The Canadian working class is organized but ideologically confused. A few weeks ago, in late April and early May, Rolling Thunder descended on Ottawa. It was a protest event inspired by the Freedom Convoy in February
Neil Sheard, a key organizer, distanced himself from some of Rolling Thunder’s less pleasant attendees: Chris “Sky” Saccoccia, a conspiracy theorist with a history of Holocaust denial, racism and homophobia who once claimed on Facebook that Adolph Hitler was “right on target”. , as if he had a crystal ball in the future.
Sheard described the Rolling Thunder rally as a way for Canadian citizens to honor veterans. Organized through online Facebook groups and messaging channels on Slack and Discord, the convoys of truckers and bikers have been among the most high-profile examples of working class organizing in a decade. But why did these movements materialize? What do they mean for Canadian politics? Are they a threat, an obstacle or a nuisance for the workers?
In February, writing for The Brunswicker, the UNB student newspaper, I attended a Freedom Convoy rally in Fredericton. It was clear that while the convoy was made up of several disparate groups, all had similar working-class backgrounds and their fury was unmatched.
I approached a man, shouting uncoordinated chants out of step with everyone.
âWhat do you think about incorporating other demands into the movement,â I asked. “Like increasing wages and increasing unionization rates?”
“It’s not about that,” he replied, his tone resolute and his eyes impassive. “They [politicians] are liars. They work for corporate masters.
I was delighted that he identified the influence of corporate interests on electoral politics. I started asking him about the “c” word, class.
âI’m not against corporatism,â he replied, cutting me short. “I’m not against business. I would rather die standing than be a slave to a communist government.
“Trudeau is a communist,” he continued. âHis father was a communist. His father was Fidel Castro. And a lot of people don’t know this, but he has communist beliefs and he wants to limit free speech.
As the man was talking, he walked away from my question about the class. His argument seemed fourfold. First, corporations run the system by controlling elected politicians. Second, corporations and businesses are forces for good. Third, politicians are all communists, which means communism is when corporations run the political show. Fourth, it means that labor and left-wing reforms are also communism and not worth pursuing.
The argument is difficult to follow and inherently contradictory.
Yet human fear of corporate power stems from a set of fundamental oppressions that workers face. Where his analysis falters is that it draws on a wide range of common-sense beliefs championed by the status quo: anti-leftism, corporatism, and the corner issues of the culture war brewed by think tanks in the United States that divide rather than unite exploited policies. communities.
Later, I approached another participant, this time a woman dancing and waving the Canadian flag.
“That’s enough already,” she said. “I need a job. I don’t need a vaccine.
I asked him to explain himself.
âEither you get a job or you don’t even get hired. You don’t even put your foot in the door. It is not fair. It’s not Canadian. These are not human rights. It’s extortion. And it robs me of my livelihood, and it keeps me from earning my fucking living wage, which they won’t even provide.
“Just give me a job,” she concluded, pleading.
âI haven’t received any government assistance since the start of COVID two years ago. I can’t find a job now because I’m not vaccinated, but I can hold a sign and shout very loudly.
Before leaving, I approached another participant: a veteran standing near a black pickup truck.
“Oppression is not just one thing,” he said. âAs if it weren’t black. It’s not white. It’s not Asian. It is the oppression of people.
“In a place that we consider a world’s first democratic society, I think our minimum wage should be much higher,” he continued. âI live in Saint John, where we have the highest child poverty rate in Canada.
Yet a subtle form of classless, colorblind nationalism underlined his thinking, I thought.
“We [need to] start treating people with respect and dignity,â he concluded. âWe should be able to meet in the middle and say, ‘I respect you because you’re Canadian.’ And that’s what makes us, that’s what separates us from all the other cultures in this world.
Overall, what the two convoys of protests show is that more Canadians than ever see the current economic and political systems as hopelessly stacked against them. Despite subtle shifts in party and politics, life for most people has steadily deteriorated over the past half century. Political economists see this deterioration as a product of the 1970s and a turn towards neoliberalism, which began when Richard Nixon abandoned the gold standard.
In Canada, the current neoliberal order â agreed upon by the Liberal, Conservative, NDP and Green parties â is being maintained with great effort. War memorials like the one in Ottawa play an important role in this process by helping to create a sense of national identity.
Sheard, a central organizer for Rolling Thunder, enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces and served two tours in Iraq. He was fired due to injuries. While Sheard and other organizers considered the first Freedom Convoy a success, he also understood its political failures. For example, in February, participants in the Freedom Convoy chose to desecrate the National War Memorial in Ottawa. The act became a cracking point and a lightning rod for criticism from the liberal and conservative center.
On April 30, Rolling Thunder sought to repair the earlier desecration by laying a wreath atop the war memorial and honoring their fallen comrades.
For Sheard and others, Rolling Thunder represented an opportunity for the anti-establishment fringe to preserve Canada’s warlike and nationalist sensibilities.
In Canada, war memorials like the one in Ottawa serve a dual purpose. First, the creation of a national myth linked to classless nationalism and warlike pacifism. This myth circumvents criticism of Canada’s role in contemporary military engagements and genocidal campaigns â Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, among others.
Second, by cloaking wars in a vague sense of remembrance and social responsibility, memorials commemorate past military operations to enable new military action abroad. Memorials portray Canadian war efforts as historic and non-existent rather than contemporary, daily and ongoing.
What to conclude?
The convoys and their participants grappled with systemic and subtle oppressions at the very heart of contemporary life: poverty, wage exploitation, and growing inequality between workers and wealthy. Yet the convoy and its organizers lack a language and a theory capable of explaining these oppressions.
With media monopolies having become so common in New Brunswick and North America in general, more people than ever have embraced the common sense values ââof the groups that govern them. The convoy and its supporters were victims of political sleight of hand. The economic and social grievances of convoy participants are real and acute, and yet organizers have hijacked those grievances to fit into conservative and pro-corporate narratives.
At the same time, there remains a reluctance on the part of the Canadian left to offer an alternative policy capable of directing these grievances towards solutions that benefit working people. Broader forms of grassroots cooperation, solidarity and organization have been abandoned in favor of privatization programs that sap the resources needed in health care and education. As a result, the lives of Canadian workers have become more precarious and less conducive to direct action, driving would-be activists off the streets and back into the voting booths.
Harrison Dressler is a researcher and writer working for the RAVEN-funded Human Environments Workshop (HEW). He writes about New Brunswick and Canadian history, labour, politics and environmental activism. The reporting and research contributions of Marlowe Evans, editor of The Brunswickan, were indispensable in the writing of this article.