop-in shelter. An ice cream shop closed temporarily, saying its staff was being harassed for wearing masks. Police are investigating an alleged attempted arson of a residential building.
For their part, protesters enjoy adulation from conservative politicians and media in the United States and elsewhere. Crowdsourced fundraisers for the convoys have raised at least $8 million, although it is unclear where the money is going or how it will be distributed. It is also unclear where much of that money — some of which has been contributed in four- and five-figure increments — is coming from.
Surprising to see outside the seat of Canadian power are symbols of the American right wing, including Confederate flags and Three Percenter emblems, representing the unproven idea that only 3 percent of American colonists fought in the American Revolution.
This reflects the staggering influence of American right-wing media, said Aengus Bridgman, a doctoral candidate at McGill University who has researched how misinformation crosses national borders.
“The rhetoric, the symbolism, the language is American,” he said. In general, he added, it is exciting when political movements unfold in the streets, a demonstration of democracy beyond simply voting every few years.
“The less exciting part is just this: as a Canadian, watching ... the people who are interested in getting politically involved being sort of co-opted or encouraged by or influenced by this real, deep American culture war around the legitimacy of measures taken to combat covid-19,” he said. “This simplification of politics, the language that is being imported is really concerning.”
On the ground
In nearly two weeks, police have issued 1,300 traffic tickets, opened 85 criminal investigations and made 23 arrests, according to the CBC.
Officials are investigating an alleged attempted arson. Security footage from inside a residential building shows two alleged convoy members entering, taping up doors and lighting a fire before leaving through a side door. According to building tenant Matias Muñoz, a passing good Samaritan spotted the fire from outside and extinguished it.
At a city council meeting on Monday, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said that event demonstrated “obvious criminal intent.”
“The lives of innocent people are at risk, right now, right here,” Watson said. He previously declared a state of emergency in the city on Sunday.
Police response has been mixed. As of Tuesday, more than 400 trucks remained. About a quarter of those had children in them, according to Ottawa’s Deputy Police Chief Steve Bell, and police and the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa have expressed concerns about youth exposure to noise and fumes.
On Wednesday, Ottawa police released a statement that blocking streets downtown would constitute criminal mischief.
“We are providing you notice that anyone blocking streets or assisting others in the block of streets may be committing a criminal offence,” the statement reads.
In the protest’s first week, Marc-André Cossette, an investigative journalist with Global News, a division of the Canadian Global Television Network, reported on a party-like atmosphere at the protests, which he likened to a “middle finger” against anti-covid restrictions.
“The protesters were jubilant, but they were seething and disrespectful too,” he tweeted on Jan. 31. “A sizeable group of them — if not most — think their frustration gives them licence to harass and intimidate anyone abiding by the public health that we as [a] society has set for ourselves.”
Cossette observed protesters harassing employees of local businesses and reporters. Residents have shared stories on social media of relentless noise, including truck horns and fireworks at all hours of the day.
On Monday, a judge placed a 10-day hold on honking. But some downtown residents have left their homes, telling local media they have been driven to exhaustion or felt physically unsafe. On Reddit, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, residents described and shared videos of being harassed for wearing masks and of protesters vandalizing houses with LGBTQ+ Pride flags.
Some downtown businesses reported closing or reducing hours out of fear for the safety of their staffs. Nonprofit organizations also cited concerns that the populations they serve were particularly at risk.
A homeless services provider reported its employees were being harassed and assaulted; a youth services group closed a drop-in center out of safety concerns; and a downtown women’s shelter reported that many of their residents and staff also felt fear, and were overwhelmed by the honking and noise of the trucks.
“Women and staff are scared to go outside of the shelter, especially women of color,” a statement from the women’s shelter reads. “Being able to go outside is the only reprieve many women experiencing homelessness have and they cannot even do that.”
A nonprofit for Indigenous youth, called the Assembly of Seven Generations released a statement saying that the population they serve were afraid to leave their homes, and suffered wage loss from businesses being closed. The group condemned the protests as an “occupation” of downtown Ottawa.
As the movement has spread across the country, it has also brought some of this chaos with it. On Saturday, a trucker allegedly rolled into cyclists at a sister action in Vancouver. Nobody was seriously hurt in that incident, and the trucker was fired from his company.
On Tuesday, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, a government agency, released a statement condemning acts of “aggression, intimidation and assault,” and describing citizens feeling unsafe, angry and grief-stricken.
“Brazenly displaying symbols of hatred and white supremacy is a threat to our democracy and our peace and prosperity,” the statement reads. “The hate-fueled aggression levelled at citizens, on the streets, in their neighbourhoods, on their doorstep and online runs counter to our values and our laws.”
The shape and meaning of the protests
Nevertheless, many protesters appear to still be having a good time, some cooking out and playing music. Their anti-government sentiment isn’t new to Canada, said Bridgman, the misinformation researcher. But the rhetoric of the movement is particularly Americanized and not necessarily reflective of Canadian politics or culture, he said.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “has much more recognition of group rights and the ability for kind of collective rights to override rights of the individual in specific instances” than the U.S. Constitution, he said.
“So when you see in these protests, the language of freedom — you know, ‘They’re taking away our freedom’ — this is a very individualized notion of liberty that … is unusual in the Canadian context.”
Alongside right-wing American symbols, like Confederate and militia flags, some phrases from right-wing contexts have been translated for a Canadian audience. For example, instead of displaying the message “Let’s Go, Brandon,” which has become a popular coded slur against the U.S. president, one vehicle in the Ottawa convoy displayed a French-language version, aimed at Trudeau: “Brandeau, allons-y.”
The presence of these images and ideas reflects the absorption of American right-wing media, Bridgman said.
“There’s really strong evidence that Canadians consume a huge amount of U.S. news, and those who do consume a lot of U.S. news have many more misperceptions about covid-19, about vaccines,” he said. “And what we see in terms of these protests is, the people who are consuming a lot of this sort of conspiratorial news in the states are imitating that language here.”
Protesters also express strong distrust and dislike of media, sometimes interrupting broadcasters to accuse them of being fake news. On Wednesday, organizers held a press conference for only invited members of the media.
CTV News was explicitly banned from the conference; that same day, Jeremy Thompson, an anchor for CTV Edmonton, tweeted that the broadcaster was removing its brand from company vehicles, citing safety concerns.
“This is a sad day for me,” Thompson wrote. “I am proud of the excellent and vital work we do, perhaps more important now than ever. I’m proud to represent that in public, but it’s just not safe right now.”
Amid the extremism, some protesters also use the convoy as an opportunity to vent their grief and anger about what (and who) they have lost due to measures implemented to stop the pandemic’s spread.
One woman interviewed by David Freiheit, better known as Viva Frei, a YouTuber who supports the movement, attended the protests with a photograph of her son. She said he died of a fentanyl overdose on New Year’s Day of 2021, leaving behind an infant daughter — and blames lockdowns for causing him to relapse. Without steady work, hobbies and sobriety meetings, his support structure deteriorated, she said.
Indeed, opioid overdoses have skyrocketed during the first year of the pandemic, increasing by 35 percent in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and about 71 percent in Canada, according to government research.
In this way, the protests have blended personal and political grievances with far-reaching, sometimes violent anti-government and extremist messaging.
“There are legitimate political grievances,” said Bridgman. “It’s just that they come associated with all of this baggage, that it becomes very difficult to talk about those political grievances divorced from the misinformation, the hate, the racism, the violence, the disruption, the lawlessness. How do you separate those two in a movement like this?”
Morgan Richardson contributed to this report.