Monday, October 3, 2022

A protest that’s not focused on truckers poses a bigger question for politicians who want to embrace it

A protest that's not focused on truckers poses a bigger question for politicians who want to embrace it

Demonstrators arrive on Parliament Hill for the trucker convoy protest against vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions in Ottawa on Jan. 29, 2022.LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Day One of the truckers’ protest on Parliament Hill wasn’t Canada’s Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, as some feared. It also wasn’t all that focused on truckers. And certainly not on the cross-border vaccination mandates that started the convoy rolling.

Yet by the time the crowds had really mustered in minus-20 weather, the protest had already shifted Canadian politics.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe sent a letter promising his government will stop requiring vaccination proofs to enter places like restaurants. Conservative MPs, notably potential leadership contender Pierre Poilievre, had already promised they’d greet protesting truckers in person, pushing waffling party leader Erin O’Toole to say he’d meet some of the protesters – which he did, Friday, 90 kilometers away , expressing his opposition to vaccine requirements that could see truckers lose their job.

Almost one in five Canadian truckers is South Asian, but many don’t see themselves represented in the trucker convoy

Yet the protests on the hill on Saturday did not happen in on that. The protest signs were not about the specific grievance truckers initially raised – the lifting of exemptions by both the Canadian and US governments that means truckers must now be vaccinated to cross the border. There wasn’t a lot of talk about supply chains, either.

This was a protest against COVID-19 public health measures across the board – against vaccine mandates, yes, but for many, also against any vaccine requirements to enter restaurants or shops, rules about wearing masks, restrictions on gatherings, or anything else.

That’s a very different cause for politicians to embrace. And it’s still not clear where it goes after Day One.

There were lots of semis on Ottawa streets, but the drivers were mostly in the cabs of their trucks. Most of the folks on Parliament Hill had come in pickups and cars or on foot. For the most part, in the bitterly cold but sunny daytime, they came smiling and hooting. There were a lot of signs that aimed four-letter words at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but well, that’s protest stuff.

That’s not to say it was all cheer and clear purpose. There was a cacophony of views from and people who latched on to them, from conspiracy theorists to street preachers. One had a sign claiming Mr. Trudeau is Fidel Castro’s son. One displayed a swastika. A few wore sweatshirts with the logo of the far-right Quebec anti-immigrant group La Meute. A fair number clearly didn’t believe COVID-19 is very serious.

But one didn’t hear much talk about the bizarre “memorandum of understanding” drawn up by one group of protest organizers, Canada Unity, that is supposed to lead to Governor-General Mary Simon and unelected senators taking over government. There were families. And by and large, people calling for an end to all public-health restrictions.

“It’s everything, lockdowns, mandates, everything,” said a smiling woman who gave her name as Dawn, from Arnprior, Ont. Justin, a 27-year-old protester from Belleville, Ont., agreed the restrictions all have to go. “We’ve been through two years of this and nothing’s gotten better. The only thing that has changed is our freedoms have been whittled away,” he said.

Certainly a lot of Canadians want to go back to the way things were two years ago. But the thing is, polls suggest an awful lot of them blame the unvaccinated for the restrictions, and have shown a widespread taste for getting tougher on the unvaccinated.

Mr. Trudeau has made a political cause out of it. But then, it is mostly provincial governments that have imposed vaccine passes and restrictions – most recently fearing the collapse of health-care systems at a time when the minority of unvaccinated people are far more likely to end up in hospital, and especially intensive-care beds.

Quebec Premier François Legault has required proof of vaccination to enter mega-stores and threatened to impose a significant tax on the unvaccinated. There was a large contingent of Quebeckers at the protest Saturday, yet Mr. Legault, a centre-right premier facing an election in October, is doubling down on restrictions. Presumably, he thinks that is what most people want.

But there are some federal Conservatives who think that may be changing, and COVID-19 fatigue is feeding resentment of vaccine mandates and restrictions.

Some Tory MPs, like Edmonton MP Michael Cooper, could be seen on the Hill on Saturday giving an “attaboy” to the protesters. Mr. Poilievre tweeted a picture of himself handing donuts to a trucker, and an anti-restriction slogan popular with the protesters, “freedom over fear.”

But now that it is clear the protests are clearly not just about cross-border rules for truckers, the question now is whether Conservatives, and premiers other than Mr. Moe, will still embrace it.

Part of that answer might depend on whether the civil mood remains over days of cold protests. Mr. Trudeau isnt going to do an about-face. Parliament is to resume sitting on Monday. It’s not clear how the protest will evolve. From Day One, it wasn’t mostly about the truckers.

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Nation World News Desk
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