The little convoy that grew: will it be a take-down of the ruling elite in a whack-a-mole fashion around the globe?

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EDITOR’S NOTE: At the beginning of the recent events in Ottawa, it was becoming clear that what had begun as a truckers’ protest about vaccinations being required to cross back into Canada from trips to the United States was becoming an occupation of the downtown of Canada’s capital city and, with related activities taking place across the country, was looking like a “movement.” The Expositor asked Professor Wayne Hunt, a native of Kagawong and a professor of political science at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, to offer Expositor readers his opinion on the long-term effects of this phenomenon, from his lifelong experience as a student of Canadian history. Dr. Hunt’s observations arrived at The Expositor office last Friday, the day the Emergencies Act came into effect.

by Dr. Wayne Hunt

Tucker Carlson called it. On a show that aired on Fox News on 10 February 2022 he announced that when Democratic politicians across his country pulled back on their mask mandates they did so because of events close to their borders. Mid-term US elections were coming up and poll numbers were not kind to anyone running as a Democrat. Democrats who were in favour of the government forcing you to wear a mask were going to be targets. And in order to find evidence of a popular revolt against mask wearing (who wants to put a diaper on their face?) the Fox News pundit looked to Canada. What we are seeing, Carlson breathlessly intoned, is a class. “Canada’s working class,” he argued, “has rebelled against years of relentless abuse.” Who did this? Carlson was clear. There was one villain: Justin Trudeau. Or as he put it, “Justin Trudeau’s creepy little government.” 

The fact that Trudeau’s government was anything but little was beside the point, Tucker was on a rampage. Blockages by the rigs and other protestors at border points as well as on Parliament Hill had an impact on the working lives of other Canadians. Cross-border auto production had to be cut back. Ford was impacted, General Motors too and Toyota. It underscored how fragile supply lines were in every country but particularly in a big and thinly populated country like Canada. But Tucker was not to be distracted by this. For him the point was obvious. As he put it: 

The Canadian trucker convoy is the most successful human rights protest in a generation. If nothing else, it has been a very useful reminder to our entitled ruling class that working class men can be pushed, but only so far. When they push back, it hurts. 

Carlson then – selectively of course – provided video evidence of Canada’s prime minister saying that Canadians did not deserve to be “harassed in their own neighborhoods… with the inherent violence of a swastika flying on a street corner, or a Confederate flag, or the insults and jeers just because they are wearing a mask.” Throughout, Tucker was nothing if not strident. These people, the protestors, he observed, are easily smeared. They do not have four year college degrees and professional jobs. Although he did not use the terms, he implied that they were “localists,” rooted in communities and loyal to those friends they grew up with and played hockey with and went to school with while, on the other side, there are the “globalists”— with Trudeau being the emblematic representative of this particular class. 

Here the narrative moved along a familiar path. Canadians are not being told the real story. Why? Because of state-sponsored propaganda (which is to Fox News-speak for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). It continued in this vein. In the white-washed view of events that emanated out of mainstream media in Canada, the protestors were dismissed as QAnon supporters, or white nationalists to a man, since they were mostly men, and young men at that. Insurrectionists. Nazis. Tucker Carlson went on say how wrong it was to demonize people and by treating them with condescension, by looking down on them and what they do to make a living. Carlson went to an independent YouTube channel to show what he called “legacy media” (ie. printed newspapers, television outlets that existed before the Information Age) refused to let you see. He found a YouTube channel, ZOT, that actually talked to people who were out on the streets. Real people. ZOT was run by a man named Matt Garcia who was not paid to run this YouTube channel but who did this simply because he thought that it was important. (The mainstream media noted that these white nationalists were a fringe within a fringe and that although one in five truckers were visible minorities, this group was not represented. It was also reported that even mainstream trucking associations did not formally support those who took to the streets to close down Parliament Hill and bridges to the US.) Garcia found and interviewed a man who was an exception to this categorization, an unidentified male from Iran. The man said that “Justin Trudeau’s authoritarian behaviour” reminded him of the Ayatollah in the country he left. Furthermore, he was proud to call himself a freedom loving Canadian patriot. Another clip showed an elderly man, small and pathetic, being dragged off to jail. The reason? He honked his horn from his vehicle in support of the truckers. 

