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Freedom Convoy 2022 2: Still Here

Freedom Convoy 2022 2: Still Here

by Jacques Rockhard


The air smells like cancer.


Much has changed, dear reader, since you and I last spoke of the trucker convoy which first occupied Ottawa’s downtown core a little over two weeks ago. Heterogeneous in terms of ideology but united in calling for Justin Trudeau’s head, one key fact has remained the same throughout the protests, or occupation, same thing whatever: the fuckers are still here. 


And none of this story’s multifarious escalations have managed to make me feel any less weird about the whole thing. They have, perhaps intuitively, had the opposite effect, so there is nothing to be done on my end but continue to yell at the internet about my personal feelings.


That said, the sort of stunned charm that comes over you while at the centre of this movement — the sheer force of personality contained in such an environment is enough to confound even the most seasoned bullshit detectors — has officially worn off in my case. I am no longer concerned with inadequate accounts of the variety of pressures that might compel one type of person or another to drive however many hours to attend a freezing cold illegal block party and commit some number of petty summary offenses and bylaw infractions. Gradually, as more tweets have flowed into what was at first a steady stream and is now a torrential river of mostly sewage, and as rarer government powers have been unhooked from the walls of a rhetorical vault labeled ‘emergency,’ it has begun to feel less like a time for grappling with motivations, and more like a time for thinking about consequences. 


Through this process, a number of key dynamics at play have snapped into focus for me. I will not pretend to be equipped to deal with all of them, but I will take my best crack at the ones that feel the most important to me, or that won’t get me shit on for appropriating a struggle that isn’t mine. 


First is the dynamic of federal politics. On Monday, the Prime Minister convened an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss what more he can do beyond telling everyone to go home, because that worked about as well as could have been expected. He ended up invoking the Emergencies Act for the first time ever, in a historical parallel that went unmissed by anyone who remembers Grade 10 or the year 1970. According to the government, the Emergencies Act will grant law enforcement narrow new powers aimed at removing occupiers from the core and securing critical infrastructure such as border crossings and airports. We’ll get more into policing, as well as the blockades at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor and Coutts Crossing in Alberta later. 


The invocation of the Emergencies Act will also force crowdfunding platforms and their payment service providers to register with FINTRAC, the federal government’s historically toothless financial intelligence agency. This measure, announced by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, comes in response to convoy organizers’ use of first GoFundMe and then Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo in funding the occupation, a move that Freeland said “highlighted the fact that crowdfunding platforms, and some of the payment service providers they use, are not fully captured under the Proceeds of Crime and Terrorist Financing Act.” 


Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said last week that “It is clear that this is not a protest. This is an act to try to overthrow the government. It is getting funded by foreign interference and we need to investigate and stop that, stop the flow of that foreign interference, particularly coming from the States.” I wanna take some time to unpack this statement because it contains some really important language. Right away, you might notice that the “this is not a protest” line has cropped up a bunch in the present discourse. Trudeau, in his Emergencies Act announcement, said, “It is no longer a lawful protest at a disagreement over government policy. It is now an illegal occupation.”


Let’s get one thing straight: it absolutely is still a protest, and at no point was it lawful. It didn’t spontaneously morph into an illegal occupation, it was always both. It has never been legal to block roads, idle trucks and honk for days on end, shut down businesses, set off fireworks between tall buildings, stockpile explosive fuel in the middle of the street less than 200 metres from the seat of government, or pull most of any of the shit associated with this convoy. Lots of protests are unlawful, but that’s never been the issue. We have a right to free assembly and a right to free speech, but that doesn’t cover the law-breaking tools that most protest movements use. There is no right to protest as we commonly understand it. The issue at play is never the law, it is always legitimacy, conferred upon movements by the common sense of the masses and directed by political leaders.


What I’m trying to say is that when a protest ‘is no longer a protest’ or ‘becomes unlawful,’ it simply means that public opinion, communicated through political leaders, has deemed it illegitimate, and therefore subject to police use of force. And language that obfuscates this transition by claiming a protest movement has somehow become something it wasn’t before is some dangerous bullshit, regardless of my personal disposition toward its motivating ideology.


And much of the public squabbling related to the Freedom Convoy fails to acknowledge this. Pundits across the spectrum have tried to either legitimize or delegitimize this particular movement by bringing up the relative legitimacy of other protest movements. Left-wing writers have argued that movements rooted in right-wing populist/nationalist ideology are inherently less legitimate because they face fewer if any barriers to establishing a popular, often unsubstantial core complaint. But this angle doesn’t acknowledge that the movements they personally agree with consistently fail to meet a(n admittedly much higher) standard of public approval. 


