By Jonathon Van Maren
For three chaotic weeks, the world watched Canadian truckers protest in Ottawa with fascination. With the support of millions of Canadians, hundreds of trucks and thousands of vehicles made their way from Vancouver to Ottawa to demand an end to vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded by smearing the protestors as racists, declaring the Emergency Measures Act, and shipping police in from across the country to clear the capital. In the meantime, copycat convoys sprang up from Israel to France.
We are now seeing the arrival of long-form journalism attempting to “explain” the Convoy, from Justin Ling’s essay in the Toronto Star to a CBC documentary featuring interviews with a range of self-described Convoy leaders. Predictably, the focus of this journalism is the genuinely fringe elements of the Convoy, such as Pat King (who was certainly a pervasive presence—I saw him wandering the crowds myself). Much of this reporting simply buttresses the government view that the Convoy was a combination of conspiracy theorists and extremists and nothing more.
The reality is that the Freedom Convoy defied all uniform narratives. I went to Ottawa and spoke with many participants myself, and dozens of people were there for completely different reasons. Some were there because lockdowns had destroyed their businesses; others because the vaccine passports had squeezed their lives; still others because mandates had cost them their jobs. There were also plenty of conspiracy theorists and angry anti-government types with “F___ Trudeau” flags who wanted to vent their anger; another woman had lost two people to suicide in the past two years and simply wanted someone to validate her story and hear her pain.
The Freedom Convoy, in other words, was in part a creation of the monolithic media and political establishment, which insisted on one narrative to the exclusion of all others. No politician, for example, seemed able to admit that people who had saved for years and poured their everything into business start-ups had seen their lives destroyed in two short years. Regardless of whether you believe lockdowns and other COVID responses were necessary, that is also a fact—and those who saw everything they’d built vanish overnight were told they were collateral damage.
In short, for two years, only one narrative about the COVID-19 pandemic has been presented for public consumption. The Freedom Convoy, which served as a lightning rod for the collective frustrations of millions of Canadians, can be best described as a collection of stories that merged into a movement of those who wanted their views heard—and felt forced into taking their stories to the Canadian capital to demand a hearing. Many of these stories were radically different from each other, but the catharsis that unfolded through the following weeks was largely a result of people finally feeling heard.
One of the little-noted aspects of the Canadian Freedom Convoy was its overt religiosity. There were plenty of profane and even vile slogans—but there were also many trucks featuring Bible verses, prayers, and Christian messages. A mere 11% of Canadians attend any kind of religious service on a weekly basis—and a mere 18% of those who identify as Christian bother to show up for church. The prominent presence of Christian protestors in the midst of a populist uprising on Parliament Hill was notable for that very reason.
The participation of Christians was pervasive. A group of church ladies did laundry for the truckers, collecting it up and down the street, tagging it with the correct names, and returning it clean. The first Sunday the Convoy arrived in the capital kicked off with a sermon from Pastor Henry Hildebrandt, a controversial firebrand who serves at the Church of God in Alymer, Ontario, and has become a lightning rod of resistance to government restrictions on worship. Groups gathered to sing “Amazing Grace”; a group of veterans respectfully recited the Lord’s Prayer at the National War Memorial.
Footage of truckers praying at the border blockade in Coutts, Alberta, went viral after Jordan Peterson approvingly tweeted it; a group of truckers sang Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” on Parliament Hill; up and down Wellington Street, dozens of signs with Bible verses and prayers for both the country and the prime minister were attached to the fence, bizarrely mixed in with the more profane offerings. One convoy captain told me that most of the major leadership meetings involved prayer. Some even dubbed Ecclesiastes 10:4 (If the spirit of the ruler rises against you, Do not leave your post; For conciliation pacifies great offenses) “the trucker’s text”—the biblical version of the convoy slogan: Hold the line!
It is important to note that there were many pastors and religious leaders who strongly disapprove of the protests and the blockades on the basis that civil disobedience to COVID-19 restrictions is a violation of the command to obey governing authorities found in Romans 13. Many stated that the Freedom Convoy went too far. Thus, the Christians who participated in the Convoy may not have represented the majority of Canada’s conservative Christian minority (although I suspect they did.) My point here is not to defend civil disobedience as such, but rather to explain why so many feel so alienated from their leaders and participated in one of the largest anti-government protests in recent memory.
Many, of course, shared the same reasons for joining the protests as their irreligious counterparts: the vaccine mandates, the rolling lockdowns, the restrictions on gathering (and worship specifically), as well as the high-profile arrests of a handful of pastors in Alberta. The collapse of institutional trust has also led to the broad proliferation of conspiracy theories and an underlying, default suspicion of anything the government and the media are pushing. Many predicted pandemic restrictions once scoffed off as the fevered prophecies of the tinfoil-hatted came to pass, and it has become increasingly difficult for people to discern what is a conspiracy theory and what is next.
But in conservative Christian communities particularly, the collapse of trust in institutions has been almost total—and for good reason. During the pandemic, abortion was listed by the government as “essential” healthcare—and clinics were kept open as life-saving surgeries were cancelled. The same government health websites offering advice on COVID-19 included information on where to get your baby aborted or how to get taxpayer-funded “transgender healthcare.” As one Christian supporting the protests told me: “They say the baby in the womb isn’t a baby. What else are they lying about?”
Another young woman I spoke with echoed the same point. She, too, felt that it was simply unrealistic for a Christian to believe that a government willing to lie about fundamental issues would tell the truth about COVID. In her view, COVID restrictions were simply another attempt by an anti-Christian government to expand their power, and the restrictions on worship service confirmed that. She joined the protestors because she believed they were a necessary pushback to leaders that could not be trusted to wield more power. I spoke with more than a dozen others who shared a nearly identical view.
Another admitted to me that she found herself susceptible to many of the conspiracy theories about vaccines flying around—even the bizarre ones. But, she asked: Do any of these conspiracy theories require the same mind-bending suspension of reality it takes to use phrases like “her penis” or “pregnant man” and believe them? The answer, of course, is no. But the Canadian government not only pushes these brazen deceits, it utilized the pandemic to pass a so-called “conversion therapy ban” that actually made pastoral care for those with unwanted same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria illegal.
Speaking with Christian protestors and convoy participants, they returned over and over to these simple points: How can we trust a government that we know is lying to us about fundamental, obvious things such as whether a baby in the womb is a baby or whether men or women—or boys and girls—can change their sex? To speak the truth about many issues is increasingly difficult. As such, how can government be trusted? Suspicion of government has become default, and for many Christians, it is more believable that a government-mandated medical treatment is harmful than that a government which has been targeting Christians consistently has their best interests in mind.
After all, the same government that put vaccine mandates in place recently widened eligibility for assisted suicide to those who are mentally ill—just as experts predict a wave of mental illness coming as a result of pandemic restrictions and the social chaos of the last two years. It seems like a sick joke, but this really happened.
There are obviously other aspects to this. Christians need to do a much better job rigorously fact-checking what we find on social media rather than just blindly sharing it; we all need to ensure that our information bubbles are not as air-tight as they often are; we need to resist turning every issue into another culture war in which we side with our tribal group regardless of the facts. Default suspicion of government comes with enormous blind spots, and many of the conspiracy theories that have proliferated through Christian communities during COVID-19 have highlighted that. We need to do better.
But to understand why so many Christians participated in the recent protests, it is essential to understand that this default suspicion did not spring up overnight—it is the result of a long, sustained attack on Canada’s Christian roots and Christian communities. Politicians like Justin Trudeau and media outlets like the state broadcaster have relentlessly trashed institutional trust, and now they are paying the piper. A government that lies constantly about fundamental human realities—and even attempts to ban dissent—cannot expect those targeted by such laws to believe them when they begin to talk about the common good.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many things. The distrust Canadian Christians have for their government is one of them.