John Clarke reports from Canada
It can’t be denied that the far right in Canada has achieved a major organizational and political advance with its truck convoy that challenged public health measures introduced in response to the pandemic. After days spent travelling from both sides of the country, the legs of the convoy linked up and a large protest took place at the federal parliament buildings in Ottawa.
Panic stricken notions of a latter day fascist March on Rome are hardly called for. Ottawa Police estimates suggested a crowd of some 10,000 at the culminating event and this, though significant, is very far from the emergence of a mass movement. A certain wooliness was also evident in the goals and demands of the convoy. Many of the vaccine restrictions they challenged are actually the responsibility of provincial governments, rather than being imposed at the federal level. Their demand to be able to cross the US border unvaccinated is rendered rather absurd because the US authorities have imposed similar restrictions and turn back drivers who can’t offer proof that they are fully vaccinated.
It is also very clear that the ‘Freedom Convoy,’ while it rallied some right wing drivers who oppose public health measures, hardly spoke for the great majority of truckers, close to 90% of whom are vaccinated. As the convoy made its way across Canada, most truckers kept on working, as some media outlets noted. Certainly, the 20% of truckers in Canada who are South Asian have little reason to feel that the racist convoy organizers spoke to their interests.
It is not yet clear how soon the convoy will disperse and the possibility remains of a continuing attempt to press its demands. However, based on what has taken place so far, it is possible to offer something of an assessment.
First of all, the notion the convoy was simply an effort by salt of the earth working people to express their frustration with public health measures is completely absurd. AntiHate.ca makes clear that ‘the ‘Freedom Convoy’ is nothing but a vehicle for the far right.’ The millions of dollars that were raised in support of this venture were brought in by two ‘previously known figures in Canada’s far-right ecosystem.’ One of the supporting groups, ‘the Diagolon network, are even saying that they want this to be Canada’s very own January 6th, referring to the attempted insurrection in Washington, DC.’
The unfolding of the whole event very clearly revealed the fascist orientation that underlay it. Supporters readily acknowledged that they believed in taking up arms and engaging in ‘civil war.’ Confederate flags and Nazi symbols were proudly on display at the rally in Ottawa. Horribly, the arrival of the convoy forced the cancellation of an event to mark the fifth anniversary of the murder of six men in a Quebec City mosque by a racist killer. It was announced that, “The in-person vigil, organized by Canadians United Against Hate, was cancelled with only 24 hours notice out of concern for the safety of participants and attendees who might face violent demonstrations related to the truckers protest.”
The use of the distorted sense of grievance of a minority of truck drivers is a very much part of a strategy of legitimization that fascist movements have been adopting for some time and not just in Canada. Interestingly, the convoy won ringing endorsements from billionaire, Elon Musk, and, perhaps rather predictably, Donald Trump. True to form, the former president told a crowd of supporters in Texas that “We want those great Canadian truckers to know that we are with them all the way.”
There is probably no one who better exemplifies the blurring of the line between the far right and mainstream conservatism than Trump. Out of office, he continues to play the same dangerous game he pursued in the White House. His ‘very fine people on both sides’ comment, applied to white supremacists in Charlottesville marked his cordial relations with the far right. His call on the Proud Boys to ‘stand back and stand by’ showed a working relationship with fascist elements that reached its logical conclusions in the incitement he engaged in during the ‘Capitol riot.’ This developing level of cooperation between the right wing of the political mainstream and open fascism is not confined to the US and was very much part of the recent truck convoy here in Canada.
Play for Legitimacy
The far right invariably views the parties of the political centre as its sworn enemies. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau should have been a target for those behind the truck convoy and Trudeau responded by presenting the initiative in terms of dangerous extremism. Conservative Party leader, Erin O’Toole, on the other hand, threw all caution to the winds and defended the convoy participants ‘as a beleaguered minority under assault from a tyrannical majority.’ Though the event mobilized only a thin layer of those who actually drive trucks for a living, O’Toole presented them as the voice of that section of workers. As he put it, grandly, “Canada doesn’t function as a trading nation without them.”
O’Toole and his advisers could hardly be unaware of the unsavoury characters they are dealing with but the conservatives have an even more right wing rival, the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), snapping at their heels who are only too ready to ally with the far right. Their leader, Maxime Bernier, has been content to pose for photos with overt fascists and to speak at anti-vaxxer rallies. His party represents a dangerous point of interface between electoral politics and street fighting fascism. Such support was of enormous importance to the convoy organizers, in terms of fundraising, mobilizing capacity and political legitimacy.
The quest for issues that can provide fascists with a cover story and access to rightward moving conservatives has been going on for some time. Indeed, the convoy idea has been put into effect previously, with a climate denying pro-pipeline stunt, ‘United We Roll,’ in 2019. A similar cast of characters was involved in this dry run and it demonstrated to the organizers that conservative pillars of the establishment could be counted on the promote their efforts uncritically.
The pandemic, however, has brought together a strange alliance of those who associate personal freedom with a perverse ‘right’ to be exempt for public health measures that could contain the spread of the virus. This ‘death cult’ mentality appeals to the far right but resonates beyond it. Fascists have found it relatively easy to play a major and often leading role in this ugly political movement. The trucker convoy represents the most effective manifestation in Canada so far of this dangerous development.
The ‘Freedom Convoy’ is an undeniably effective and influential expression of a distorted sense of individual liberty that disdains collective responsibility in the middle of a public health crisis. As such, it is a highly destructive operation. Far worse, however, the fascist core that initiated the convoy and set their stamp upon it have demonstrated a boldness and single mindedness that is deeply alarming. Their confidence and organizing capacities can only be taken forward by the gains they have made.
It would be wrong, however, to simply attribute the success of this reactionary initiative to the skills of its planners. In fact, it may be said that they filled a political vacuum that had been left for them to occupy. We are living in a period of economic, biomedical and ecological crisis, in which a deep sense of grievance and uncertainty exists within society. The representatives of the political centre, such as Trudeau or Biden, offer no way out and, indeed, are the expressions of a thoroughly discredited status quo. The only viable alternatives to the hateful ‘solutions’ posed by the right must come from in the form of a radical message from the political left and take the form of powerful action by a fighting working class movement.
The present weakness of the left is readily apparent and the failure of trade unions and social movements to mobilize around the needs of workers and communities in a sustained and decisive fashion creates the operating space for the dangerous forces that led the trucker convoy. The upsurge that emerged after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which played out here in Canada as well, showed that there is, indeed, a deep seated desire to fight back. There are also strong indications that a major wave of workplace struggles is entirely possible but that potential has to be acted upon if it is to become a reality.
The gains that the far right have achieved with their hateful convoy were won by default. The kind of working class movement that the present situation requires would never have allowed fascists to descend on Ottawa, with their Confederate flags, Nazi symbols and overt expressions of white supremacy. It would have mobilized decisively against this vile action but, more importantly, it would have rendered their efforts irrelevant with its own powerful struggles and unifying demands, based on the needs of workers and communities under attack.
The ‘Freedom Convoy’ is a warning to us that the far right is on the march and will only grow stronger unless a working class response is set in motion that can beat the fascists and, far more importantly, challenge the crisis ridden system out of which they emerge.
John Clarke lives in Ontario and was a founding member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty