Two weeks ago, the “Freedom Convoy” began in earnest, with thousands of truckers from every province crossing Canada’s icy highways to take their grievances over vaccine mandates to the nation’s capital.
After many dramatic twists and turns, hundreds of trucks and thousands of protesters still clog up Ottawa’s streets. Two of North America’s most important border crossings also remain blockaded.
Perhaps most surprising of all, the demonstration seems to be working. As of yesterday, four provincial Premiers announced plans to either eliminate or roll back key Covid measures — in Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Prince Edward Island.
While decision-makers are eager to distance their decision-making from the protests, there is no doubt that the mood is melting in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has endured days of heckling in parliament —from both the right and the left — over his handling of the protests, with increased calls for him to reopen the country or at least listen to the truckers.
Trudeau has spent much of the last fortnight out of the public gaze. But he has been at the forefront of the Twitter war. In one tweet he characterised protesters as antisemites, Islamophobes, anti-Black racists, homophobes, and transphobes (an impressive list!). In another, he framed them as vandals, thieves and wavers of racist flags. Predictably, his words got the Twitter mobs baying.
Evidence for some of these claims is there, but scant. Footage has circulated of two lone actors, one waving a Confederate flag and one waving a Nazi flag. The former was heckled by crowds until he left the protest. He kept his identity tightly concealed, making it likely he was there to quite literally wave a false flag. The latter is still unidentified, even after a $6,500 reward was offered for leads on his identity.
Ottawa’s police chief and mayor have happily taken part in the war of words, which has helped keep things spicy on social media. Police Chief Peter Sloly warned of a “volatile” and “increasingly dangerous” situation and made repeated forecasts of impending violence that have failed to materialise. Mayor Jim Watson called a state of emergency, warning that the downtown occupiers posed a “serious danger and threat to the safety and security of residents”.
Following an injunction, honking has been banned for ten days in Ottawa, and over a thousand tickets have been given out for excessive noise and parking infractions. The city has also seen some 23 arrests over the two-week period, all in relation to “mischief”, resisting arrest, and similar misdemeanours.
The news media has likewise done its best to demonise the protest. An impressive video still circulates on Twitter — a compilation of media reports describing the demonstration as “sedition”, an “insurrection”, “a threat to democracy”, and worse. Nevertheless, even if residents and city officials are at their wits’ end, the drama in Ottawa remains leagues behind the melodrama.
Indeed, a Daily Mail journalist recently published a report after spending a full week on Ottawa’s streets trying to get a read on the situation:
“Since DailyMail.com arrived in Ottawa last week we have seen no indication of violence or vandalism or any extremist political agenda. In fact, the demonstrations have shown the opposite. Supplies brought in for the protesters also include bouncy castles for children as protests continue into the second week…
“Every trucker DailyMail.com spoke with said they came to protest non-violently and their only reason being there was to free Canada of its covid mandates. Truckers were conscientious of the public streets and kept them free of litter. They also shovelled snow and threw down de-icer making the streets and sidewalks easier to walk on.”
The report’s headline aptly summarises the disconnect between the online and real worlds: “Freedom Convoy truckers say Trudeau and North America’s liberal media are falsely demonising them as ultra-right-wing crazies. And after spending a week in their midst, the Mail’s reporter can only conclude these peaceful, good-natured protestors are 100% correct about that – if nothing else.”
On the pretext that the demonstration had become violent and unlawful, GoFundMe shut down a US$10 million fundraiser and refunded donors. Not to be deterred, organisers set up a new campaign via GiveSendGo that quickly raised US$8 million — but just today, the Ontario government was successful in convincing a court to freeze access to those funds, too.
If the last fortnight is anything to go on, this will only harden the demonstrators’ resolve. When police began seizing fuel from truckers, protesters saw the humorous side. They were soon seen carrying jerry cans en masse through the city — whether full or empty — to confound law enforcement officials, thereby turning the humble jerry into a symbol of Canadian dissent.
The propaganda war on Twitter will no doubt continue, but nothing beats the real world. And in the real world, the truckers are winning.