Right-wing writers have argued that the Freedom Convoy and other populist movements are more successful because they use more agreeable tactics or somehow have better organizing. But they refuse to examine the fact that the RCMP will instantly arrest an Indigenous land defender who so much as looks at a piece of heavy machinery the wrong way, while the Ottawa Police actively made it easier for a convoy of thousands to roll into town, even though their intentions to stay indefinitely were widely publicized. 


Both are fighting the same tired fucking culture war we’re all used to, but in this case they get to use arguments about legality to back themselves up, each accusing the other of denying their rights. In reality, however, rights and legality have nothing to do with anything, and it’s the fault of government institutions that they feel justified in pretending otherwise. 


This is because the politicians at the heads of these institutions rely on protest movements to generate political capital, which can be harnessed in pushing their policies. And because of the Rule of Law, or whatever, they aren’t allowed to acknowledge that the movements that suit their interests are equally as illegal as those that don’t. My point is that the law is not at play here, which. is. literally. fine. If we based everything on who has the law on their side, we’d actually still be in the Dark Ages. Pretending that a certain protest is bad because it’s illegal prevents us from engaging with the shifting values of our democracy at any meaningful level, and that shit is what’s keeping us trapped in this polarized hellhole. Instead we need to determine whether a protest is bad based on whether or not its formative ideology or demands align with our values, and I genuinely can’t understand why that is so hard to do, especially in this case, when the organizers’ published demands are for the government to overthrow itself. What the fuck.


Anyway, also contained in Singh’s statement was a crucial jab at foreign interference, which I think gets at another big stressor in federal politics right now: we desperately want to not be America. This sentiment is so pervasive it’s not easy to corral into a nice, neat couple of quotes, but it is easy to see where it comes from. A brisk jaunt down Wellington reveals a startling amount of blue mixed into the reds and whites (even excluding the Quebeccers), and that doesn’t even take into consideration the smattering of Gadsden flags and Trump references you might come across at a second glance. 


Plus, early convoy backers and Americans themselves haven’t done much to assuage our perennial sovereignty anxieties either. There was that one guy who called for a J6 North, making clear he was thinking what everyone already thought he was thinking, and several high profile Republicans have thrown their metaphorical hats into concentric rings, publicly attacking targets ranging from Trudeau himself to GoFundMe Inc. after it announced it would refund a majority of the donations made to the convoy. 


And then there’s the concrete, measurable interference. Even before the good ol’ boys had fully moseyed their way down the Trans-Canada, journalists were digging into some of the bigger donations to the initial crowdfunding campaign. There was plenty of good work done on that front, but I want to focus on a more recent development. On Sunday, an illegal hack of GiveSendGo, the main (non-crypto, which is a whole other fucking thing) replacement for GoFundMe, revealed a full data set of the names and home countries of donors. 


Before we get to what the leak shows, let’s just take a gander at what you would have seen if you had tried to access GiveSendGo.com on Sunday night, as described by the National Post: “the site’s homepage was replaced with ‘GiveSendGo IS NOW FROZEN!’ in bold, blue text, as well as a manifesto scrolling over a clip from the Disney film Frozen II, depicting Elsa singing Show Yourself while riding across the Dark Sea on a horse made of water.”

Screenshot of GiveSendGone.wtf, the webpage which redirected from GiveSendGo.com on Sunday night. The hyperlink at the bottom led to a complete data set of hacked donor information (via CBC News)

Something about the image of a seasoned old print journalist having to translate Zoomer trolling into inverse-pyramid hard news copy just makes me so happy. 


The data revealed that though Canadians donated a majority of the money to the campaign — USD $4.3 million or 52.5% according to CBC News — the majority of individual donations — 51.67K to Canadians’ 36.2K — came from Americans. These numbers back up a Friday claim by Trudeau that “on certain platforms […] the number of U.S. donations are approaching 50 percent.” We all watched what Americans aligned with the exact same values as the Freedom Convoy organizers did to their democracy, and frankly I don’t think it’s an unreasonable concern that those same people might try and do the same things up here. 


Now, since we’re talking about federal leaders, the Conservative Party of Canada no longer has one. Instead, they have an interim leader: high profile MP Candice Bergen (not that Candice Bergen), who once wore a MAGA hat (there’s that fucking U.S. influence again). Former leader Erin O’Toole is out, the result of a caucus vote which became orders of magnitude easier to predict come the start of the occupation, but which had been telegraphed by internal leaks to the press and an election performance review in January.  


