Photo: Feb. 5 rally of convoy supporters in Toronto. Credit — Michael Swan
From its beginning, the so-called “Freedom Convoy” in Canada has been a vehicle for the far right to promote their views and press their reactionary demands. Despite being labeled the “trucker protest” by the corporate media, it does not represent the interests of workers, in the trucking industry or otherwise.
Its leadership from the beginning included far right political figures and former police and security state employees. If met, its main demand – to end vaccine mandates – wouldn’t improve workers’ lives but instead do the exact opposite by sending them back to the job in the “new normal” with less health and safety protections.
Some online pundits influential with socialists and progressives have muddied the waters and are praising the protest as some kind of workers’ uprising against the bosses. The Party for Socialism and Liberation opposes the far right convoy and the broader anti-vaccine movement that imperils the lives of working people.
A major police operation began in the early morning of Feb. 18 in Ottawa, after weeks of extremely lenient or even openly supportive treatment by police officers that gave the convoy crucial room to grow. This reactionary movement has long since spread beyond Ottawa and may now have the capacity to persist despite the police action. In fact, it has become a worldwide phenomenon inspiring similar actions in France, Belgium and the United States.
The Teamsters union in Canada represents 55,000 drivers including 15,000 long haul truckers. 90 percent of them are vaccinated. The head of the Teamsters in Canada released a statement titled “The Real Enemy for Truckers is Covid-19”, in which he argued that “the despicable display of hate lead by the political Right and shamefully encouraged by elected conservative politicians does not reflect the values of Teamsters Canada, nor the vast majority of our members, and in fact has served to delegitimize the real concerns of most truck drivers today.”
The Canadian Labour Congress, the federation of the main unions in Canada that collectively represent 3 million workers, issued a statement pointing out that, “Frontline workers, from retail to health workers, have been bullied and harassed. We have witnessed noise attacks keeping families up at all hours. We have seen right-wing extremists spreading messages filled with racism and intolerance, flying the Nazi and Confederate flags, alongside other symbols of violence and hate … Canada’s unions stand together, unequivocally opposed to these vile and hateful messages and condemn the ongoing harassment and violence against the people of Ottawa.” The CLC also highlighted how, “Authorities spent the first week taking a hands-off approach to the occupation of city streets and parks, not even handing out parking tickets as big rigs blocked busy intersections and local businesses were forced to shutter. This is a far cry from the kinds of crackdowns we have seen in the past towards Indigenous land protests, Black Lives Matter and other equity-seeking activists or striking workers.”
Regardless of the social composition of a mass movement, its leadership and the political program it puts forward are decisive. It is possible for a movement composed of working class people to raise reactionary demands that are against the interests of the working class as a whole. The New York City teacher strike of 1968, for instance, was organized to oppose Black community control of schools in Brooklyn. A movement by Chilean truckers in the early 1970s played a crucial role in the CIA-sponsored military coup against the elected Marxist president Salvador Allende. Last year, mobilizations of truck drivers were held along major roadways in Brazil to support the political agenda of fascist president Jair Bolsonaro. The Solidarity trade union in Poland became the principal vehicle for capitalist counter-revolution in the country.
Core demands of protest would hurt workers
The main demand of the Freedom Convoy is for the cancellation of a vaccine mandate for truckers who travel internationally. Currently, Canadian truckers must be vaccinated to enter the United States.
This mandate was enacted in response to the surge of the Omicron variant in order to help curtail the spread of this extremely contagious virus. Similar types of vaccine mandates are routinely used in U.S. schools and around the world as a common sense practice in the interest of the population’s health. In order to defeat an epidemic, a vaccine must be administered to the vast majority of the population. If vaccination rates are not high enough, it is impossible for the disease to go away.
As of this writing more than 35,000 people in Canada and 925,000 people in the United States have died from COVID – a high proportion of whom are “frontline workers” often employed in low-wage service sector jobs that involve frequent interactions with the public. And the long-term ramifications of having contracted the disease is a source of great concern. A recent study published in Nature Magazine, for instance, indicated that COVID significantly increases one’s chance of heart disease in the months after infection. The most elementary democratic right is the right to live, and socialists believe in social responsibility and common-sense public health measures that would greatly reduce the death and damage caused by COVID-19.
Too frequently, vaccines are only discussed in terms of individual protection rather than what’s needed for the good of society as a whole. The vaccine’s ability to protect an individual from infection and lessen the severity of symptoms is important. But when one considers that the pandemic cannot end unless everyone does their part and gets vaccinated, it’s clear that this should be considered a social duty and not just an issue of personal preference or tolerance for risk. It is a matter of solidarity.
