#FreedomConvoy2022 and Canada’s descent into Trumpism

The #FreedomConvoy2022 – or the #FluTruxKlan, take your pick – rolled into Ottawa this past weekend. Some of its remnants are still there. They’re refusing to leave until Justin Trudeau resigns or is arrested for alleged crimes against humanity, namely COVID restrictions.

Ostensibly, the event was organized to protest the vaccination mandate for truckers crossing the Canada-U.S. border. But it was mostly a vehicle for People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier, the face of Canada’s new right, and his supporters, not to mention white supremacy (or preserving what’s left of it).

There were seemingly more Fuck Trudeau signs, Confederate flags and swastikas – on the same week Canada marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less – than truckers. Many flew Canadian flags upside down and took selfies of themselves draped over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Canada’s National War Memorial, apparently oblivious to the irony amid their calls for “freedom” from vaccine mandates. Dozens of protestors also showed up at the local Shepherds of Good Hope shelter to terrorize staff into serving them food after restaurants refused to serve them for being unmasked. Two people at the shelter were reportedly assaulted, threatened and called racial slurs.

For the participants, it was a carnival. For the city of Ottawa, it was an annoyance. For the country, it marked a depressing new low in our politics. Nothing like a pandemic to send Canada lurching toward civil unrest. 

Indeed, the convoy, if it was ever about truckers, was hijacked even before it got started by some of the same anti-lockdown, COVID conspiracy theorists and pro-gun anti-Trudeau forces that rallied in front of the U.S. consulate and Parliament Hill during the Canada Day long weekend in 2020. People’s Party leader Bernier was there too.

A day later, Manitoba sausage-maker Corey Hurren drove his pick-up armed to the teeth with guns through the gates of the Prime Minister’s residence at Rideau Hall to reportedly affect an arrest of the PM over COVID restrictions. No one was home. A similar petition was floating around the internet prior to this week’s Ottawa event. This time the PM and his family were moved to a secret location over security concerns. 

It’s unclear if there were any credible threats against the PM. But you don’t have to dig very deep to see the telltale signs that Trumpism (fascism?) has firmly taken root in Canuckistan. Only this time the forces of extremism are using a public health crisis to advance their political agenda. 

Some of the convoy’s most vocal supporters – among them far-right social media influencers – were pushing protestors to carry out “our own January 6 event” and see “some of those truckers plow right through” the walls of Parliament Hill. Even Donald Trump Jr. got in on the act, taking to Facebook in the days before the event to encourage those heading to the capital to “lock down” Ottawa. The Donald himself offered words of support during a “Save America” rally in Texas on Sunday where he suggested he’d pardon January 6 rioters if he runs for president and is elected in 2024.

It’s an ominous time for the U.S., and the shock waves are being felt north of the border.

Canadians are overwhelmingly in favour of vaccines and vaccine mandates. Some 90 per cent support them. But like the pandemic, a virus of misinformation has been quickly spreading in Canada over COVID-19 restrictions as fatigue turns to burnout and the mishandling of the COVID response (overwhelmingly by Conservative provincial governments, it should be pointed out) threatens to tear apart what social cohesion there is left to fight the pandemic.

The more the pandemic has required restrictions to control its spread, the more belligerent extremist and authoritarian elements in the country have become – and the more politicians have played to them for their support. In Ontario, it’s given rise to far-right offshoots, including a branch of the People’s Party headed by former PC MPP (and QAnon Truther) Randy Hillier, who was spotted along with Bernier in Ottawa this weekend.

It’s a slippery slope – and it’s only going to get slipperier as more virulent variants of the virus emerge and the federal government grapples with the prospect of having to make vaccines mandatory across the board to contain a pandemic that increasingly looks like it will be with us for some time.

Conservative Party hurtles toward political oblivion

As Trumplicans stormed the Capitol as part of an armed insurrection a little more than a year ago, conservative columnists and opinion makers here observed that it was “absurd” to conflate Donald Trump’s brand of populism with Canada’s conservatives. Some political observers continue to be in denial about that, characterizing Saturday’s protest as reflective of the division in Canada and justifiable anger over job insecurity and frustration over pandemic restrictions. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. 

In 2019, another convoy rolled into Ottawa. United We Roll, organized by the populist Yellow Vests Canada, was sold as a pro-pipeline protest, again over concern about job losses and economic insecurity. But it was mostly a front for anti-Muslim and xenophobic views.

The pandemic has provided a perfect breeding ground for anti-government types and misinformation on vaccines and vaccine mandates. Even members of the Conservative Party of Canada, watching their support bleed to the PPC, are now publicly embracing the Big Lie that vaccine mandates are the cause of all that ails us. Some among them are now openly calling for the lifting of all vaccine mandates.

Conservative Party MPs, including former party leader Andrew Scheer, who clearly has a thing for truckers – he spoke at the Yellow Vests event in 2019 – have been scaring up outrage on social media, raising the spectre of vaccine mandates for truckers causing widespread food and supply shortages. Scheer went further, adopting the threatening rhetoric of extremists and labelling Trudeau in a tweet as “the biggest threat to freedom in Canada.”

