THE ANTI-VAX movement took a new turn early this year with the launch of the freedom convoy in Canada, sparked by a new mandate law requiring unvaccinated truckers (less than 15 per cent) to quarantine for two weeks from 15 January.
The liberal government of Justin Trudeau was forced to act as omicron’s first 40 days saw more cases than in the whole of 2020, record hospitalisations and a sharp spike in deaths.
Less than a week later, a ‘freedom convoy’ of anti-vax truckers set off from Vancouver for the capital Ottawa, aiming to blockade parliament until the law was repealed. As the convoy rolled east, support and money rolled in, with $5.5 million dollars in GoFundMe donations. The movement morphed into a protest against all covid restrictions or, for some, to bring down the Trudeau government.
Up to 3,000 ‘big rigs’ and other vehicles as well as 15,000 protestors gridlocked Ottawa from 28 January, before hundreds of trucks and their supporters settled down to surround the parliament for the next three weeks.
The movement also blockaded several border crossings, with truckers joined by supporters’ tractors, pick-ups and cars. For six days the Ambassador Bridge connecting Canada to Detroit USA, which carries a quarter of all freight between the two countries worth up to $400 million a day, was blocked.
Under huge pressure from business, on 14 February, Trudeau evoked the Emergencies Act which allows cops to arrest, fine and imprison protestors, suspend truckers’ operating licences and impound vehicles, and freeze individuals’ bank accounts as well as crowdfunding campaign deposits. A major police operation cleared Ottawa on 18th February, with at least 191 arrested and scores of vehicles towed and impounded.
Socialists should not support repressive legislation or its use by the capitalist state, since this will always be used with ten times more force against the left. But in reality, soft-touch local policing of the truckers, with some cops openly sympathising with the cause, emboldened protestors while the government did nothing for weeks.
This was despite polls showing a solid majority of Canadians against the protests, even if many sympathised with some of its aims at the beginning given the bad work conditions and pay of most drivers.
On 13 February Ottawa residents took action against the shut down of their city and their livelihoods, intimidating groups of blockaders. Up to 1,000 local people surrounded a convoy headed towards Parliament Hill for hours, before sending the cars and pickups packing, individually stripped of their flags and Freedom Convoy stickers.
An activist from Community Solidarity Ottawa, which includes local unions said, ‘We have serious concerns about how governments have handled the pandemic, but we say no to how the far right is mobilizing this discontent. We are building a working-class movement that can defend our communities and our rights.’
No doubt the threat of a working class movement confronting the far right and demanding pro-worker covid measures was partly responsible for Trudeau’s decision to finally take action.
Now freedom convoys are taking off in other countries as the social media networked anti-vax movement copied the tactic in France, New Zealand and now the US. A convoy is leaving California to hit Washington DC in time for Biden’s State of the Union address scheduled for 1 March. Activists should follow the lead of the CSO and Ottawa counter-protestors.
The convoy included some trucks with Confederate or even Nazi flags (protestors claimed the latter were aimed at the government). The Canadian anti-racist group AntiHate has documented how the far right is the convoy’s organising core not its fringes. James Bauder, the founder of Canada Unity, the umbrella group of far right organisations that launched the convoy, supports the QAnon conspiracy theory and claims covid-19 is ‘the biggest scam in history’.
Spokesperson BJ Dichter stood as a Conservative Party candidate against the ‘growing Islamization of Canada’. At the Coutts border crossing blockade in Alberta, police arrested 13 people in relation to a large arms cache with the fascist “diagalon” symbol. Unsurprisingly Donald Trump, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, and many politicians from the US Republican Party have supported the convoy; its rightwing middle class supporters are their target voters.
The freedom convoys are neither working class nor progressive. The big rigs will be mostly owner-operators and small businessmen, while the tractors represent farmers. While some workers may have come in the pickups, SUVs and other vehicles, they came as individuals mobilised behind a far right campaign. While nobody should be sacked for being unvaccinated, it is reactionary to seek to banish covid controls in the midst of a global pandemic.
Populist movements, left or right, will always raise legitimate issues (like sacking the unvaccinated) that draw in some workers. Rather than focus on these movements, socialists should push for the trade union movement, which has been too passive in the pandemic around workers’ issues, to take action.
That will prove essential as we move from a pandemic into austerity and a cost of living crisis, which allows the left an opportunity to seize the initiative from the far right and unite the working class in a struggle to defend our standards of living.