Content warning: racism
On January 15, the Canadian government enacted a federal mandate stating that all cross-border essential workers must show proof of vaccination at their port of entry in order to bypass 14-day quarantine requirements. Truckers entering Canada from the United States have met the mandate with strong opposition. This has resulted in the creation of “the Freedom Convoy,” an ongoing protest of many truck convoys from routes across Canada converging at Parliament Hill in Ottawa since January 29. Since then, the Freedom Convoy has become a site of far-right violence, as large numbers of protestors with “no connection to the trucking industry” have joined protesting truckers in proliferating racist and xenophobic rhetoric, often tied to investment in QAnon and other conspiracy organizations. Dangerous online presences have been found for some organizers, with multiple instances of involvement in white nationalist movements and racist organizations.
As the convoy has been ongoing (as of February 4), activity at Ottawa’s downtown core has become increasingly unsafe, with threats of physical violence, obstruction to routes for emergency vehicles, and disruptions to general life for Ottawa’s citizens. In spite of this, the convoy has not been cleared. In allowing the Freedom Convoy to continue its rally downtown, the municipal government endangers the well-being of local Ottawans and demonstrates an active complacency in confronting white supremacy and alt-right nationalism. Comments from politicians and police forces in the city have been vague, failing to fully acknowledge the extent of the threat of white supremacy.
The municipal and federal goverment has been slow to condemn the Freedom Convoy, despite members having taken to the streets of Ottawa with Trump apparel, Nazi salutes, swastikas, and confederate flags. Ottawa’s Mayor, Jim Watson, argued that “in any large crowd, you’re always going to have a few people that are stupid,” and claimed that “the crowd has been generally peaceful; they’ve been disruptive in the sense that a number of our businesses had to close down and people are stuck in their homes because they live in the central core.”
While some original supporters of the Freedom Convoy claimed that alt-right truckers made up a minority of protestors, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network argues that “from day one […] the organizers themselves [were] part of the far-right movement,” noting that “they have […] been involved in far-right movements and have made Islamophobic comments in the past.” Notably, Prime Minister Trudeau described the alt-right faction of the convoy as a “fringe minority” holding “unacceptable views,” rhetoric that many protesters have been using to justify their presence in the country’s capital. Dave Steenburg, one of the Freedom Convoy’s lead organizers, posts regular TikTok videos associating with far-right anti-immigrant groups, including groups identified by the Canada Border Services Agency to be a risk for violent extremism. Executive Director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network points out that “this isn’t a few bad apples […] every single group we monitor is involved in leading or participating in this convoy.”
To claim that the only disruptions are closed businesses and people struggling to travel throughout Ottawa ignores the harm the convoy inflicts upon local communities. Local hospital staff have been asked to use an alternative road route to get to work and to carry staff ID to show police on their journey – a dangerous requirement that forces a large group of individuals to interact with the police, putting marginalized workers’ safety at further risk. Ambulances have been pelted with rocks by Freedom Convoy protesters, and racial slurs yelled at paramedics while they worked.
The violence in the streets of Ottawa has forced many essential services to close their doors to the public, including community care facilities like the Centretown Community Health Centre, which provides services for crisis support, homeless and in transition individuals, and mental health and addiction, amongst others. With the Freedom Convoy blocking road access, many users of these essential services have been left with no immediate support and an uncertainty about when the services will be available again. The inaction of the federal and municipal governments have enabled the Freedom Convoy protestors to jeopardize the wellbeing of individuals reliant on these services. The continued failure of the Canadian government to protect individuals who rely on these programs highlights their clear reluctance to condemn alt-right violence in the country.
Shepherds of Good Hope, a soup kitchen and shelter in downtown Ottawa that serves three meals per day to individuals in need, provides specialized shelter programs and permanent homes, reported an “incredibly difficult weekend for [their] downtown shelter and soup kitchen programs.” Volunteers and staff faced physical barriers to get to their workplace, with many staff members unable to make it through the gridlocked traffic in the city. The shelter stated that “trucks were parked in our ambulance drop off zone for nearly 12 hours,” with “the incessant honking and noise from trucks [causing] significant anxiety and distress to our staff and shelter residents.” The soup kitchen reported that all homeless shelters in the downtown area had to make emergency contingency plans to support their residents. Staff and volunteers also experienced harassment from members of the Freedom Convoy. When a member of the shelter community was assaulted by Freedom Convoy protestors, a security guard was threatened and called racial slurs. Freedom Convoy protestors also demanded meals from Shepherds of Good Hope, taking resources from individuals who use the service regularly and out of necessity. The presence of the Freedom Convoy not only takes away material resources from those in need, but also poses an ever-present threat of white supremacist violence to those who utilize these services.
Freedom Convoy protestors have not only disrupted life in downtown Ottawa; they are causing active harm to communities, businesses, and essential workers throughout the region – specifically to racialized people and those with disabilities. In opposition to a vaccine mandate that applies to all cross-border travelers, those supporting the Freedom Convoy have chosen to jeopardize the well-being of others, causing emotional and physical harm to thousands of individuals throughout the city. At a federal and municipal level, the Canadian government is choosing not to act, neglecting the safety of racialized people throughout the region – as such, the government is complicit in the ongoing trauma faced by marginalized populations in Ottawa. To support local Ottawans, individuals can donate to organizations negatively affected by the protests, such as Shepherds of Good Hope, the Odawa Native Friendship Centre, the Tungasuvvingat Inuit and reach out to local MPs and members of the federal government to oppose the Freedom Convoy’s presence in the region.