For three days, the roads surrounding Parliament Hill have been choked, and the air of the nation’s capital has been thick with the incessant honking of truck horns.
As protesters continued to rally, a question hung in the air above the din.
What happens when all the trucks leave?
Initially, this was a protest against vaccine mandates for truckers crossing the Canada-U.S. border. But, as drivers from both coasts converged on Ottawa, the scope of their complaints has broadened. Now protesters have called for the elimination of all vaccine mandates, the removal of COVID-19-prevention restrictions and, at least according to a memorandum of understanding circulated by one organizer, the dissolution of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.
None of those things are likely to happen, most agree. But if nothing else, the convoy has succeeded in organizing and mobilizing a large number of people. And that means the movement likely will not end once the trucks pull out of the nation’s capital.
“I think they go back home and continue their anti-government — especially anti-Trudeau — agitation, but now they have hundreds of thousands of people listening,” says Amarnath Amarasingam, assistant professor in the department of political studies at Queen’s University.
“Several of the organizers of the convoy are now basically influencers and have massive followings. They’ve shown they can mobilize; they’ve shown they can fundraise; and they’ve shown they can garner a large social media presence.
“This is basically the maturing of a kind of Tea Party movement in Canada. They will be with us for some time.”
In a sense, what the protest in Ottawa has done is galvanize people who share similar views but are perhaps not typically politically active, says Eric Kaufmann, a Canadian professor of politics at the University of London and author of the book, White Shift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majority.
For those people, who tend to perceive themselves as being disenfranchised, the Ottawa convoy serves more as a call to action than a vehicle for immediate change, Kaufmann says.
“To the extent it’s a piece of theatre that can actually help to raise consciousness, then it will have served a purpose, I think, for the movement.”
An anti-Trudeau sentiment plus a large group of people angry enough to do something about it? That’s enough to make an opposition politician’s ears prick up.
“A member of Parliament wants to take a picture with me,” gloated Pat King — one of the convoy’s early promoters and a right-wing provocateur — during a live feed in Swift Current, Sask., on Jan. 24. (Although the convoy’s GoFundMe fundraiser later added a note distancing itself from King, he travelled with the convoy, and was prominent during the demonstrations on Parliament Hill.)
That MP was Jeremy Patzer, the Conservative member for Cypress Hills—Grasslands.
“I’ve been in opposition to what Trudeau’s been doing to everything, any of the mandates, any of the lockdowns, provincial or federal, I’ve been against them from the start,” Patzer says in the video.
One classic political ploy, says Kaufmann, is for a party advocating around one issue that’s a lower priority for voters to tie it to a higher-priority one.
In the U.K., the UK Independence Part did that by taking its issue — leaving the European Union — and linking it to something voters felt more strongly about: anti-immigration.
In order to stem immigration, UKIP told voters, they first needed to leave the EU. And it touted itself as the party dedicated to making that happen.
In Ottawa, a similar thing seems to be happening. The vaccine mandate issue is being paired with anti-Trudeau, anti-government sentiment — sentiment that falls on a lot more willing ears. And politically, that could translate into greater support for parties opposing Trudeau.
The difference, says Kaufmann, is that the vaccine mandate resentment is an ephemeral issue. It seems unlikely that it will still be an issue when the next election rolls around — expected to be in 2025, barring an earlier snap election dissolving the current minority Parliament.
“I am somewhat skeptical that the vaccine issue, on its own, is going to be enough to really drive a significant sort of double-digit support populist movement,” he says.
“If you look across (western European countries), anti-vax has not been a formula that any populist right parties I’m aware of has successfully run as their central pillars.”
What has more legs, he says, is the wellspring of anti-Trudeau sentiment, and that is something that an opposition party might be able to work with — if it can manage to keep its voters incensed until the next election.
That may mean a lot of anti-Trudeau rhetoric for the next few years from the opposition right parties in an attempt to hold the interest of those who have been politically awakened in Ottawa.
Sidling up to the convoy protesters is not without its risks, and linking arms with those protest organizers who have documented Islamophobic, anti-Semitic or racist stances could well backfire for politicians.
That, added to scenes of protesters flying Nazi flags, and the harassment of paramedics and workers at a homeless shelter, among other incidents, could make the protest a minefield in the court of public opinion.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has already taken a public step back from his initial, near unequivocal support after reports surfaced of protesters defacing the Terry Fox memorial statue and dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“I support the right to peacefully protest but that should not be confused with blatant disrespect for the men and women who have served, inspired, and protected our country,” he said on Twitter on Saturday.
O’Toole finds himself in a precarious political position already, as his leadership has been nearly continuously challenged since losing the last election. But for others, including the People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier, the risk-reward calculus could work out differently.
What is there for the taking — the reward, politically speaking — is a large bloc of like-minded, very vocal protesters who can clearly organize themselves, and who are likely to throw their support at the polls toward parties opposed to the prime minister, says Kayla Preston, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, who specializes in studying the Canadian far-right.
The protest in Ottawa, said Preston, highlights the schism that has been taking place in Canadian politics over the past several years. Where it was once not unheard of for a voter to switch from Conservative to Liberal, now voters are increasingly as much against the other party as they are in favour of their own — and those changes of voter allegiance happen far more rarely now.
“We have seen extreme polarization over the past six years,” says Preston. “In Canada, in the U.S., there seems to be: ‘You’re either one side or the other,’ and there seems to be no in-between. And the COVID situation has kind of exacerbated that.
“Family and friends are divided about what to do about this, whether they support it or they don’t support it.
“Maybe the trucker convoy didn’t create the polarization, but it’s definitely showing us that it exists.”
At some point, in the near future, the trucks may release their air brakes and begin to rumble out of Ottawa down Highway 416. But with the now-demonstrated ability to mobilize thousands of like-minded anti-Trudeau voters, it will likely be a long while before the echoes of those horns fade from the nation’s capital.
Steve McKinley is a Halifax-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @smckinley1