The Fox News commentator then made clear that this was as much a failure of leadership across party lines (in this case, parties of the left) as it was a failure of our way of coming together as a community to resolve crises on a collective basis. The leader of “Canada’s supposedly pro-worker NDP Party, he sneered, attacked the truckers as racists. But people were starting to turn against Trudeau, even his own elected Members in the Parliament questioned his style of governing. Cited in this instance were the words of the Liberal MP, Joel Lightbound, who found in the prime minister’s approach to the issue “an attempt to wedge, to divide, to stigmatize” – a politicization that would undermine “the public’s trust in our public health institutions.” 

This was not a true picture of course. Missing from the sensationalized Fox News coverage was anything that did not fit their particular world-view—and that was a great deal. But they were dead-on on what really mattered: the fact that the liberal elite had tilted the rules to their advantage. Big time. Education, government, big corporations and financial institutions: all had accepted a liberal orthodoxy. This latest revolt aimed, in a wildly chaotic way, to turn that around. 

These protests pivoted around a fundamental divide. On the one side were the people who moved things—physical goods; on the other side were the people who moved ideas. The first were part of the tangible economy; the second, the intangible economy. 

And this is where the politics and the geopolitics enters. The politics was easy to read. Policing is largely a municipal and provincial matter in Canada. The police were not viewed as effective when it came to the Ottawa blockade but they used harder tactics on border blockades. This too was easy to read: real money was involved. Just-in-time delivery meant that vehicle parts crossed borders constantly. Once supply chains were disrupted it was not just the auto industry that would suffer, there would be a real impact on grocery shelves. (Not many  oranges are grown up here). Most of the premiers do not belong to the same party as Justin Trudeau and, more to the point, have no intention of keeping him in his present job longer than he has to stay. For the Parliament Hill part of this story, the prime minister was missing-in-action for the early stage. No doubt, he calculated that it would play out on its own, so just leave it alone. Plus, he tested positive for COVID. All the more reason to keep your head down. 

For their part, the premiers were adroit. They passed much of the blame on to the prime minister and the federal government. 

When Trudeau did move, he brought in the Emergencies Act. Reaction was immediate. Critics said he went from doing nothing to doing too much, but such is the nature of politics. The Emergencies Act dates back to 1988 when it was promulgated. It updated and modernized the War Measures Act, a piece of legislation that framed the career of Justin Trudeau’s father. In October 1970, Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act at the request of the mayor of Montreal as well as the premier of Quebec. The army came in. Tanks rolled down the streets of Montreal. Rights of Habeus Corpus were suspended, meaning that a knock could come to your door at midnight and without warrant authorities could take you off to prison. Normal civil liberties, normal rights of search and seizure, did not apply. This was not the Soviet Union of old, this was Canada. Famously, Trudeau had made his name at an earlier point in his career as a civil libertarian. How could he take rights away? When asked by a reporter if he would do this, he said: “Just watch me.” 

Watch, Canadians did. The father’s legacy bears heavily on his son and never more evidently than when Trudeau Jr. insists that the army will not be brought in and that the Emergencies Act simply gives police authorities more tools to do their job. True: the RCMP is empowered to enforce municipal regulations for instance by this measure. But it was not really about this. The Emergencies Act is also, in Trudeau’s words, meant to be proportionate and geographically- specific. Again: true. When Trudeau went to the premiers and territorial leaders on this most told him that it was over-reach. Except for one: the one who counted, Doug Ford. Ford is going to the polls this June. He needs to keep opinion on-side in times of crisis the Ontario and federal governmental machines mesh together in an effective way. It also helps if you have one party in power in Ottawa (usually the Liberals) and another party in Queen’s Park (usually the Conservatives). They can pretend that it is all managerial and not political that way. 

