A team of researchers at Cambridge University’s Centre for the Future of Democracy recently came to some counterintuitive findings.
Using a massive dataset from 27 countries and 81,857 survey respondents, the team suggested the COVID-19 pandemic may have halted the rise of populism and populist leaders across the world. Political polarization over the period appears to have declined — a populist leader’s mishandling of the pandemic led to an average 10 percentage point drop in approval rating.
“Support for key populist attitudes – such as belief in the ‘will of the people’ or that society is divided between ordinary people and a ‘corrupt elite’ – has declined in almost every country,” the researchers reported.
“While support for democracy has weakened and satisfaction with democracy remains fragile, the post-pandemic environment is likely to prove a more difficult environment for populist politicians to mobilize and sustain support.”
Anyone who was paying close attention to the last 28 days in downtown Ottawa – or in Windsor, Ont., in southern Alberta, in Winnipeg or Surrey, B.C. – might have a hard time buying those conclusions.
For them, the immediate crisis – thousands of protesters with hundreds of trucks grinding the capital to a halt, blocking the single most important trade corridor with the United States, the stashing of weapons and body armour amid protesters in Coutts – may trump the aggregate data.
But now the immediate crisis has passed; police barricades and checkpoints have replaced protesters and big rigs in the national capital, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has revoked the emergency powers that he argued were required to freeze the so-called Freedom Convoy’s funding and break up the occupation.
“Going forward it’ll be important that we gain a fuller understanding of what gave rise to this kind of disregard for our laws and threat to our democracy. We need to make sure our institutions are prepared and ready in the future,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa Wednesday.
“While the immediate emergency situation is over, this issue won’t just go away.”
At least on that point, Trudeau and the protesters agree.
Even before the main convoy set out for Ottawa, it was hard to untangle the various grievances they were heading to the capital to air. The task became even more difficult as the convoy collected Canadians along their route.
The federal government’s vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers became the group’s shorthand explanation for their protest, hence media coverage referring to the convoy as a “truckers’ protest” – despite the fact the vast majority of Canadian truckers had either been vaccinated or re-assigned to domestic runs, and no buy-in from organizations representing truckers.
It nevertheless was a savvy move by the driving forces behind the convoy. Standing up for hard-working truckers and against – in their view – unfair vaccine requirements was an easier sell to the public than their actual, publicly stated goals.
“The Vax passport violates multiple Canadian LAWS (which most hard-working Canadians are not aware of) and that is NOT AN OPINION – THAT IS FACT,” wrote James Bauder of Canada Unity, one of the central groups behind the convoy.
“So, we feel it is only wise to Bring the Law Back to Ottawa in the form of a legally-binding MOU agreement that we will want signed by the entire Federal Cabinet … (The government) will quickly come to their senses where their ‘opinions’ are replaced with Legal Facts that could land their assess in Jail if they choose to continue breaking OUR CANADIAN LAWS.”
Bauder posted that message on at least one Facebook page on Sept. 6, 2021 – before the results of the federal election were known, and long before the Liberal government required vaccinations for cross-border truckers.
It was followed by the promised “legally-binding” MOU posted on Canada Unity’s website, which envisioned a citizens committee – selected by Bauder’s group – joining forces with the Senate and the Governor General to override public health measures brought in by the federal, provincial and municipal governments to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Bauder would “withdraw” the MOU on Feb. 8, saying it no longer reflected the spirit of the “Freedom Convoy Movement 2022.”
But by then the convoy and its supporters were firmly encamped in the shadow of the Parliament buildings, and Ottawa’s top cop was openly musing that there may not be a “policing solution” to the ongoing occupation.
Different leaders, divergent goals
Bauder and his MOU largely faded into the protest’s background, upstaged by the trio of Tamara Lich, B.J. Dichter and Chris Barber. They were the public faces of the convoy demonstration, holding media availabilities throughout the occupation.