Newly minted Thornhill MP Melissa Lantsman joined in the deception by trying to pass off photos of empty grocery store shelves as proof of impending doom. Only, they were fakes – photos of empty store shelves in the UK. There were a lot of fake photos and misinformation making the rounds on social media during the protest, including the numbers in attendance which, if you believe supporters, drew some 2.3 million people on foot. Ottawa police estimate that some 8,000 people attended on Saturday.

Most political observers chalked up Lantsman’s faux pas to a rookie mistake. It wasn’t. It was clearly calculated. 

Lantsman is a former spokesperson for Ontario Premier Doug Ford. She sees which way the wind is blowing in the Conservative Party and it’s clearly toward the faction exemplified by wannabe party leader Pierre Poilievre, who is openly calling for the lifting of vaccine requirements in the name of “freedom.” There’s that word again. It’s been used a lot by those who argue for the lifting of vaccine mandates. At this point, they all see themselves as William Wallace.

Only, democracies are supposed to be built on social responsibility. That’s why Section 1 of the Charter sets out “reasonable limits” on our rights and gives the government authority to impose those restrictions in times of crisis. Conservatives used to understand this. But this is no longer your grandfather’s or grandmother’s Conservative party. In fact, it’s no longer Erin O’Toole’s party. 

The leader of the Official Opposition, who has been calling for “accommodation” of the unvaccinated, met with some truckers, despite first saying that he wouldn’t over concerns expressed about the event’s far-right ties. The Canadian Trucking Alliance distanced itself from the event, encouraging truckers to call their MPs if they have concerns about vaccine mandates.

According to the transportation ministry, some 90 per cent of truckers are in fact vaccinated. Those who aren’t vaccinated have also reportedly been placed on domestic routes to accommodate their vaccine concerns. Somewhat lost in the fury is the fact that the same mandatory vaccine rules also apply for truckers on the other side of the border.

But desperate to hold onto his leadership, O’Toole has upped his rhetoric on a range of issues recently, so much so that even mainstream members of the Ottawa press gallery have taken to calling out his “garbage.”

The change in tone is not a complete surprise. The Conservative Party has been hurtling towards Trumpism (and political oblivion) ever since O’Toole took over and tried unsuccessfully to move the party to the political centre. If it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear after this weekend’s tumult, that the barbarians are at the gates. As more CPC support hemorrhages to the PPC, O’Toole’s time is nigh.

COVID a “welcome crisis” for anti-government extremists  

It’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole inhabited by COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and anti-Trudeau and anti-government extremists online. 

It’s also easy to get lost in most of the mainstream media coverage of the convoy that veered from feel-good profiles with truckers to interviews with the clearly unhinged among them threatening to use their guns if the government failed to lift vaccine mandates.

Most Canadians wouldn’t know what to make of the coverage, but Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), has been warning of the growth of vigilante and insurrection movements in anti-vaccine circles – whose connections run to armed militias – since the start of the pandemic.

CSIS noted the emergence of “ideologically driven” extremists and anti-government types in the anti-vaccine movement in its 2020 annual report who “view COVID-19 as a real, but welcome crisis that could hasten the collapse of Western society.” The report goes on to say that “the pandemic has exacerbated xenophobic and anti-authority narratives… to rationalize and justify violence.”

In other words, we’re not just talking about anti-vax Karens or Kristas or those termed “vaccine-hesitant” when it comes to the anti-vaccine movement and the individuals who showed up in Ottawa to hoot and holler. We’re talking about a threat to national security. 

Those showing up to protest in the streets in large numbers – at vaccine clinics for kids or to block hospital entranceways – are not just people riled about personal freedom and economic losses caused by vaccine mandates. They’re mostly political outliers who see vaccines as a “bio-weapon” and compare Canada’s vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany.

They see themselves as a persecuted minority and discriminated against. Some wear the Star of David at rallies even as they view vaccine mandates as a conspiracy orchestrated by Jewish “globalists.” It makes no sense.

Vax tax avoids a more difficult political question

There is no doubt that the devastation being caused by the pandemic is having an effect on the economy. Inflation is at the highest it’s been in decades, even as some job numbers return to pre-pandemic levels. The stock markets registered a number of record lows last week.

But what supply chain issues there are have been present since the start of the pandemic, and as the emergence of Omicron has shown, will only get worse as more contagious variants take hold. It’s a global pandemic, after all.

Even before there were vaccines and vaccine mandates, the movement of goods continued over the Canada-U.S. border. The trucking industry was told last November that vaccines would be mandatory for drivers beginning in 2022. And therein lies the dishonesty for those whipping up fears of food shortages and economic meltdown. 

Vaccines that prevent serious illness and hospitalizations are the only way we have of not overwhelming our health-care systems or short-circuiting our economy with lockdowns every time a new wave comes along. The pandemic has largely become a pandemic of the unvaccinated. In fact, many of those who don’t want to get vaccinated don’t believe a pandemic actually exists. It’s all a hoax to them.

Editorial writers of the largest newspaper chain in the country take issue with that view. They’re now urging a “broader view” on the science on COVID-19 and abandoning restrictions. We’re all going to catch it anyway, or so the theory goes.

