Yesterday afternoon (Saturday) I journeyed from my suburban home to downtown Ottawa, where, as much of the world knows, an anti-vaccine-mandate protest gathering has settled in for over two weeks. Up until the arrival of the trucker convoy in Canada’s capital city, I daily took a similar trip to my workplace, which is a short walk from the Canadian Parliament buildings; since the protesters and their vehicles are now blocking regular traffic on the same street and throughout Ottawa’s central core, I thought it would be interesting to witness how much my usual nine-to-five neighborhood has been transformed. Of course, the mass shutdowns and telework mandates of the last two years have already reshaped life in the heart of Canada’s federal government, as spoofed in a headline from the satirical website The Babylon Bee: “Trudeau Demands Protesters Stop Shutting Down City So That He Can Shut Down City.”
There were certainly a lot of people on and around Wellington Street, as well as parked diesel rigs and other vehicles. There was no regular car or bus traffic, nor could there have been. I saw police walking around ineffectually (although not defunded) and a drone up in the air. Some people were playing a game of pickup street hockey in the shadow of Parliament and, to add to the Canadian stereotype, there were lots of maple leaf banners and general politeness. It was a cold day – Ottawa is one of the coldest national capitals in the world, along with Moscow and Helsinki – but most people were bundled up appropriately and some even wore scarves around their face. No masks, however. I heard a few spontaneous shouts of “Freedom!” from passersby, and I saw numerous families with kids. The Tim Horton’s coffee outlet where I occasionally go for breaks with my co-workers was filled to capacity with protesters, lining up and waiting their turn obediently.
I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a faint alt-right vibe to the crowds: someone carried a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, and I noticed one guy wearing a January 6-style viking hat. I heard a snatch of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version of “Cotton Fields” blaring from a speaker, confirming the thesis of my recent book Takin’ Care of Business: A History of Working People’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. There were a scattering of “Fuck Trudeau” signs and other anti-federal-government displays, a sentiment which seems a bit misplaced considering that health policies in Canada are administered by provinces, all of which – under parties from centre-left to centre-right – have enforced comparable quarantine, masking, and vaccination rules. Like other marches and demonstrations which have previously been held in Ottawa, the truckers seemed to have brought an incoherent platform of complaints with them, some more reasonable, and more constructive, than others. Then again, I definitely saw no violence or even much anger. On the LRT downtown a couple of protesters brought a jerrycan on board, which a transit official told them was not allowed, but they explained that the container was empty and were allowed to go about their business (local police have been trying to prevent protesters from refueling their idling trucks). I also heard plenty of French and English freely exchanged among the truckers, perhaps a sign of progress in a country which has in the past been deeply divided over language issues.
Is this, indeed, what democracy looks like? It’s occurred to me that one reason for the polarization affecting societies in many countries today is that all sides are now affecting the rhetoric of rebellion. In the 1960s, the Establishment was beset by civil rights protests, antiwar protests, women’s and gay liberation protests, environmental protests, and a variety of other opposition movements, but it was always clear who was the Establishment and who was the opposition. In 2022, though, the same tactics of civil disobedience and street theatre once deployed by Abbie Hoffman and the Black Panthers have been taken up by les Gilets jaunes in France, the MAGA Republicans in the US, and the trucker convoy in Canada. The instinctive sympathy many of us feel (or have been taught to feel) for the underdog fighting the System becomes complicated when the underdog’s cause is not the familiar slate of historic grievances voiced against racial segregation, male chauvinist pigs, or Lyndon Johnson, but new uprisings against political correctness, vaccine mandates, and Justin Trudeau. I’m not saying that one wave of dissent is justified and the other isn’t – or both, or neither – but that it’s a lot easier to admire “resistance” in the abstract than it is to endorse any specific expression of resistance on the ground. Everyone swears they’re standing up to power; everyone qualifies how they define it. Whatever your position on the Canadian trucker protests currently capturing international attention, I guess we are all hypocrites now.