Dichter, a failed Conservative candidate who gave the opening keynote at the People’s Party of Canada’s first general meeting, told reporters during a Jan. 30 press conference the convoy demonstrations were “not partisan.”
Politicians of all stripes are “all horrible, all of them” and “they should be ashamed of themselves,” said Dichter, who hails from Toronto.
“I think we’re going to see shifts, hopefully, within the direction of the Conservative Party. Erin O’Toole could be, yoink, out and replaced with somebody, and I think you’re starting to see some waves also in the Liberal Party.”
“Well, maybe Chrystia Freeland would be the new leader,” Dichter added, to groans in the room. That would be “just as bad, if not worse,” Dichter said, but at least they were beginning to ask, “Is it time to get rid of Prime Minister Blackface? I mean, Trudeau.”
“We’ve already won,” Lich added on a more positive note.
“Look at all those people out there yesterday. I’ve never seen so many smiles, right? Everyone’s got hope again and everyone’s feeling proud to be a Canadian again, which is something that we haven’t felt for so long.”
A coherent political agenda is difficult to piece together from their shambolic press conferences, but opposition to vaccine mandates – all mandates – and a desire to see Trudeau gone from power were central themes.
But away from the cameras – or, rather, streaming from their own cameras – was a darker element to the protest. Pat King was the most recognizable – a stout, bearded 44-year-old with a gravelly voice, veteran of the Yellow Vest and WEXIT movements – and ceaselessly streamed his participation and encouragement of the protests. Right up until he streamed his own arrest.
King is well-known among anti-hate campaigners for his antisemitic, anti-Asian “white replacement” rhetoric. King was far from the only far-right figure in the crowd – anti-lockdown activist Chris Sky, as well as members of groups like Diagalon, Plaid Army and Canada First also advertised their presence, participation and encouragement of the demonstration.
“The protest has not come out of nowhere … Canada is just late to the party,” said Kathleen Rodgers, a University of Ottawa professor who has studied social and protest movements in Canada, in a recent interview.
“What we’re seeing is part of a global movement that is populist, anti-immigration, racist and anti-establishment that’s been taking root around the world over the last decade. And here it has hitched its wagon to vaccine mandate frustrations.”
It’s not clear how much the leadership of the convoy actually represented the views and aims of individual protesters – who, while being overwhelmingly white and skewing to middle age, were an eclectic crowd.
It’s a good guess that a significant number hadn’t bothered to read Canada Unity’s plans to overrule democratically elected governments before joining the protest.
Non-partisan or undecided?
While the convoy organizers claim their movement was non-partisan, many have had affiliations with – or at least an affinity for – right-wing political movements and parties. There was plenty of People’s Party of Canada purple present at the protest – you didn’t see much New Democrat swag. The “Fuck Trudeau” flags were a dead giveaway these people aren’t voting Liberal.
Recent polling by Abacus Data bore that out. Asked how much respondents had in common with the demonstrators in Ottawa, 32 per cent said a lot – but broken down by party lines, those respondents were most likely to be PPC supporters (82 per cent), Green voters (57 per cent), and Conservatives (46 per cent).
The protest can’t be reduced to partisan politics, but neither should its clear political leanings be overlooked.
The only political leader in Canada who has attempted to explicitly harness that frustration around vaccine mandates and public health restrictions is Maxime Bernier. And he failed.
Bernier’s PPC, for a second election in a row, failed to secure a single seat in the House of Commons. And 2021 was arguably Bernier’s best shot for his fledgling movement – Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was beset by party infighting, weakening the only other right-of-centre option for COVID-weary voters.
Under those conditions, Bernier managed to pull just 4.9 per cent of the popular vote – an improvement on the party’s dismal 2019 outing, but also a potential ceiling for his support. Despite all the sound and fury with the convoy protests, the latest numbers from Ipsos put the PPC with four per cent support among decided voters.
Will the next election, when COVID-19 is more likely to be under control and vaccine mandates and lockdowns relaxed, be more fertile ground?
