US values and Christian influences fuel Canada's 'Freedom Convoy'

Prayer circles and Christian signs are common sights at Ottawa's anti-vaccine lorry driver protest

Powered by automated translation

Benita Pedersen stands in front of the Canadian Parliament, dressed in a big red winter parka and holding a megaphone as she spreads her message of faith and protest.

“The Lord is at work right now,” she tells a rapt audience, who have braved temperatures of minus 22°C to protest against the Canadian government's vaccine mandates and Covid-19 restrictions.

“It’s through our faith in Him and being of service to Him, doing his work,” she said into the loud speaker before the bitter cold zapped its battery.

For weeks, the “Freedom Convoy” — a loose coalition of lorry drivers and their supporters protesting the country’s various Covid-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates — has occupied central Ottawa, Ontario, the nation's capital, and blocked traffic flows between the US and Canada.

Ontario declared a state of emergency last week and on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act, which gives the federal government sweeping powers to quell the protests.

The rowdy demonstrations and public displays of fury mark a jarring shift in discourse for Canadians.

Politics here is usually a more orderly and mild-mannered affair than in the US, where inflamed rhetoric and political violence have gone mainstream.

Ms Pedersen, 43, is a self-described rally organiser who has led anti-vaccine protests in the western province of Alberta throughout much of the pandemic.

“The mandates have caused far more harm than good,” she told The National. “It's now time to end all of the mandates.”

She is part of a large and unmistakably Christian presence at the anti-vaccine demonstrations.

On the fence surrounding Parliament Hill, signs thanking God sit side by side with signs demanding “freedom” and bodily autonomy. Prayer circles and religious marches are daily occurrences.

Donna Curry, 70, a retired nurse, drove several hours to attend the protest in the capital.

“God wanted me to come. I feel that our problems are because we’ve pushed God out of Canada,” she told The National.

Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, said the Christian far right has been heavily involved in anti-vaccine mandates.

Ms Carvin likened the presence of Christian groups at the Canadian protests to what can be seen at demonstrations carried out by the far right in the US.

She said such groups follow an extreme political ideology.

“At the core of this movement is a group of violent extremists who have anti-government views and conspiratorial world views and anti-Semitic and homophobic world views,” she told The National.

The protests in Canada have been raucous and disruptive but — so far, at least — not violent.

However, Canadian police on Monday said they had arrested 11 protesters with a “cache of firearms” blocking a border crossing between Coutts, Alberta, and the US state of Montana, where they are demonstrating against Covid health restrictions.

Rifles, handguns, body armour, a machete and “a large quantity of ammunition” were seized, the RCMP said.

In the early days of the protest, Confederate flags could be seen flying in Ottawa as well as swastikas and symbols from American history that have been co-opted by the far right. Protesters say the use of swastikas is to show their belief the government is becoming more authoritarian.

Joel Gibson travelled to Ottawa with his wife and two young sons. The soft-spoken and polite former teacher had draped himself in a yellow Gadsden flag, an American Revolutionary War symbol showing a snake preparing to strike above the words: “Don't tread on me.”

“They had it with taxation without representation [during the American Revolution],” said Mr Gibson. “We want to have the freedom to live, the freedom to be able to speak to our politicians. We’re not getting responses from our politicians and we voted them in.”

The flag has become a popular expression of anti-government sentiment in the US.

Ms Carvin believes protesters in Canada have had to turn to US symbols because Canada doesn't have the same revolutionary history, as it remained loyal to Britain during the American War of Independence.

A look inside the lorry protest that has paralysed Canada

A look inside the lorry protest that has paralysed Canada

“It's a kind of revolutionary politics, something that is foreign to Canada,” she said. “Canada is the country of peace, order and good government.”

The protesters have not only drawn inspiration from their southern neighbour — they have also received millions of dollars in donations from Americans.

The fund-raising site GiveSendGo, which describes itself as the number one Christian crowdfunding website, has a number of pages dedicated to funding lorry drivers' protest efforts. The site has also hosted fund-raisers for anti-vaccine activism groups such as Vaccine Choice Canada.

This week, the site reported that it had been hacked, with the names and information of donors to the Freedom Convoy having been leaked.

The Freedom Convoy has also won the support of conservative US media organisations such as Fox News and has garnered adulations from many Republican politicians, including Ted Cruz, a US senator who himself was born in Canada.

“I think the Canadian truckers are standing up for freedom,” Mr Cruz told US media.

The emotional and financial support the protesters have received from the US has frustrated America’s former ambassador to Ottawa.

“I think it's wrong, from a friendship and diplomatic basis,” Bruce Heyman told The National. “This is not how you treat your best friend.”

In Ottawa, Christian and American influences have come together to create a formidable movement that has shaken Canada to its core.

But even if the government is successful in ending these protests, the presence of far-right actors, influenced by religion and their American counterparts, is likely here to stay.

Updated: February 17, 2022, 8:01 PM