Not much can be known about what this transition means for the future of the Tories, but Bergen has a clear mandate: hold the fucking party together. See, there is an ever-present fault line in the Conservative Party of Canada between social conservatives, of the type clearly represented in the streets of Ottawa right now, and so-called moderates, dating back to its birth. The new interim leader is a thoroughbred prairie soc. con. but she’s also a party vet, and she doesn’t seem to offend moderates in the same way Andrew Scheer appears to have. 


It doesn’t feel like that can stay true forever though, given the heat Bergen has already received from the press. I alluded earlier to the much-scrutinized MAGA hat photo from last year, which made the rounds again shortly after the announcement, and CTV News reported that in pushing Erin O’Toole to support the convoy before his ouster, she managed to invoke one of the most infamous blunders from the Trump era: she said there were “good people on both sides.” Jesus Christ, lady.


Oh also, and not for nothing, Candice Bergen happens to be the MP for the riding which garnered the second most votes for the People’s Party of Canada, after only leader Maxime Bernier’s, per reporter David Akin. The PPC is the anti-public health measures party, and the only party flags flying downtown right now belong to it. Bergen, and the Conservatives more broadly, are probably feeling pressure to win those voters back, before the PPC becomes even more of a threat to a unanimous right-wing voting block. If you didn’t notice, the last election served as a warning shot to this effect, with PPC support surging way past laughing stock status, and a fractured Conservative party can’t afford to have their vote split, so appointing an interim leader from a PPC stronghold with established social conservative credentials is a smart if cynical move. 


Alright, now let’s pivot to the second key dynamic at play in this story: policing. By now, y’all will have heard that Ottawa Police chief Peter Sloly resigned on Tuesday. And I mean, fair enough. Few institutions have gotten more shit on my Twitter feed these past few weeks than the Ottawa Police Service. Criticisms have varied in their validity but it’s clear the cops needed to have done more for the community. I really have no patience for anyone who refuses to acknowledge at least this basic fact because in the context of a country whose police services routinely illegally surveil much lower-profile protest movements, the fact that the OPS was somehow surprised that the convoy was here to stay is inexcusable.


Police action in this city escalated at what has to have been a record-breakingly slow pace and it took four entire days of CIA black site-esque noise to just get an injunction against honking, but apart from being better prepared and restoring some semblance of acceptable living conditions for residents in a timely manner, it’s not clear exactly what more the police on the ground could have done once it became so painfully clear that we were in for the long haul.

 

Yes, police managed to avoid the same fate at Queen’s Park and in Windsor, but those were issues of preparedness, and at Coutts, where the RCMP seized several weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition, it became an issue of avoiding armed escalation. Those cities’ police services had seen the playbook already, faced fewer protestors (and, crucially, trucks), and in the latter case, knew where the guns were. No police service has faced the same conditions as Ottawa’s now does. 


I want to lean on a thread from reporter Justin Ling to explain what I mean. Ling points to a lack of direction from police leadership and an exhausted personnel base as the main reasons enforcement has been so lacklustre — little direction and little to no time off leaves individual cops wide open to harassment from protestors when they do try to step in, and leads to a feeling that whatever actions they take are ineffectual. Tickets are being thrown in the trash or onto the street, police have given up trying to stop the influx of fuel into the core, and they’re being boxed out from even providing assistance to protestors who need emergency medical attention. 


And that doesn’t even get into the unknowns. Mayor Jim Watson has tried to ‘negotiate’ with convoy organizers, which signals that he sees the classic violent riot police and tear gas solution as an absolute last resort. Would be nice if we always thought that way, which we don’t, but whatever. Let’s say we do end up going that route. Let’s say, to use Ling’s hypothetical, we send 300 police officers to arrest 1000 protestors on the hill. What happens when those gents barricade themselves inside their trucks and wait for reinforcements to come in and encircle the cruisers? What happens if, like the protestors at Coutts who have ties to and have received support from Ottawa organizers, they have weapons? What happens if that crowd includes supporters with tactical training like the two members of the elite JTF2 unit of the Armed Forces who were documented in attendance or one of the 65 odd OPS members on leave for refusing to comply with the service’s vaccine mandate? All of those very realistic possibilities put officers in serious danger. 


Look, it’s obvious that there are some serious problems with OPS leadership that are coming to light at the worst possible time, and I am not in the business of defending cops. But hollering about the fact that the police aren’t doing more is not actually helpful at this point. We are way beyond that. And I’m looking straight at you, coun. Catherine McKenney. Your Twitter is starting to piss me off. We get it: you’re running for mayor, but do you honestly feel like screaming at the cops while they run around with their asses on fire in the middle of what is turning into a full-on international crisis is the best way to get your campaign off the ground? Cause it just feels really, really gross to me.


