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Why are anti-vaccine Canadian truckers converging on Ottawa?

Al Jazeera logo Al Jazeera 1/28/2022 Al Jazeera Staff

A convoy of anti-vaccine Canadian truckers and their supporters is making its way to the country’s capital, Ottawa.

The so-called “Freedom Convoy” was formed in response to a vaccine mandate requiring truckers to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus in order to cross the land border between Canada and the United States.

But during the past week, observers and experts have pointed out that some organisers of the event, as well as some of its most vocal backers, have espoused anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and racist views – and authorities have cautioned that the rally on Parliament Hill could turn violent.

“The ‘Freedom Convoy’ is nothing but a vehicle for the far-right,” according to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a non-profit that monitors hate groups. “They say it is about truckers … but if you look at its organizers and promoters, you’ll find Islamophobia, antisemitism, racism, and incitements to violence.”

Here is a look at what’s going on:

First, what is the vaccine mandate for truckers?

Starting on January 15, Canada has required essential service providers previously exempt from vaccination requirements, including truck drivers, to be fully vaccinated. “Unvaccinated Canadian truck drivers entering Canada will need to meet requirements for pre-entry, arrival and Day 8 testing, as well as quarantine requirements,” it said.

The US has also imposed a similar requirement on its side of the border; as of January 22, non-citizens travelling to the US for both essential and non-essential reasons need to show proof of vaccination at land border crossings.

How many Canadian truckers are unvaccinated?

The Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), a federation of provincial trucking associations, has said a “vast majority” of Canadian truckers are vaccinated – approximately 85 percent – in line with vaccination rates among the general Canadian population.

Almost 90 percent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said.

The CTA has distanced itself from the convoy, saying it “does not support and strongly disapproves of any protests on public roadways, highways, and bridges”.

Supporters of the convoy gather in Toronto, Ontario, on January 27, 2022 [Carlos Osorio/Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera Supporters of the convoy gather in Toronto, Ontario, on January 27, 2022 [Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

How many people are participating in the convoy?

That is unclear. Police in Kingston, Ontario, said that as of 9:35am local time (14:35 GMT) on Friday, 17 full tractor-trailers, 104 tractors with no trailers, 424 passenger vehicles and six recreational vehicles were heading eastbound on the 401 highway. Others are believed to be arriving in Ottawa from eastern Canada.

What do organisers say the convoy is about?

The convoy is organised under the banner, “Freedom Convoy 2022”.

“On January 15th, a small team of Alberta truckers, their family members and friends, came to the decision that the Government of Canada has crossed a line with implementing Covid-19 vaccine passports and vaccine mandates,” the group said in a statement shared on Facebook.

“We are taking our fight to the doorsteps of our Federal Government and demanding that they cease all mandates against its people,” reads a GoFundMe page in support of the convoy, which has raised approximately $5.5m (over $7m Canadian) to date.

CBC News reported on Friday that at least one-third of those donations came from anonymous donors or were attributed to fake names.


Video: Ottawa Trucker Protest Shows No Sign of Ending (QuickTake)

So the convoy is really about Canada’s COVID policies?

“This is no longer about the mandate any more,” said Jason LaFace, whom CityNews described as the convoy’s main organiser in Ontario. “This is about Canada, this is about our rights and how the government’s been manipulating the population and oppressing us all the time,” said LaFace, who is not a trucker.

While some participants do hold legitimate grievances about the Canadian government’s pandemic policies, experts have pointed out that known far-right activists that have espoused racist views are among the organisers.

Some participants also openly expressed hardline views this week. “I advocate civil war,” Jim Doerksen, a convoy supporter, told Global News in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in central Canada. “If people don’t want to stand up, we’ve got guns – we’ll stand up and we’ll bring ’em out.”

Canadian media have also reported on a widely shared video posted on social media that showed one convoy supporter saying that he would “like to see our own January 6 event” – a reference to the deadly riot at the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021.

Barbara Perry, a professor at Ontario Tech University and director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism, said “this protest against a mandate – a specific mandate within a specific industry – has then been laid over with anti-vax sentiment, anti-lockdown sentiment, anti-government sentiment – and then even beyond that, the far-right [is] coming into play”.

“They call themselves the ‘Freedom Convoy’ so I think that says something about the breadth of the concerns that are brought under the umbrella,” Perry told Al Jazeera. “That is also language of anti-staters. It’s also the language of the far right … It really is part of this broader trend of a convergence of the Far Right with conspiracy theorists and other kinds of grievances.”

Who are the far-right leaders involved?

The organisers listed on the GoFundMe page are Tamara Lich and BJ Dichter.

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network reported that Lich was “an organizer for Yellow Vests Canada, a regional coordinator for the separatist Western Exit or ‘Wexit’ movement in Alberta, and now as the secretary for the Maverick Party – another separatist movement and fringe political party”.

Lich has posted “conspiracies about the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ operating in Canada”, the network said, while it pointed out that Dichter also has made Islamophobic comments. In 2019, at a national convention for the far-right People’s Party of Canada (PPC), Dichter said, “Despite what our corporate media and political leaders want to admit, Islamist entryism and the adaptation of political Islam is rotting away at our society like syphilis.”

Patrick King, listed as a contact for the North Alberta group participating in the convoy, has regularly espoused anti-Semitic views on social media. “He’s publicly distorted established facts about the Holocaust … then invoked the antisemitic conspiracy theory that the Jewish people are secretly in control of world governance, media, and finances”, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network said.

King said last month, “The only way that this is going to be solved is with bullets.”

What have Canadian politicians said?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week that “the small fringe minority of people who are on the way to Ottawa, or who are holding unacceptable views that they are expressing, do not represent the views of Canadians.”

“We know the way through this pandemic is by getting everyone vaccinated – and the overwhelming majority, close to 90 percent of Canadians, have done exactly that,” Trudeau told reporters.

Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, said he was concerned “by the dangerous rhetoric” in the convoy. “I am concerned by extremist elements that are spreading misinformation and attempting to turn the convoy into a Canadian version of the terrorist attacks on the US Capitol,” he wrote on Twitter.

But Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole has said he plans to meet with the leaders of the convoy, while denouncing “anybody promoting violence” within the group. “The thousands of people coming here in the next few days – the trucker convoy – is a symbol of the fatigue in our country right now,” O’Toole told reporters in Ottawa on Thursday.

So what now?

Members of the convoy began arriving in Ottawa on Friday, in advance of a protest on Parliament Hill on Saturday. Organisers, seeking to distance themselves from more extreme participants, have insisted the event will remain peaceful.

Another group associated with the convoy, Canada Unity, has written a “memorandum of understanding” it plans to present to the Senate and governor general, demanding an end to vaccine mandates and other pandemic restrictions.

Police in the capital said they were focused on ensuring a safe environment, but were aware of “inappropriate and threatening language on social media related to this event” and warned of consequences for anyone “engaging in criminal conduct, violence and/or activities promoting hate”.

In a letter to Canadian legislators on Thursday, the sergeant-at-arms in charge of security in the House of Commons said there were reports that demonstrators were trying to “dox” politicians with homes in the Ottawa area. He told them to “go somewhere safe” should a protest form outside their homes or offices, CTV News reported.

Canadian journalists reporting on the convoy also have received death threats, and been spat on and verbally and physically harassed, the Canadian Association of Journalists said. A CBC/Radio-Canada van was also vandalised.

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