By Jonathon Van Maren
I arrived in the Canadian capital on the day the cops began cracking down on the Freedom Convoy parked on Parliament Hill and in smaller encampments across Ottawa. A friend and I got through a police checkpoint securing the perimeter pretty easily, parked, and walked the rest of the way through quiet, snowy streets. Watching the livestreams and media coverage, it is easy to assume that Ottawa is under siege. In reality, we walked twenty minutes and couldn’t hear a thing until we were a minute or two away. I note that only to make the point that Trudeau invoked the Emergency Measures Act not because the city was under siege, but because he wanted powers that should be kept away from immoral men like him.
While the police were moving in on the encampment by the Chateau Laurier, the atmosphere up and down Wellington Street was cheery. There were guys shovelling snow and setting up walls of white between the police and the trucks—only a Canadian protest could involve a snow-fort. Over the past few weeks, the Freedom Convoy had created a de facto mini-state, replete with mail delivery, garbage pickup, “peace officer” crews, a daycare (the famous bouncy castle was still there but sadly deflated), and a complex system of cash distribution from an assortment of convoy leaders to the various protestors sleeping in trucks, tents, and trailers on Canada’s most important piece of real estate. One fellow’s RV near the Peace Tower even had a little picket fence, faux grass, and lawn chairs in front of it. The owner was reclining in a snow drift.
It is the joviality of the whole affair that has so thoroughly triggered Trudeau. While he spits slanders about swastikas at Jewish parliamentarians who dare to question him, the Freedom Convoy set up open-air night clubs with sound stages on flatbed trucks, media studios, a “Freedom Beer Tent”, and an internationally famous hot tub with two very non-violent occupants. I personally think it was probably the hot tub that broke him and provoked his authoritarian instincts. Trudeau is attempting something very difficult for a democracy: to govern people he has contempt for. They’re now returning the sentiment in spades, and Trudeau doesn’t like it when people talk back to him. He grew up with butlers, not blue-collar Canadians.
While the media and progressive politicians have engaged in apocalyptic whining about the failure of the police and the collapse of institutional trust due to the protest (while never thinking to inquire into the collapse of trust that led to the protest), anyone who actually witnesses the Convoy will appreciate how impressive it was. The trucks are essentially fortresses on wheels, and some truckers had taken their wheels off. There were (and at the time of writing, are) hundreds of tons of steel parked on Parliament Hill, and as long as they resolutely refused to leave, it was going to take a pretty impressive police presence to dislodge them. Alternatively, the prime minister could have talked to them; he could have followed the premiers and lifted mandates; he could have chosen not to dump a jerry can of gas on the fire. But, of course, he didn’t. He is constitutionally incapable of respect for those he doesn’t agree with.
That’s a big part of what this was (and is) all about. The protestors and the weekend warriors who drove up to join them at the tents and the barbeques and the parties were engaging in collective catharsis after two years of being isolated, ignored, fired, demonized, or worse. After being told by their prime minister that they were unCanadian; by the media that their concerns meant they were stupid; and by their politicians that nothing could be done, there was a strong sense that everyone had finally found their people. It reminded me of the C.S. Lewis quote: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” There was a lot of that going on. The convoy protestors had essentially created a mini-Canada inside Canada where the minority was the majority, and the trucks were covered with cards and colored pictures from grateful children. It is simply accurate to say that the truckers and their allies represented millions.
On Friday before the police began clearing the main Convoy up and down Wellington Street, most of the protestors seemed pretty unperturbed about the ongoing law enforcement actions. One fellow with an impressive Duck Dynasty beard told me that his bank account had been frozen, but a nice lady had given him a carton of cigarettes and he figured he’d be fine for a week. Another checked his account on his phone and was surprised to find he could still access it. The Convoy had been a cash economy for a couple of weeks already, with money being handed out in envelopes and distributed by leaders of the different factions or streets, who would meet regularly in a long black freightliner near the Supreme Court with “Freedom is Essential” painted on the side.
Many of you have been watching the livestreams of on-the-ground journalists like my friend Andrew Lawton of True North, so instead of giving a blow-by-blow of events that are changing as I write (as one protestor told me with faux solemnity between puffs of smoke: “It’s a fluid situation out there, man”), I’ll instead offer a few observations.
First, I sensed none of the hostility that other media figures talked about—although I saw plenty of mainstream journalists getting it. One woman was stopping passersby near the Chateau Laurier, pointing out a CBC reporter talking to the camera, and suggesting we head on over to tell her what we thought of her. This sort of thing has Canadian journalists penning columns and furiously tweeting descriptions of their own courage that make it sound as if they’ve been airdropped into Fallujah at the height of the insurgency even though the only incoming they’re taking is f-bombs. If you’re wondering whether our state-funded reporters are heroes, just ask them.
