worst of the Ottawa protest

The Ottawa protest was a shameful, embarrassing, pointless display of privilege

“You can’t participate in a rally organized by openly anti-Semitic and Islamophobic people and feign shock when Nazi flags show up. I mean, what’s next? You show up at a library and there are books?”

First, the inconvenient truth: Saturday’s trucker rally in Ottawa wasn’t a peaceful protest “infiltrated” by a few bad apples. It was a protest organized by bad apples. There is absolutely no way anyone can look at the backgrounds and beliefs of the people behind the rally and claim otherwise. 

The organizers are known members of far-right movements, who’ve been openly spewing Islamophobic, transphobic, anti-immigrant, homophobic and white supremacy theories for years. Pat King, who the Canadian Anti-hate network identified as a former Yellow Vests member and “a major figure” in the Wexit movement, has alluded to “Anglo Saxon replacement” theories and doesn’t shy away from inciting violence. Only a month ago, he was on Facebook declaring, “The only way this is going to be solved is with bullets.” The makings of a peaceful protest, no doubt. 

As is reported in this Vice piece, the organizers are a ragtag team of extreme right group members, anti-vaxxers, QAnon conspiracy theorists and grifters who garnered support by calling to overthrow a legally elected government if it doesn’t repeal all vaccine mandates. They’ve raised millions of dollars by tapping into the frustration and fatigue of ordinary disgruntled Canadians, some of which were too busy doing their own COVID research on YouTube to Google these guys. 

Those who attended or supported the rally, despite what was known about the organizers, were so blinded by their own grievances and need to lash out with other like-minded people that they chose to look the other way. It’s like showing up at a KKK rally looking for a few extra white sheets. You’re probably going to find them, but the odds are equally good that you’re also going to find racists. You can’t knowingly participate in a rally organized by people who are openly anti-Semitic and Islamophobic and then feign shock when Nazi flags show up. I mean, what’s next? You show up at a library and there are books? 

Canadians agree on the fundamentals

“But it was a protest about trucker vaccine mandates and government overreach,” some will say. “The country is deeply divided.” 

No, it isn’t. 

The number of Canadians five years and older who are fully vaccinated right now is 82%. The Canadian Trucking Alliance, which has vocally and repeatedly denounced Saturday’s convoy protest, says more than 85% of the 120,000 Canadian truck drivers who regularly cross the border are vaccinated and busy at work. The most generous estimates place the gathering at the Hill at approximately 10,000 people on Saturday. Compare that to the more than 144,000 Canadians who got their vaccine jabs this Sunday alone and you get an idea of how small that number really is.  

More inconvenient truths: The federal government requires Canadian truckers to be fully vaccinated if they want to avoid a 14-day quarantine when they cross the border from the U.S. There’s nothing excessive or tyrannical about this measure. It aims to curb the spread of a highly contagious and lethal virus. It’s one of many measures and rules truckers must abide by. Equally important, the U.S. has already barred unvaccinated Canadian drivers from entering the country, so driving to Ottawa to protest a rule that is also enforced across the border accomplishes what exactly? After undemocratically removing Trudeau from office, is the plan to drive to the U.S. Capitol and remove Biden from his, too? Was Insurrection 2.0 the plan for some, or did they not get that far on their ‘Overthrowing the Government’ vision board? 

Images of disrespect and scenes of peaceful protesters

A Nazi flag at the Ottawa protest, Jan. 29, 2022.

There is something seriously surreal about watching a protest organized by a mixed bag of racist Alberta separatists, opportunistic grifters, disgruntled anti-vaxxers and angry anti-government folks gain traction with average, law-abiding, kind people (some of whom I personally know), who took part peacefully and probably had their hearts in the right place. And while these folks were joyfully describing the convoy as a happy family affair on Facebook, I watched as journalists reporting on the ground were being spat on, yelled at and repeatedly threatened. 

I watched footage of white supremacy symbols paraded around proudly while Conservative MPs gave TV interviews ignoring them. I watched footage of a woman gleefully dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I saw the statue of Terry Fox covered in anti-government slogans — a man who ran across the country while battling a disease he probably knew he wouldn’t survive to support science research used as a cheap prop for photo ops. I watched the disrespect of people who claimed they were “real patriots” fighting for “our rights” against dictatorship and totalitarianism, and I thought, we’re doing a piss-poor job of teaching history if these people sincerely believe this. 

Driving your truck or minivan to Ottawa to spend the day honking, setting off fireworks and harassing people does not make you a hero. Forcing struggling downtown businesses to shut down out of fear of vandalism or threats is not okay. Entering Rideau Mall without a mask on and endangering the health of minimum-wage employees does not make you a freedom fighter. 