Workers are well aware of the need for vaccines and other public health measures. A recent poll found 62% of Canadians oppose “the message that the trucker convoy protests are conveying of no vaccine mandates and less public health measures.” 70% of Canadians support vaccine mandates.
Polling consistently shows large majorities in favor of the targeted mandates that have been enacted already. A recent poll in the United States noted that 53% of those making less than $50,000 would support their local governments enacting universal vaccine mandates (which have not even been advocated for by the government), and 60% of those making $50-$100,000 said the same. This tracks with a poll from the Fall of 2021 in which 61% of those making under $50,000 said they supported vaccine mandates and 66% of those making between $50-$75,000 agreed.
Like many questions, workers have different opinions, but the idea that there is some mass working class uprising against mandates or vaccines or masks is false, and itself a part of the attempt of far-right forces to pretend that “conservatism” is the hegemonic ideological viewpoint among “blue collar workers.”
In some societies, it is possible to achieve sufficiently high levels of vaccination without across-the-board mandates. In Cuba and China, for instance, there is sufficient trust in the government and the medical system to vaccinate the overwhelming majority of people relying primarily on persuasion and existing public health infrastructure. The population trusts the recommendations of the government because it has a track record of success. In China, authorities have managed to keep the death toll below 5,000 since the beginning of the pandemic. In 2021, China only had 2 deaths from COVID! Cuba has a long-standing network of neighborhood doctors where health professionals develop long-term bonds of trust with the communities they serve.
Here in the United States no such public confidence exists. For some, vaccine hesitancy is rooted in distrust for a profit-driven healthcare system with a long record of negligence and abuse. But the primary reason is the relentless far-right, conspiratorial agitation the population has been subjected to since the onset of the pandemic. Right wing politicians and corporate media outlets constantly undermine support for essential, common-sense health measures like mask wearing or getting vaccinated by implying that such steps are unnecessary or may contain hidden dangers. This lends credibility to the fantastic conspiracy theories pushed by more fringe elements. Similar trends exist in Canada and many other capitalist countries.
The socialist transformation of society would create a new healthcare system that would earn the trust of the people by providing high-quality care to all. But we cannot wait for a new healthcare system to defeat COVID. Under the conditions that actually exist right now, there is no alternative to imposing mandates under at least some circumstances, especially in industries that involve cross-border travel. This should of course be coupled with other measures, like a well-resourced mass educational and outreach campaign – which never truly happened in the United States. Mass testing and effective masks should be made easily available to everyone on demand.
Even though truckers can still work within Canada without the vaccine, it is true that some have lost work over vaccine mandates. However, ending mandates will not guarantee that truckers or any workers will keep their jobs. A huge number of workers have lost their jobs because they died, got sick, or their place of employment permanently closed due to the rampant spread of COVID-19. Even more have lost wages due to missed time because they were sick, caring for someone who was sick, or the business temporarily closed. Pitting “mandates” against employment is a false choice.
Far right and state ties
The leadership of a mass movement is also key to understanding its political character. The most enthusiastic supporters of the convoy in Canada come from the far right. This includes the People’s Party of Canada (formed in 2018 by former Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier, who left the Conservative Party for being insufficiently right wing) and political parties supporting the secession of the western provinces of Canada. In contrast to virtually all the significant mass organizations of the Canadian working class – which stridently oppose the convoy – these avowed enemies of workers have decided to support the so-called “trucker protest.”
Main convoy organizers include fascistic far right Canadian political figures like Benjamin Dichter. Ditcher, who calls himself vice president of the convoy, has spoken for the protest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and raised millions for the protest online. In 2019 he spoke at a meeting of the far right People’s Party pointing to the “stench” of “political Islam” as a cause for problems in Canada. In the same speech he accused the Liberal Party of being “infested with Islamists.”
Other main organizers include James Bauder and Tamara Lich. Bauder is a leader of the organization Canada Unity which released the “memorandum of understanding” that laid out the original demands of the protest. Both Bauder and Lich have connections to far right political activity including the 2019 United We Roll protest which featured white supremacist Faith Goldy. Pat King, another figure from the United We Roll protest and leading member of the current protest in Ottawa, said in a 2019 video posted online, “there’s an endgame, it’s called depopulation of the Caucasian race, or the Anglo-Saxon. And that’s what the goal is, is to depopulate the Anglo-Saxon race because they are the ones with the strongest bloodlines.”