Many journalists appear to honestly believe that the hostility is because the protestors don’t want to be covered critically and fairly. The reality is that most protestors hated them before they showed up. That’s why they barred mainstream outlets from their press conferences. Their suspicion was proven prophetic by media attempts to fixate on two flags seen briefly the first day of the protest, the relentless attempts to find anything untoward about any convoy leader, and the doxing decision of the CBC to take hacked lists of convoy donors and email them demanding an explanation. To cite another example, one article in Slate cited “Nazi symbolism” on signs on the fence along Parliament Hill—while declining to mention that the signs were accusing Trudeau of Nazi tactics rather than identifying as Nazis. That is intentional, and it is vile. I walked up and down the Hill reading the signs myself. It’s a lie.
Additionally, the pre-existing suspicion of the media comes from the fact that those who oppose mandates and restrictions rightfully believe that the media has played an enormous part in why the past two years have unfolded the way that they did. There was the constant fear porn; the labeling and demonization of dissenters; the total, callous dismissal of those with different views or experiences. Questions—some of which have proven prescient over time—were dismissed as disinformation or the purview of morons who didn’t know what was good for them. The CBC loves tracking down non-binary immigrants to “explore Canadian diversity,” but were largely disinterested in the stories of the millions of Canadians impacted by mandates and lockdowns. Their approach to those who disagree with them was fundamentally oppositional.
The state-funded media acted as government narrative enforcers all the way through—with a few notable exceptions, the criticism leveled was generally about governments not having stricter mandates or earlier lockdowns rather than critiques on the curtailing of civil liberties. They weren’t interested in Canadian views so much as the Canadians with the right views. Again, we saw this with the convoy coverage. On one hand, they profiled many convoy leaders as violent insurrectionists—when, shockingly, there was no violence for the entire duration of the Ottawa protest. On the other hand, as provinces lifted mandates and promised an end to vaccine passports, the CBC tracked down people who are apparently terrified at the idea of getting their freedoms back and solemnly discussing how hard it would be for those who now only feel safe in their houses (partially due, it must be said, to the media’s pandemic coverage.)
Another observation: The shocking footage from yesterday came from the face-off in front of the Chateau Laurier, where a group of protestors had dug in. The day has now been distilled into a couple of gut-wrenching shots of cops on horseback and two people being trampled, but the police line had actually been inching forward bit by bit for at least seven hours. For the duration, a handful of aggressive protestors—some, based on the odor, fortified by liquor and weed—were screaming rebukes into their faces. I suspect that this provocation wore on the police throughout the day. It can’t be easy to spend hours having Shame! Shame! Shame! howled into your face at top volume from inches away. (One of the leaders told me that the arrested protestors who got arrested on the line were released without charges.) Having been the subject of this sort of thing myself a few times, I assure you it is not pleasant.
There were plenty of spectators, as well. I headed up Wellington once every hour or so to check on the progress of the police, and at least a dozen journalists (many international) were filming the face-off. There were crowds of people milling around just behind the line of protestors facing the line of cops, so when the police got aggressive at the end of the day and began pushing hard and using horses, it was easy to get caught in the surge of people—which is how one poor woman got trampled, and how my friend Andrew Lawton, a journalist with True North, caught a face full of pepper spray. I have no idea who thought it was a good idea to send men on horseback into a crowd, and reports today seem to indicate that police may, in some instances, have been targeting journalists. Lawsuits are being launched, so we’ll find out soon enough.
Regardless, it’s important to remember one essential fact: Trudeau created this situation from start to finish. He didn’t need to put the vaccine mandates in place. He did so just before calling an election because he looked at the vaccination rates and assumed that the math meant he could win a majority government. His cynicism didn’t pay off—he got a minority government and the smallest vote share in the history of the country—but he kept the mandates in place, anyway. He decided to curtail the freedoms of Canadians for personal purposes. He politicized the pandemic response. Whatever happens next; however this ends—Trudeau wears it. This is his fault. The Freedom Convoy will be a significant part of his legacy. He pushed Canadians across the country to take their grievances to his doorstep because he didn’t mind ruining their lives for a shot at more power. Regardless of your position on vaccination or anything else, that’s disgusting.
A quick glance at the polls, however, will prove that Trudeau didn’t win this standoff. Huge majorities of Canadians believe he intentionally inflamed the situation for personal gain, that he failed to show leadership—that, more accurately, he is a failed leader. Meanwhile, popular support produced in part by the Freedom Convoy saw vaccine passports end (or ending) in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec; Quebec’s ugly “vax tax” was cancelled; Erin O’Toole was ousted as leader of the Conservative Party, hopefully paving the way for a leader willing to stand up for freedoms rather than parroting the prime minister. This was a peaceful populist uprising with unprecedented political results. I suspect that the damage the truckers did to Justin Trudeau’s leadership will end his political career in the long run.
For that, all Canadians owe them thanks.