Forcing members of Ottawa’s Muslim community to take their vigil for the five-year-anniversary of the Quebec Muslim mosque attack online because of worries about their safety is thoughtless and cruel, as was planning this protest on the first National Day of Action Against Islamophobia. And if someone says “that was just a coincidence” I’m going to ask you to critically assess how many coincidental red flags one single protest can manage to wave around before you consider that maybe some of this took place exactly as planned and on purpose.

How many Nazi flags and people openly disrespecting war memorials does one need to see to acknowledge that maybe — just maybe — this protest wasn’t sullied by “a few bad apples” but the entire tree was rotten from the get-go. Maybe some well-meaning participants were swayed by the anger and the mistrust of government and media because it mirrored their own, but they should at least concede that their presence offered this rally much-needed legitimacy. And that goes even more for the politicians who lent it oxygen and normalized it in a sad attempt to garner votes. 

White privilege in action

The uncomfortable truth is that most of this protest and the reaction to it (or lack thereof) are colonialism and white privilege in action. The lack of a strong police crackdown on some of the offensive actions made it abundantly clear how colonial double standards persist in this country. How is it when Indigenous communities protest peacefully to protect their land, they’re met with the full force of the law and politicians threatening to criminalize blockades, but when a bunch of yahoos pee on the war memorial site and harass soup kitchen employees to take food meant for the homeless because they can’t be bothered to enter an establishment wearing a mask, they’re depicted as salt-of-the-earth, hard-on-their-luck, blue collar guys caught up in events beyond their control whom politicians need to “reach out to” to understand their grievances? 

I can already hear some of you accusing me of not “seeing the other side.” 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see the other side when Confederate flags and swastikas are in my way. I’m no expert on planning protests, but if you want people to be sympathetic to your cause, maybe don’t join protests organized by racists who’ll invite other racists to wave around Nazi symbols, for starters. I personally wouldn’t want to be part of any protest that required the Royal Canadian Legion, the Terry Fox Foundation and a local homeless shelter to denounce it, in turn, forcing the Canadian Trucking Alliance to donate to these organizations in a desperate bid to disassociate from it. There’s no way you’re the good guy after these three have come out against you. 

We’re all bloody tired 

So, where does that leave us? Exactly where we were before the so-called Freedom Convoy. The pandemic rages on and a virus we still know so little about continues to take lives and fill up our ICUs in hospitals, which remain horribly understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with so many sick. It’s primarily why we have so many restrictions and why life cannot return to normal as quickly as some of these protesters (many of them contributing to these measures by remaining unvaccinated and representing majority of hospitalizations) would want to see happen. Our healthcare system simply doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the overload of patients and no amounts of protests will currently change that sad reality.

Every single Canadian who wasn’t at that rally is just as fed up, just as tired, just as mentally exhausted, just as worried about their businesses and their families, just as concerned about their kids and their parents, just as critical of certain government decisions and just as ready for all this to be over and done with as the people on the Hill Saturday are.

What exactly was accomplished over the weekend other than burning an insane amount of fossil fuels? Are vaccines no longer required? Are vaccines no longer the scientific community’s best answer to tackling COVID? Are federal mandates regarding truckers who cross the border no longer required? Has the U.S. government suddenly revoked their own mandate requirements? Has the convoy elicited more support and empathy for truckers? Did anyone from the current leadership meet with them? Has the pandemic suddenly come to an end? You can go ahead and check ‘No to All.’ 

In a democracy, everyone has the right to peacefully protest. No one questions this. But from the very beginning, many of us were pointing to who was behind the protest and how the issue of vaccine mandates affecting truckers was being hijacked by certain groups for their own self-serving reasons. The shameful events that took place in Ottawa overshadowed what were probably thousands of Canadians peacefully protesting for what they — wrongly or not — believe to be true and airing out their frustrations to a government they feel — wrongly or not — isn’t doing enough for them or clamping down too hard. I may not agree with them, but I support their right to protest. 

Perspective, please 

We’re not at war, we’re on Year Two of a deadly global pandemic that requires sound, science-based public health measures and solidarity, not people’s YouTube research and a badly written manifesto to overthrow the government. There are legitimate, democratic channels to voice frustration and dissent with government decisions. My freedom is not in danger. Neither is yours. Saturday’s embarrassing display of what I can only charitably refer to as a collective temper tantrum without a single arrest or anyone getting hurt is more than adequate proof of that. 

Lost in all that “patriotic” honking and calls to freedom is the fact that we live in a country with immense privilege and access to life-saving medicine. Right now, more than 80% of vaccine doses have gone to people in high-income and upper-middle-income countries, like ours. Those living in the poorest countries will need to wait until 2023 before they are vaccinated against COVID. That alone should humble and shame us. But I guess it’s hard to shame those who see Nazi flags openly waving at a protest and still choose to stay. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.