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Trucker protests: What started in Ottawa could roll round the world

National Post logo National Post 2022-02-10 Anja Karadeglija
The roadblock heading towards the Coutts border crossing in Alberta. © Provided by National Post The roadblock heading towards the Coutts border crossing in Alberta.

OTTAWA — As the third weekend of the convoy protest looms in Ottawa, similar demonstrations are planned in about 30 other countries.

The weeks ahead will determine whether the trucks and anti-mandate protesters that are clogging the capital’s downtown have inspired something global — or whether those efforts will fizzle.

“The question as to what proportion of the support is sound and fury signifying nothing, versus the proportion that is a genuine, organic kind of groundswell of support for these movements is kind of an open one,” said Tim Squirrell, head of communications and editorial at the U.K.-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Some of the key countries to watch, he said, include France, where a convoy was set go to Paris before moving on to Brussels. But effective Friday, Paris police said the convoy was banned from entering the French capital over the weekend.

France has a strong protest culture and is experiencing political division, plus a “mildly ascendant far right,” Squirrell explained.

“You also have them being adjacent to Brussels and a lot of anti-EU sentiment amongst a lot of people. You have a lot of resistance to vaccination.”

Other key countries are Germany, where there has been a lot of unrest over COVID-19, and the Netherlands, which has “had some of the most violent anti-COVID protests,” he said. Protests are already underway in Australia and New Zealand, and in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring a campaign in which truckers could disrupt the Super Bowl this Sunday in Los Angeles. 

 Trucks on the Bluewater Bridge wait to enter Canada in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, having been forced to take almost all the truck traffic between Ontario and Michigan after protestors blockaded the Ambassador Bridge. © GEOFF ROBINS/AFP via Getty Images Trucks on the Bluewater Bridge wait to enter Canada in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, having been forced to take almost all the truck traffic between Ontario and Michigan after protestors blockaded the Ambassador Bridge.

The department said a convoy could start in California and then travel to Washington, D.C., and interrupt President Joe Biden’s state of the union speech on March 1.

The U.S. convoy is most likely to succeed, Squirrell predicted, given the political unrest in the country, its strong trucker culture and its highway system. “The infrastructure is there for some degree of success,” though one question is whether the convoy will head to D.C. or be more decentralized, with demonstrations spread among state legislatures.


Video: Trucker protests: Ottawa police outline arrests, charges under 'surge and contain' strategy (Global News)

Trucker protests: Ottawa police outline arrests, charges under 'surge and contain' strategy
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Carmen Celestini, a post-doctoral fellow with the Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University, said in recent days there has been a lot of rhetoric about blockading the Super Bowl and music festival Coachella before the convoy makes its way to D.C.

Squirrell said the online chats planning the protests in some countries have tens of thousands of subscribers, but that’s not exactly an indication masses will turn out.

“It’s likely accurate to say that hundreds of thousands of people have expressed an interest in organizing protests similar to Canada,” he said. “However, the pipeline of the funnel … of people expressing an interest through clicking on Telegram chat through people who are willing to spend days of their time getting into their truck and blocking out the streets, I think it’s likely to be a leaky funnel.”

He pointed out the U.K.’s first attempt — another one is planned this weekend — didn’t go well. “They wanted to go down to London, and they said they’re going to block the streets, but they had about five vans and a truck and it’s quite hard to block the streets with five vans and a truck. And so they ended up just sort of shouting at some people.”

Blockades at the U.S.-Canada border, first in Coutts, Alta., and then in Windsor, Ont., this week, have affected cross-border trade. One-quarter of Canada’s trade with the U.S. goes across the Ambassador Bridge, which has been blocked since Monday.

 Protestors block the roadway at the Ambassador Bridge border crossing, in Windsor, Ontario on February 9, 2022. © Provided by National Post Protestors block the roadway at the Ambassador Bridge border crossing, in Windsor, Ontario on February 9, 2022.

Connections and shared ideas between the U.S. and Canadian movements pre-date the trucker convoy, with conspiracy theories like the “great reset” or QAnon serving as a catalyst to the movement, according to Celestini. If you look at conversations on platforms like Telegram, “there’s no border,” she said.

“I do believe there are individuals who are there who definitely are using their protest right and their freedoms to speak to their dismay and frustrations” with mandates. “But I think that in a lot of ways, it’s been usurped by people who truly believe in conspiracy theory, and people who are a part of the right-wing extremist movement.”

In recent weeks, various provinces have outlined plans for loosening restrictions as the Omicron wave recedes. Celestini said the protesters will take credit for such measures, even if the changes are unrelated. “If there is an end to the mandates, even if they had nothing to do with it, they will claim victory to that.”

There are also questions about where the funding for the Canadian protests is coming from, but no clear answer, said Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University. Last week, GoFundMe suspended the truckers’ crowd-sourced fund after it had reached $10 million.

Leuprecht noted that’s a lot for a Canadian campaign to raise so quickly. “It certainly suggests that the amount of money that’s being raised, the pace at which it’s being raised, raises serious questions about the sources of the money,” he said.

At a Parliamentary committee, officials from the Fintrac were asked Thursday whether any red flags have been raised around the sources of funding for the Ottawa protests. “I can’t speak to specific reporting or reporting on any individuals or organizations, but we have not seen a spike in suspicious transaction reporting, for example, related to this,” deputy director of intelligence Barry MacKillop said.

 Protesters walk between trucks parked in downtown Ottawa as the “Freedom Convoy” occupation protesting vaccine mandates and other COVID measures continues on Feb. 10, 2022. © David Kawai / Bloomberg Protesters walk between trucks parked in downtown Ottawa as the “Freedom Convoy” occupation protesting vaccine mandates and other COVID measures continues on Feb. 10, 2022.

Given that prominent members of the U.S. right-wing have praised the protests — including former president Donald Trump — Leuprecht said it “would not be a surprise that there would be some U.S. resources flowing towards the protest.” He added it’s also “not inconceivable” that some money might have come from Russia, which would benefit strategically from de-legitimizing democratic institutions in Canada.

Leuprecht said the best hope for financial transparency might be the class action civil suit that’s been filed against the protest organizers. “We’ll probably have some disclosure in court that’s going to be forced. So ironically, it’s not our own state institutions that might actually tell us more. It’s our own citizens and their actions that might help with some of the answers.”

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