In announcing the Emergencies Act, Trudeau played good cop, saying that it would be limited (30 days) and subject to Parliamentary approval in the Commons and in the Senate. The bad cop role was taken over by his heir apparent, Chrystia Freeland—or almost heir apparent, depending on the political fortunes of another “star” the Liberals are cultivating, Mark Carney. For her part, Freeland announced that the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, or FINTRAC, would require crowdfunding platforms and the payment service providers they use, to register with the federal government so that these measures could be counted as terrorist activities. At first blush, this seemed common-sensical. If third parties are sending cash to protest movements, shouldn’t there be public accountability? But there might be devils in the details. Who is a terrorist? Who a peaceful protestor? This was not clear. On the left, civil liberty groups weighed in about government intrusion and the ability of the state to freeze bank accounts. On the right, commentators worried about the heavy hand of the state taking away freedom. 

Left unsaid was a big part of the story. It is true that many protesters use platforms like Telegram that have little content moderation. Telegram allows one-on-one encrypted chats and file sharing. Telegram is now the most downloaded app in the Google Play Store, having knocked Signal off the top spot in the United States. It is particularly popular with right-wing extremists who have been kicked off Twitter, Facebook/Meta and Parler (Parler has been kicked off the Internet but like a Hollywood B movie it is rising from the dead and is back in a more limited form). 

And this is where autocrats around the world join in. They take misinformation, spin it around, and turn it into something that has a strategic purpose behind it – this is called disinformation. Governments have plausible denial over this second activity. Putin is a master at this. Early in his career he worked for the KGB (now “rebranded” as the FSB) on “active measures” – meaning you take down an opposing country from within, by using your opponent’s strength against them. False stories about the Pentagon creating HIV/AIDs in order to take out same sex people and Blacks in America was an example of this from the 1980s Cold War era. And it continues to this day. Troll farms spread false narratives into US election cycles. The Internet Research Agency, a bunch of hacktivists based out of St. Petersburg are old hands at this. But they are not alone. China also does this. Iran, ditto. North Korea too. The list goes on. The point is to weaken the United States and NATO so that there is less political will to take on a Russian land-grab in Ukraine. Or the Chinese equivalent over Taiwan – or other territories. It is easy for foreign powers to get inside the heads of ordinary people in the United States, or the United Kingdom, or Germany, or Canada. 

We are in the age of “information warfare.” This means that the “culture wars” that are talked about in the media have a bigger and more subterranean dimension to them. It serves the interest of hostile powers to think that the United States has lost its appetite for war. For their part, strategists in the United States can easily think that their country can achieve its foreign policy goals “on the cheap” so to speak by using drone technology in place of real soldiers, real sailors and real aircraft people as part of a boots on the ground approach to seeing off a foreign threat. Instead there is an over-reliance on technology. Characteristic of this is “blitzkrieg” (swarms of tiny drones that communicate among themselves by means of algorithms and artificial intelligence) and cyberjamming to take down its enemies. The point is that after US involvement in endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military planners in hostile foreign capitals calculate that the United States has no interest in getting involved in places where it does not have a strategic national interest. No oil, no involvement. Or in future, no rare earth minerals, no involvement. 

The protests in Ottawa fit into a much wider set of technologically-driven changes. Trudeau may settle events for the moment but it comes at a cost. Heavy-handed state action will not change the deeper resentments. In fact, they will make them worse. And it be worse still if people forget that we all need to get back to the earth and involve ourselves in physical activities. People, to adapt Martin Luther King famous phrase, have to be judged by the content of their character, not the character of the work they do. 

© Wayne Austin Hunt is a Professor of Politics and International Relations at Mount Allison University. He is resident of Kagawong on occasion through-out the years. The views expressed are his, and his alone. 16 February 2022