In the context of a global public health crisis that’s laid bare the shaky foundations of late-stage capitalism, it’s not the most prudent course forward economically. It’s also not what science tells us.

According to the raw numbers, there have typically been as many vaccinated as unvaccinated people in hospital ICUs during the latest COVID wave. But when you compare the tens of millions more people that have been vaccinated to the numbers that haven’t, it’s clear that it’s the unvaccinated who are 20 times more likely to end up sick and in hospital ICUs.

The Conservative premier of Quebec, François Legault, realizes this and has proposed a tax on the unvaccinated in a bid to cover health-care costs associated with the spiralling number of cases. Other countries like Austria and Greece have also imposed fines. It’s worked as an incentive for Quebeckers before. When the province required vaccine passports to purchase liquor and weed, the number of those who opted for vaccination jumped markedly.  

But Quebec’s move has been widely condemned as unethical and against the idea of universality. Critics have also pointed out that the measure may adversely affect racialized people and the most marginalized, only it’s not those folks who have been showing up at anti-lockdown rallies.

Most legal experts lean toward the view that the courts may decide that the measure is justified given the health-care emergency caused by the Omicron variant. It’s considered less lethal than its Delta predecessor, but because it’s so contagious has led to more overall hospitalizations and deaths.

Last week, for example, the single-day number of deaths in Ontario surpassed previous single-day highs for deaths on three separate occasions. The real health-care costs are much higher, of course, as thousands of surgeries have had to be delayed so that health-care staff can be redeployed to fight the virus. 

While Legault’s proposal has been met with resistance, it avoids the more difficult political question – whether vaccines should be made mandatory across the board given the likelihood that COVID-19 is already endemic.

Countries moving to mandatory vaccinations

The World Health Organization warned recently that we’re at a critical juncture in the fight against COVID-19, and that the spread of Omicron is certain to lead to the development of new, more difficult variants. The WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, went as far as to say that the pandemic will be with us “for years to come.”

Trudeau expressed opposition to vaccine mandates in May. “We’re not a country that makes vaccination mandatory,” he said back then. But Omicron has shifted the ground. Federal health minister Jean-Yves Duclos said during a recent press conference on the issue that he “sees it coming.”

The main argument against mandatory vaccinations is that it’s a violation of human rights. Actually, that’s not what considered medical opinion or the UN says.

But we already have a semblance of mandatory vaccination in Canada. You’re required to be vaccinated, for example, to get into museums, movie theatres and sporting venues and access certain services during COVID-19 restrictions. Mandatory vaccination of school children effectively already exists for a range of diseases. Employees who work for federally or provincially regulated industries are also required to be vaccinated, as are many municipal employees.

But it’s a patchwork for most of the country, with health-care workers in Ontario, for example, not being required to be vaccinated, while health-care workers in Quebec are.

Other countries have made vaccines mandatory to varying degrees. Germany plans to make vaccines mandatory in February. Italy requires all workers, school staff, police and military to be vaccinated. The U.S. requires all public sector workers and private sectors workers in companies with more than 100 employees to be vaccinated.  

The question is: what’s the alternative? The status quo of serial lockdowns every time a new variant comes along? Neither is throwing caution to the wind and thinking we can just go back to the way we were pre-pandemic.

Some governments would like to.

Alberta premier Jason Kenney tried to last summer as his approval ratings went down the toilet. It blew up in his face and the province was forced back into lockdown after an exponential surge in cases. A similar dynamic is taking hold here in Ontario, where Doug Ford has announced the lifting of restrictions beginning January 31, despite doing away with rules around contact tracing and testing and indications that the Omicron variant may not have peaked yet.

Truth be told, most provincial governments in Canada have dropped the ball, failing to put in place safeguards to protect us when they had the chance and thinking vaccines would be the silver bullet. They never were. In playing politics with the virus, these political leaders have stoked anti-vaccine sentiment arguably as a pretext to getting rid of restrictions. 

It’s already happening in the UK, where the government of Boris Johnson is buckling under the weight of declining approval ratings after a series of failed half-measures and has moved to lift almost all COVID-19 restrictions, including wearing masks in public and requiring vaccine passes to access services. 

Pandemic threatens the global order

Governments have moved mountains to fund the development of vaccines. But moving the masses along with them has been another matter. 

It would all be so much easier if everyone did their part and got vaccinated and followed protocols. It would make adjusting to life with COVID-19 achievable. 

No one is liking this, but when it comes to the collective will, there will always be those who refuse – either out of selfishness or just plain ignorance. Now the threat posed by COVID-19 is not just to the economy. It’s to the global order. 

While Donald Trump sits in his bunker somewhere in Palm Beach planning for a 2024 presidential run, his buddy, Russian president Vladimir Putin, sabre rattles in the Ukraine as the U.S. and its western allies occupied with the pandemic seem powerless to do anything about stopping what looks like an imminent invasion of the country.  

It was Russian interference on social media that turned the 2016 presidential election for Trump. The U.S. hasn’t recovered since. It should all look eerily familiar to students of history on how quickly things can unravel. That’s the insidiousness of fascism – it’s not there until it is.

@enzodimatteo

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