This brings me to the final main dynamic I want to address, mostly because it’s beginning to dawn on me that I’m almost 3000 words into this and I still have to go to sleep. Let’s talk about the international response to our lil’ old emergency. Several other countries have already seen their domestic politics rocked by copycat convoys and the plan for a trip to D.C. under overlapping leadership is already in motion. 


In Europe, protestors citing the Ottawa occupation have amassed in at least France, Italy, Belgium, Finland (where protestors slashed tow-truck tires, just something to consider), and the Netherlands with their sights set on Brussels for some reason. Maybe it’s in the middle? In London, England, protestors sent a Labour Party MP scrambling into a police cruiser for safety. The capitals of Australia and New Zealand have seen similar conditions to here. Even fucking Jerusalem was affected. Classic rest of the Western world, always copying Canada.


Actually, fuck that, it’s not even funny. The convoys in other countries are sad and must be scary for the people who have never seen this shit before, but the prospect of a D.C. convoy is genuinely terrifying, because you know the Americans will want to do it bigger. The coded rhetoric of violence running through the organizing channels up here will face far fewer barriers and much lower standards of acceptability once it’s been laundered across the Southern border. Hell, Tucker Carlson’s bloated mug is already on national cable every night calling us pussies for not wanting to put up with the brand of “patriotism” he finds so endearing.


And let’s not forget that far-right militias have a much stronger foothold and organizing capacity down South. These are the guys that actively organized a full insurrection into Capitol Hill just last year (last year) and if they see a Freedom Convoy as an opportunity for round two or, worse, if some Trump affiliate dog whistles to them that they should, we could see a ripple effect across Western democracies to an extent we’ve never dealt with before. I don’t mean to be alarmist but I haven’t been able to get the sound of alarms out of my head all week, so. 


Alright, enough of that. I wanna make a few teensy pit stops before I try and wrap this whole thing up. First, shoutout to those community members who have managed to effectively fuck with the convoy. I saw a number of blockades that managed to divert reinforcements away from the core, and that shit is cool as hell. Feel proud of yourselves. And blasting “Ram Ranch” on trucker Zello channels? Genius, who even thought of that?


Second, yes Doug Ford is lifting vaccine passport requirements for businesses on March 1st, and yes, Convoy supporters have touted it as a win despite the fact that the Convoy’s actual, explicit endgame is to overthrow the elected federal government and despite the fact that Ford has said that his decision has nothing to do with the movement. He’s an idiot if he expects supporters of the occupation to believe that, but let’s be crystal clear, he does not. Remember, there’s an election this year. It doesn’t matter if he’s telling the truth, what matters is what voters believe, and they’re going to believe whatever they want to believe, which will play well for Douggie in June.


Finally, I think one very important issue in this story has been the appropriation of Indigenous culture into this movement. I am not equipped to properly expand on this point right now, but Indigenous leaders have denounced the protests and their use of traditional ceremonies such as drumming and the burning of sage and cedar. Please look into this on your own time as I will be, because a successful occupation by angry white people on land that is itself a symbol of a much, much more brutal and long-lasting occupation, which used tactics that have been severely and summarily punished when employed by people who aren’t white, is such a fucking slap in the face.


Okay, my brain is now officially mush, but I don’t even feel that much better now that I’ve put everything down on paper. I think that’s because with two states of emergency, one active federal Emergencies Act, and no end of the occupation in sight, I can feel the eventual police action looming. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that a few blocks away from my house, the streets might descend into violence. My dad sent me a text earlier today that just said “R u ok?” and I’ve never opened Twitter faster in my life. I nearly expected to look out my window and see tanks or something. Turns out he was just saying what’s up, but like bro… Who sends a text like that? At a time like this??


And beyond the immediate future, are we ready for the conversation we’re going to have to have about our national identity? We don’t get to feel what it’s like to have the whole world watching us very often, and I gotta say, in this context, it feels bad. We like to pretend that American brand far-right extremism isn’t a threat in this country, but we really can’t do that anymore. Especially if we’re going to have a leader of the opposition who actively courts that ideology’s subscribers and who apparently likes to parrot Donald Trump’s greatest hits. We can’t keep pretending that Americans are the problem, even when they’re actually statistically like 50% of the problem. And I know we’re going to. I can hear the speeches now. Legislation to prevent more foreign interference is what we need, they’ll say. Stronger municipal police forces is what we need, they’ll say. Fuck hockey, our new national pastime is about to become make-believe…

 

Title image credits: Jason Hafso (via Unsplash) 

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