OTTAWA — A cavalcade of big rigs rumbled through Canada’s capital, blocking major streets, drawing thousands of supporters, enraged residents and captured the attention of a shocked nation for three weeks. Now they are gone, leaving Canadians grappling with important questions about their country’s political future.
Was the occupation an aberration or was it the beginning of a more fundamental change in the country’s political landscape? Has their chaotic blockade alienated the public so much that the movement has no chance of a future, or has it formed the basis of a lasting political organization?
“There is a concern, and it has been expressed in all sorts of ways, that this protest movement will become something much bigger and much more sustained,” said Wesley Wark, senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation , a Canadian public policy group. “He received tremendous oxygen to spread his message.”
The moment is only related to the pandemic: the protesters demanded an end to all government measures in the event of a pandemic. But it’s also part of a larger trend.
Social media has been a driving force behind street protests for the past decade, uniting multitudes in occupations ranging from Zuccotti Park in New York to Gezi Park in Istanbul. But research has shown that these movements often struggle to convert their energy into real change.
On Sunday afternoon, Ottawa streets that had been clogged with trucks, makeshift canteens and noisy protesters were largely empty except for police vehicles. Part of the city center had been fenced off. A compound of protesters that occupied the parking lot of a baseball stadium had been cleared – although about two dozen heavy trucks and a group of other vehicles gathered about 100 kilometers from the city.
During their three-week occupation, much of the protests alienated Canadians. During a border blockade in Alberta, police seized a large cache of weapons and charged four protesters with conspiring to murder officers.
But protesters also saw much of the disruption they caused as a tactical victory.
A contingent in Windsor, Ont., blocked a key bridge between Canada and the United States for a week, forcing auto factories to cut production and disrupting about $300 million a day in trade.
From the start, they caught law enforcement off guard. Some truckers said in interviews they were surprised to be allowed to stay in the first place, and the city’s police chief resigned in response to public anger at the slowness with which authorities acted to dislodge them.
The outbreak of the protest came after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has portrayed himself as a human rights champion, invoked an emergency measure that gave police the ability to seize vehicles protesters and allowed banks to freeze their accounts. Mr Trudeau’s decision prompted a legal action to overturn the order by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which called it “unconstitutional”.
Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole had increasingly leaned towards the center but was ousted and temporarily replaced by a staunch supporter of the protests. And Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario, lifted the vaccination proof requirement and capacity limits for businesses a little earlier than expected.
Neither of these measures was directly related to the occupation – Mr Ford has explicitly said he was not responding to protesters’ demands but to public health trends – but both were celebrated as victories by the occupiers .
Perhaps most importantly, under the eye of ubiquitous television cameras and live cellphones, the protests dominated the airwaves for weeks and generated conversations about coronavirus restrictions.
“The big lesson in all of this is that everyone learned that we’re not actually powerless,” said BJ Dichter, an official convoy spokesperson, in an online fan chat last week. A lot “happened as a result of all these people coming together,” he said.
But the protesters have not really channeled the energy accumulated over the weeks into a clear political force, experts said.
Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, a right-wing group that has no seat in parliament, showed up at the protests – but he didn’t attract much more attention than any other speaker.
And while there were pockets of sympathy for protesters’ frustration with pandemic rules, the majority of Canadians didn’t like their tactics and wanted them to go home, polls show. In Ottawa, residents were upset that authorities had taken so long to act.
“This thing was a really fringe move that was lucky, in my opinion, in terms of policing failures,” Mr Wark said. “I think it was an extraordinary moment and a flash in the pan.”
There were elements of right-wing extremism linked to protests across the country, where Confederate, QAnon and Trump flags had popped up. Conspiracy theorists could also be found in parliament: people who believed big pharma created the coronavirus in order to make money on vaccines or that QR codes allowed the government to control our thoughts.
But the protests drew thousands of people on some weekends, many of whom simply frustrated Canadians who didn’t want to be forced to get vaccinated or who were just fed up with the pandemic and its restrictions. The majority of the more than $8 million given to truckers via GiveSendGo came from Canada, a data leak has revealed.
In interviews, trucker after trucker said this was his first manifestation. Michael Johnson, 53, parked his red fire truck outside Parliament after his son suggested he drive with the convoy. He stayed there until the very end.
“When we turned our headlights to Ottawa, I don’t think any of us knew what we were driving into,” Johnson said. “I didn’t realize how bad it was until I got here.”
Mr. Johnson has never been vaccinated and has not had to – transporting scrap metal in northern Ontario does not require crossing the border. And he said he recently became a supporter of the right-wing People’s Party of Canada. But he believes the coronavirus is real and when people knocked on his taxi door to talk about conspiracy theories, he refused to commit.
“That’s not why I’m here,” he said. “It’s a distraction.”
Every ten minutes or so someone would stop by to drop some money, give him a hug or thank him.
Mr Johnson has heard stories of people who have lost their jobs because they do not want to be vaccinated. His taxi is lined with letters of appreciation from people who told him that the movement made them feel, for once, that they weren’t crazy or alone.
“Telling people you get this or you lose your job or you can’t go places – that’s segregation,” Mr Johnson said.
Carmen Celestini, a postdoctoral fellow at the Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, said these kinds of protesters, “genuine people who are anti-vaccine,” have been overlooked throughout the occupation.
“Their voices have been ignored in a lot of this,” Ms Celestini said, adding that “because we continue to abuse this and not engage, it’s going to escalate.”
Mr Johnson’s truck is the most valuable thing he owns and it is his livelihood. The risk of losing him left him anxious. When the police started to approach, his uncle and aunt begged him to go home.
“Realizing what I could lose from all of this,” he said, “is scary.” There was a part of him that wanted the surveillance to end. But he refused to pack his bags early.
“I’m too far now,” he said, “If we show fear, everyone will lose momentum.”
On Saturday, the police finally reached his door. A man approached to shake her hand through the window once more. Mr Johnson came out with his hands up, driving his truck to the authorities. A crowd of supporters cheered. “We love you,” several people shouted.
Mr Johnson was kicked out of the protest along with everyone else gathered outside Parliament. But he swore to keep fighting.
“Now,” he said, “they woke me up.”
Vjosa Isai contributed reporting from Toronto and Sarah Maslin Nir from Ottawa.