Will Canada's truck drivers force Trudeau to reverse Covid-19 rules?

Protests against vaccine mandates have unearthed an identity crisis at the heart of Canadian politics

People gather to support drivers protesting over Covid-19 vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers. Reuters
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A convoy of trucks is barrelling towards the Canadian capital, their drivers intending to turn Ottawa into “the world’s largest truck stop” on Saturday. The so-called “Freedom Convoy” is, according to its organisers, 70km long, though Canadian police put the figure at 20km. Either way, it would be the world’s largest-ever convoy by a great margin, and it is headed squarely for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The truckers’ protest was instigated by a vaccine mandate issued by the Canadian government a fortnight ago, which requires all Canadian truck drivers crossing from the US into Canada to be fully vaccinated or else risk strict quarantine measures. Unvaccinated American drivers will be turned away.

Nearly 90 per cent of Canada’s 120,000 truck drivers are vaccinated, a figure the Canadian government and the country’s trucking association have been at pains to highlight in order to cast the protesters as a radical, fringe minority.

The trouble is, while they are indeed a minority and the composition of their movement is increasingly radical, they are hardly fringe. Many vaccinated truckers are among them, driving in solidarity with their unvaccinated colleagues who are likely to lose their jobs as a result of the mandate. They have been cheered on by thousands of Canadians who, whether out of genuine ideological support or a desire for a bit of fun, have braved temperatures of -20°C to wave Canadian and American flags as the truckers roll by. A poll released on Thursday found that nearly a third of Canadians across the country support the Freedom Convoy’s cause. The same day, Elon Musk, a Canadian citizen and the world’s richest person, tweeted: “Canadian truckers rule.” Never mind the fact that Mr Musk’s company, which seeks to automate trucks, is a bigger long-term threat to truck drivers than vaccine mandates.

It would be a simpler affair for Mr Trudeau to contend with if the demands were simple, and they may have started that way. Earlier this month, Ottawa seemed to give in to the demand by the trucking industry for an exemption to any vaccine mandates concerning border crossings. On January 12, the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) announced that Canadian truck drivers returning from the US would, indeed, be exempt from quarantine. The industry breathed a sigh of relief, as did many business owners; 30,000 trucks cross the border each day, carrying more than $1 billion in trade. Throughout the 20-month-long closure of the border during the pandemic, trucks continued their cross-border business as usual.

However, as it turned out, the CBSA, or someone in Mr Trudeau’s administration, got their wires crossed. Less than 24 hours after announcing the exemption, the Canadian government backtracked and reversed its decision. The chaos and confusion that followed provided the spark for the anger that gave rise to the Freedom Convoy. Canada Unity, the group organising the convoy, is no longer asking for a reversal of the vaccine mandate; it wants a reversal of all Canadian Covid-19 restrictions for the entire country. To that effect, it has drawn up an unsigned Memorandum of Understanding between it (on behalf of the Canadian people) and the Senate and Governor-General (the representative of the British monarch, Canada’s head of state). It is a peculiar document, combining all the zeal of a revolutionary manifesto with all the legalistic jargon of a condo lease agreement.

Mr Trudeau is himself currently isolating due to Covid-19. AP

As happens with most libertarian-leaning movements, the Freedom Convoy has become a big tent and, increasingly, an unwieldy political force. Anti-vaccination protesters, opponents of Canada’s federal government as well as those merely suspicious of liberal intellectual elites have aligned with the cause. It has become fertile ground for Conservative politicians to stoke opposition to Mr Trudeau’s Liberal Party. It has also received the support of thousands of US truck drivers, a third of whom, polling shows, have no intention of getting vaccinated.

Vaccination, as myriad evidence shows, does slow the spread of Covid-19 by reducing symptomatic infections and building herd immunity. And vaccine mandates in the trucking industry do not differ fundamentally from a host of other mandates truck drivers must follow for their own safety and that of others – from wearing seat belts to getting regular medical tests.

The sweeping and uncompromising nature of Canada Unity’s demands, as well as the pile-on from radical, anti-vaccination groups, makes the entire project much less likely to succeed. But it also signals a much bigger political problem for Mr Trudeau. What was, in essence, a labour rights dispute with one industry group has morphed into a popular campaign against his entire liberal agenda.

The fervour he is up against is also symptomatic of a broader identity crisis with which Canada (or at least, its English-speaking majority) is grappling: that of being a culturally American nation with Commonwealth political sensibilities.

While the US’s founding document guarantees “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, Canada’s, like that of other Commonwealth states, speaks of “peace, order and good government”. Whereas mandatory quarantines and vaccines were instinctively offensive to millions of Americans, they have flowed with more ease in Canada’s political order, as they have in Australia and New Zealand. It has always been easier for Canadian politicians to argue for a balancing of personal freedom against the public good than it is for their US counterparts.

But, as growing discontent with Mr Trudeau, particularly from the rural west, has shown, there is a limit. Like Americans, Canadians are also used to living in a vast country where daily interaction with government is relatively minimal. Canada may have a different political foundation to the US, but American conversations about freedom resonate there. Conservative politicians, once more akin to Britain’s boarding school-educated Tories, have nowadays found it useful to channel the modern US Republican Party, and to paint Mr Trudeau as an out-of-touch elitist. And for Canadians, the vast majority of whom live within a two-hour drive of the US, anything that threatens cross-border trade is a sensitive subject.

Most Canadians still support vaccination and public health measures against Covid-19, but those who do not are becoming difficult to ignore. By bringing trucking into their fold, they have gained a powerful weapon.

Published: January 28, 2022, 2:00 PM