Conservative MPs and senators have not been shy about their support for the protest off Parliament Hill, even after it was declared illegal.
None have been quite so vocal for quite so long as Pierre Poilievre, the presumptive frontrunner to lead the Conservatives into the next election. Speaking to the National Post as recently as Feb. 10 – four days before the Liberal cabinet invoked never-before-used emergency powers to address the ongoing demonstration – Poilievre said he was proud of the “truckers” and stood with them.
A new flag on a semi blockading the street outside Parliament pic.twitter.com/9EaRhrvCfy
— Brian Platt (@btaplatt) February 16, 2022
“They have reached a breaking point after two years of massive government overreach of a prime minister who insults and degrades anyone who disagrees with his heavy-handed approach,” Poilievre told the newspaper.
Poilievre’s line of attack appears to have some resonance with Canadians. An Ipsos poll for Global News this week found that 52 per cent of respondents believed Trudeau’s “divisive rhetoric” and his approach to the protests were largely responsible for how things played out.
Conservatives and conservative commentators recently seized on remarks Trudeau made during last year’s general election, when he suggested to a Quebec television host that some anti-vaxxers were also racist and misogynist.
“We all know people who are hesitating a little bit (to be vaccinated),” Trudeau said last September.
“But there are also people who are fiercely opposed to vaccination,” Trudeau continued, with the host cutting in to mention “extremists.”
“Who don’t believe in science, who are often misogynistic, often racist. It’s a small group, but it takes up space, and you have to make a choice as a leader of a country … So yes, I have taken a very tough stance against these people.”
Trudeau was not calling all anti-vaxxers racist and misogynist. And white supremacist groups have attempted to capitalize on anxiety over vaccinations and anger over lockdowns – as the country just saw on the streets of Ottawa.
But it is also indisputable that the Liberal campaign used vaccine mandates as a wedge issue in the last campaign. On Wednesday, Trudeau himself seemed to acknowledge he’s had a role in bringing Canada to this point.
“Canadians have been through a lot and we have a lot of challenges ahead of us. Let’s remember that we’re fighting a virus, not each other,” Trudeau said.
“Let’s work together. After two difficult and painful years, we have a lot of healing to do and now is the time to be there for one another.”
Shirley Tillotson, a historian of Canadian social movements, put it this way in a recent interview: “If democracy is in trouble, do better democracy.”
Tillotson suggested there are dangers on both sides of the political response to the convoy. For Liberals and progressive politicians, over-reliance on state powers to crack down on the convoy’s methods – including the remarkable amount of fundraising they achieved over a short period of time – opens the door to a “very scary kind of world.”
At the same time, parties attempting to harness the protest movement – as the U.S. Republicans attempted with the Tea Party – has its own peril. While the Republicans used that energy to win, it also fundamentally changed the makeup of the party, Tillotson said.
“Instead of the party inhaling the movement, it appears the movement has inhaled the party,” Tillotson said.
But even if the convoy demonstrations have no long-term effect on Canada’s electoral politics – if a party fails to capitalize on the protests’ energy, or alternatively galvanizes the majority opposed to their tactics and aims – it remains possible the events of the last 28 days will have a lasting impact on our political culture.
Take the fact that the convoy was embraced and actively promoted by Donald Trump, or that Dichter and assorted convoy hangers-on found themselves welcomed on Tucker Carlson’s show. Take the fact that – helped by some deep-pocketed Americans and Canadians – the convoy was able to fundraise such a vast amount of money over a short period of time that it is without precedent in Canadian politics.
Take the fact that Canada, much accustomed to importing our political drama, spawned similar convoy movements in France, New Zealand and the United States.
Or simply take the fact that Trudeau himself has now acknowledged that Canada, rather than preaching to the world about the values of a free and open society, has some considerable work to do on that front at home.
On at least on that point, Trudeau and the protesters agree.