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Canadian trucker protest — AKA the ‘Freedom Convoy’ — disrupts life in Ottawa

Residents describe noise, harassment and confrontations with protesters.

In the two weeks that protesters have taken over the streets of Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, a fringe movement by some truckers ostensibly against covid restrictions has exploded into a global spectacle. On the ground, the movement reflects the northern spread of American right-wing ideology across the border. But the spectacle is very real, causing some residents to leave their homes and overwhelming downtown businesses and organizations.

Hate symbols — including Nazi swastikas — have appeared, and local residents have reported being harassed and assaulted by protesters. A youth services provider closed a downtown drop-in shelter. An ice cream shop closed temporarily, saying its staff was being harassed for wearing masks. Police are investigating an alleged attempted arson of a residential building.

Surprising to see outside the seat of Canadian power are symbols of the American right wing, including Confederate flags and Three Percenter emblems, representing the unproven idea that only 3 percent of American colonists fought in the American Revolution.

This reflects the staggering influence of American right-wing media, said Aengus Bridgman, a doctoral candidate at McGill University who has researched how misinformation crosses national borders.

“The rhetoric, the symbolism, the language is American,” he said. In general, he added, it is exciting when political movements unfold in the streets, a demonstration of democracy beyond simply voting every few years.

On the ground

At a city council meeting on Monday, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said that event demonstrated “obvious criminal intent.”

“The lives of innocent people are at risk, right now, right here,” Watson said. He previously declared a state of emergency in the city on Sunday.

Police response has been mixed. As of Tuesday, more than 400 trucks remained. About a quarter of those had children in them, according to Ottawa’s Deputy Police Chief Steve Bell, and police and the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa have expressed concerns about youth exposure to noise and fumes.

On Wednesday, Ottawa police released a statement that blocking streets downtown would constitute criminal mischief.

“We are providing you notice that anyone blocking streets or assisting others in the block of streets may be committing a criminal offence,” the statement reads.

Cossette observed protesters harassing employees of local businesses and reporters. Residents have shared stories on social media of relentless noise, including truck horns and fireworks at all hours of the day.

On Monday, a judge placed a 10-day hold on honking. But some downtown residents have left their homes, telling local media they have been driven to exhaustion or felt physically unsafe. On Reddit, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, residents described and shared videos of being harassed for wearing masks and of protesters vandalizing houses with LGBTQ+ Pride flags.

Some downtown businesses reported closing or reducing hours out of fear for the safety of their staffs. Nonprofit organizations also cited concerns that the populations they serve were particularly at risk.

A nonprofit for Indigenous youth, called the Assembly of Seven Generations released a statement saying that the population they serve were afraid to leave their homes, and suffered wage loss from businesses being closed. The group condemned the protests as an “occupation” of downtown Ottawa.

“Brazenly displaying symbols of hatred and white supremacy is a threat to our democracy and our peace and prosperity,” the statement reads. “The hate-fueled aggression levelled at citizens, on the streets, in their neighbourhoods, on their doorstep and online runs counter to our values and our laws.”

The shape and meaning of the protests

Nevertheless, many protesters appear to still be having a good time, some cooking out and playing music. Their anti-government sentiment isn’t new to Canada, said Bridgman, the misinformation researcher. But the rhetoric of the movement is particularly Americanized and not necessarily reflective of Canadian politics or culture, he said.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “has much more recognition of group rights and the ability for kind of collective rights to override rights of the individual in specific instances” than the U.S. Constitution, he said.

“So when you see in these protests, the language of freedom — you know, ‘They’re taking away our freedom’ — this is a very individualized notion of liberty that … is unusual in the Canadian context.”

Alongside right-wing American symbols, like Confederate and militia flags, some phrases from right-wing contexts have been translated for a Canadian audience. For example, instead of displaying the message “Let’s Go, Brandon,” which has become a popular coded slur against the U.S. president, one vehicle in the Ottawa convoy displayed a French-language version, aimed at Trudeau: “Brandeau, allons-y.”

The presence of these images and ideas reflects the absorption of American right-wing media, Bridgman said.

“There’s really strong evidence that Canadians consume a huge amount of U.S. news, and those who do consume a lot of U.S. news have many more misperceptions about covid-19, about vaccines,” he said. “And what we see in terms of these protests is, the people who are consuming a lot of this sort of conspiratorial news in the states are imitating that language here.”

Protesters also express strong distrust and dislike of media, sometimes interrupting broadcasters to accuse them of being fake news. On Wednesday, organizers held a press conference for only invited members of the media.

“This is a sad day for me,” Thompson wrote. “I am proud of the excellent and vital work we do, perhaps more important now than ever. I’m proud to represent that in public, but it’s just not safe right now.”

Amid the extremism, some protesters also use the convoy as an opportunity to vent their grief and anger about what (and who) they have lost due to measures implemented to stop the pandemic’s spread.

In this way, the protests have blended personal and political grievances with far-reaching, sometimes violent anti-government and extremist messaging.

“There are legitimate political grievances,” said Bridgman. “It’s just that they come associated with all of this baggage, that it becomes very difficult to talk about those political grievances divorced from the misinformation, the hate, the racism, the violence, the disruption, the lawlessness. How do you separate those two in a movement like this?”

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