In addition to a far right leadership, the protest involves former Canadian police and members of state security forces. This includes Daniel Bulford, head of security for the convoy. Bulford was with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and on the prime minister’s security team. Tom Quiggin, who spoke at a press conference for the protest, is a former military intelligence officer, author and supposed expert on Islamist terrorism.
This leadership and the politics of the convoy explains the local police’s initial friendly, hands-off attitude toward the protesters. Videos have circulated online with police encouraging the protesters. According to a New York Times article published on February 13, “Those officers who were present, dressed in neon-yellow vests, strolled in groups past protesters who were openly violating the law. Some carried gas cans, presumably to supply the truckers parked in the streets.”
Indigenous leaders have condemned the protest after racist videos surfaced of convoy protesters imitating an Indigenous ceremony. Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, put out a statement explaining, “Our families and communities have suffered insurmountable losses because of this horrible virus, and our First Nations Chiefs have implemented some of the strictest protocols in the country to keep their membership safe.” He continued, “It’s a disgrace to see our culturally sacred items being used improperly, without proper protocol, in support of anti-vaccine protests.”
While authorities have been remarkably lenient towards the far-right convoy, the crisis appears to have escalated to the point that this is changing. On Feb. 14, the federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act. Under this law, for 30 days the federal government will have enhanced powers to disperse protests, prohibit travel to certain locations, and could even deploy the military if it chooses. The Emergencies Act is a successor law to the War Measures Act, which was last invoked in 1970 to deploy the Canadian armed forces to Quebec to crush a left-wing pro-independence armed struggle. During this time, the left as a whole was attacked by the state with no regard for democratic rights. The invocation of the Emergencies Act is an opportunistic maneuver by the Liberal Party government to take advantage of the crisis to strengthen the powers of the Canadian state, which is far more interested in suppressing the left than the right wing. Again, the far right is doing a service to the Canadian ruling class by giving it an opportunity to expand its capacity for repression.
Winning over conservative workers
Among some pundits with online followings who bill themselves as part of the left, the far right convoy is a cause for celebration. The movement, they argue, represents a spontaneous revolt by workers against the oppressive policies of the capitalist state.
For instance, internet talk show host Jimmy Dore called the protest “People fighting back, real workers.” Dore continued in a video released Feb. 9, “Democrats and politicians always like to give lip service to the workers, except when the workers actually join together and they actually have power … Who am I talking about? I’m talking about Canadian truckers who shut down the capital.” Under the guise of reaching out to conservative workers in order to unite against the establishment elite, Dore and others in this trend end up as nothing more than a tail to the kite of the far right.
Without a doubt, socialists need to win over workers who have right wing political views. It will be impossible to attract the mass support needed to actually carry out the transformation of society unless a substantial number of these workers are persuaded that in fact it is socialism that offers a solution to the injustices they face. But this will not happen if socialists adopt the political program of the right wing in the pursuit of “common ground”!
What is needed is a direct, compelling explanation of why the agenda of the far right is in the interests of the elite, not the workers. Racism is a poison spread by the bosses to divide workers and exploit some workers especially intensely. Immigrant and native-born workers should unite in the face of corporations who seek to exploit them both. And public health measures like mask and vaccine mandates save workers’ lives – it is the bosses who want people to get back to work and “learn to live with the virus”, no matter how many workers die in the name of “reopening the economy”. The pandemic has shown the dire need to massively expand public healthcare with more facilities, increased staffing, higher wages for health workers and restrictions on big pharma’s greed. The anti-vaccine forces want to squeeze these urgent demands out of public debate by making the issue solely about an individual’s decision whether or not to get a shot.
And above all, there needs to be an alternative program presented to deny the far right the political space they seek to spread their vile ideology. All workers should be guaranteed the right to a job with a living wage and union representation. Healthcare should be completely free and the parasitic insurance corporations should be abolished. Every kid deserves to go to a good school, and pursue their studies through university and beyond completely free of charge. A decent home must become a constitutional right, and no one should be kicked into the streets because they can’t pay rent. Rather than scapegoating different sections of the population, the true enemy is the tiny handful of multi-millionaires and billionaires who run the economy and the government, and taking away their power is the answer.
The convoy in Canada should be exposed for what it is – a political project under the leadership of the far right that cynically seeks to misdirect the anger that people rightfully feel about the state of society.