Trucker protest that closed border could echo in Canadian politics, perhaps in US

Rob Gillies and Tim Sullivan
Associated Press

Toronto – The streets around the Canadian Parliament are quiet now. The Ottawa protesters who vowed never to give up are largely gone, chased away by policemen in riot gear. The relentless blare of truckers’ horns has gone silent.

But the trucker protest, which grew until it closed a handful of Canada-U.S. border posts and shut down key parts of the capital city for weeks, could echo for years in Canadian politics and perhaps south of the border.

Police officers walk pass the Parliament buildings in Ottawa on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022.

The protest, which was first aimed at a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers but also encompassed fury over the range of COVID-19 restrictions and hatred of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, reflected the spread of disinformation in Canada and simmering populist and right-wing anger.

“I think we’ve started something here,” said Mark Suitor, a 33-year-old protester from Hamilton, Ontario, speaking as police retook control of the streets around Parliament. Protesters had essentially occupied those streets for more than three weeks, embarrassing Trudeau and energizing Canada’s far right. Suitor believes the protests will divide the country, something he welcomes.

“This is going to be a very big division in our country,” he said. “I don’t believe this is the end.”

MORE: Ambassador Bridge officially reopens after 7 days of protest

While most analysts doubt the protests will mark a historic watershed in Canadian politics, it has shaken both of Canada’s two major parties.

“The protest has given both the Liberals and the Conservatives a black eye,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. Trudeau’s Liberals look bad for allowing protesters to foments weeks of chaos in the capital city, he said, while the Conservatives look bad for championing protesters, many of them from the farthest fringes of the right.

The conservatives “have to be careful not to alienate more moderate voters, who are generally not sympathetic to the protesters or right-wing populism more generally,” said Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal.

A small Canadian flag and flowers are shown on temporary fencing in downtown Ottawa on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022.

The self-styled Freedom Convoy shook Canada’s reputation for civility, inspired convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands and interrupted trade, causing economic damage on both sides of the border. Hundreds of trucks eventually occupied the streets around Parliament, a display that was part protest and part carnival.

MORE: How long Ambassador Bridge blockade will be felt after reopening

Authorities moved quickly to reopen the border posts. After an Ontario judge issued an injunction on Feb. 11, Windsor law enforcement eventually cleared the streets of protesters and helped reopen the Ambassador Bridge late on Feb. 13 to traffic from the Detroit side.

The East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group estimated the blockade resulted in a $300 million loss to Detroit's automakers, including lost wages of $145 million, mostly in Michigan and Ontario.

But police in Ottawa did little but issue warnings until the past couple days, even as hundreds and sometimes thousands of protesters clogged the streets of the city and besieged Parliament Hill.

Truckers ignored warnings that they were risking arrest and could have their rigs seized and bank accounts frozen under the new emergency powers invoked by Trudeau. The truckers, parked on the streets in and around Parliament, blared their horns in defiance of a court injunction against honking, issued after residents said the constant noise was making the neighborhood unlivable.

“It’s high time that these illegal and dangerous activities stop,” Trudeau declared in Parliament a few days ago, speaking just a few hundred meters from the protests.

On Friday, authorities launched the largest police operation in Canadian history, arresting a string of Ottawa protesters and increasing that pressure on Saturday until the streets in front of Parliament were clear. Eventually, police arrested at least 191 people and towed away 57 vehicles. Many protesters retreated as the pressure increased.

The Ottawa protests — the movement’s last major stronghold — appeared to be largely over by Sunday morning. Fencing and police checkpoints remained.

Police move in to clear protesters from downtown Ottawa near Parliament hill on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022.

As it did in the United States, COVID-19 quickly became a political issue in Canada.

Coronavirus health restrictions became a political cudgel for Canada’s far right, which accused Trudeau of authoritarianism. But while the restrictions clearly benefited the far-right People’s Party of Canada, things are more complicated in the Conservative Party.

Only recently have some Conservative leaders fully embraced the pushback against vaccine mandates and coronavirus restrictions.

Even so, the protests may open the door to the sort of populism that former President Donald Trump used to vault himself into the White House.

Pierre Poilievre, who is running to become the next leader of the Conservative party, has cheered on the protesters, gambling that voters will back him. But it remains unclear whether that will get him to the top of the party, or whether it would help or hurt him if there is a showdown between him and Trudeau or the next Liberal party leader.

“Poilievre is clearly playing by the populist playbook right now,” said Béland. “If he becomes Conservative leader, the party might effectively shift towards Trump-style populism. However, it’s unclear whether enough Canadians support this vision to make it appealing beyond the party’s base.”

The protests have been cheered on in the United States by Fox News personalities and conservatives like Trump.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer opposed the blockade and called the Ambassador Bridge reopening "a win for Michigan's working families." The Democratic governor had offered heavy equipment, security and other resources to assist in ending the blockade.

By contrast, several of Michigan's 13 Republican gubernatorial hopefuls backed the Canadian protesters. Former Detroit police chief James Craig criticized Whitmer and President Joe Biden for "demonizing the truckers" and supported the truckers, adding that "I support all working people who are standing up for personal freedom."

Metro Detroit businessman Kevin Rinke called Whitmer's opposition to the Canadian trucker protesters" and support of the 85th anniversary of the Flint General Motors sitdown strike as "the height of hypocrisy."

"The Canadian truckers are currently fighting for workers' rights as well, and they should be afforded the same support," he tweeted on Feb. 11

On Saturday, Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano posted on Facebook about the breakup of the Ottawa protesters by writing that "Canada has fallen."

"Pray for the thousands of peaceful patriots who are victims of Trudeau’s authoritarian police state," Soldano wrote.

The Michigan Democratic Party argued the Republican hopefuls backing the Canadian demonstrators aren't standing up "for Michigan's hardworking families."

"By cheering on the blockade that cost Michigan’s economy hundreds of millions and directly impacted workers," party spokeswoman Rodericka Applewhaite said in a Friday statement, "they made clear that they will not move Michigan forward. Michiganders deserve a leader who works with anyone to put Michigan businesses and workers first.”

Millions of dollars in donations have flowed across the border to the protesters.

About 44 percent of the nearly $10 million in contributions to support the protesters originated from U.S. donors, according to an Associated Press analysis of leaked donor files. Prominent Republican politicians have praised the protesters.

But experts say the U.S. support of the Canadian protesters is really aimed at energizing conservative politics in the U.S., where midterm elections are looming.

And some in the United States have pushed back.

“When I say democracy is fragile I mean it,” Bruce Heyman, a U.S. ambassador to Canada during the Obama Administration. “Stand up for our friend Canada and let your voice be heard.”

Meanwhile, though the situation in Ottawa appeared to be ending, there were new signs the protests had not died out entirely.

The Canadian border agency warned late Saturday afternoon that operations at a key truck crossing from western Canada into the United States had been slowed by protesters, advising travelers to find a different route.

Detroit News Staff Writers James Dickson and Craig Mauger contributed.