Now that thousands of protesters have shut down Canada’s capital, they say they want all vaccine requirements quashed and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau removed from office.
OTTAWA—The downtown of Canada’s capital is indefinitely gridlocked, as thousands of vehicles have descended on the city to rage against COVID-19 restrictions. The protest—which some have warned could spiral into Canada’s own version of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol—was months in the making and culminated in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau being whisked off to a secure location Saturday.
Diesel fumes hang over the whole frigid city, and the honking of horns ran from sun-up to midnight. The brigade of disgruntled anti-vaxxers won’t be leaving, they say, anytime soon.
The busy streets in front of Canada’s Parliament buildings are now frozen, with a line-up of 18-wheelers, rigs, RVs, trucks, SUVs and cars essentially shutting the downtown core. The protesters have come from all across the country, with some driving more than 2,500 miles to be in Ottawa.
The convoy has branded itself as a trucker protest, objecting to COVID-19 vaccine requirements for those who haul goods across the U.S.-Canada border, but in reality it is a rejection of virtually every policy and public health measure put in place to fight the pandemic.
Now that thousands, perhaps more than 10,000, protesters have shut down Canada’s capital, they say they want all vaccine requirements quashed and Trudeau removed from office.
The cross-country convoy has become a cause célèbre for the international right-wing—from Tucker Carlson to Joe Rogan and even Donald Trump and Don Jr.— as a symbol of resistance against what they see as the tyranny of government vaccine mandates.
The blockade is perhaps the most drastic, organized, COVID-19-inspired demonstration the world has yet seen. Its organizers are a Voltron of various political factions: There’s the right-wing nationalist who is vowing to blockade MPs’ homes; the QAnon follower who wants Trudeau tried for treason; the political activist running a $7 million fundraiser, trying desperately to stop GoFundMe from seizing the dough; and a plethora of other characters who have assembled to shut down the capital.
Their mix of pseudo-science, grassroots organizing, and a dash of legal mysticism have combined to create a really potent rally cry.
And while the parka-clad protesters, shivering in sub-zero temperatures, may look perfectly Canadian—it may be a sign of things to come elsewhere.
As soon as the first leg of the convoy began on Jan. 22, from northern British Columbia, speculation ran wild over just how many people were heading to Ottawa and what, exactly, they planned to do when they arrived.
The boosters of the convoy were more than happy to offer wild estimates about the size of their movement. Former NHL right-winger turned right-wing conspiracy theorist Theo Fleury told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that “50,000 truckers and about 1.4 million people are headed to the parliament in Ottawa,” repeating an oft-mentioned estimate that bounced around the convoy Facebook and Telegram groups. One image claimed they had already “made the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest convoy ever!!!” (They had not.)
As the vehicles began converging on Ottawa Friday, it was clear the estimates were grossly overstated. Reuters, citing a government source, said they expected 2,700 trucks.
Police and Parliament Hill security were well prepared for the influx of people, shutting down the street immediately in front of Parliament, and a segment of a nearby highway, to allow the trucks a place to park. While indoor dining is forbidden, and masks are required indoors, under the province of Ontario’s COVID-19 protocols, the thousands of protesters were in town expressly to reject those measures—and they made a show of doing just that. On Friday night, an employee at a nearby hotel posted a video online of a maskless protester cussing out a receptionist who refused to serve him. Stories trickled in of fast-food workers berated by the out-of-towners. Most places, however, merely gave up trying to enforce the rules.
By early Saturday afternoon, the entirety of the convoy had arrived. Even if the initial estimates were overblown, roughly a thousand vehicles shut down traffic in the city’s core. Some 10,000 protesters wandered through the city, weaving in between the rigs parked in the middle of the road, and walking up Parliament Hill to a chorus of furious honking.
Supporters arrive at Parliament Hill for the Freedom Truck Convoy to protest against Covid-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions in Ottawa, Canada, on Jan. 29, 2022.
The sea of signs offered a glimpse into what, exactly, the crowd was asking for: Signs called for an end to all vaccine mandates and restrictions across the board. Dozens of signs extolled the dangers of vaccines: “Vaccines = genocide,” one read. In front of a war memorial, facing Parliament Hill, another read: “WANTED: JUSTIN CASTRO,” a reference to the prolific (and bizarre) conspiracy theory that deceased Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is actually Trudeau’s father. Some even-more extreme symbols were spotted: A photo of a Nazi swastika flying alongside a Gadsden flag, and a few “Fuck Trudeau” banners were uploaded by one local Reddit user.
Most of the protesters were on their best behavior—organizers pleaded with attendees to “kill them with kindness,” as one put it. But the reason these people had come to Ottawa was a little less polite.
I arrived in Ottawa to find my hotel was also putting up dozens of the protesters. I shared an elevator with one man and, for four floors we made small talk about the weather. “Could be worse,” I said, arriving on my floor. “Could be worse,” he agreed. As the doors closed, he offered some parting wisdom:
“Could be better. It’ll be better when we get that fucker.”
Before January, truckers crossing the U.S-Canada border weren’t obligated to present a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination, like most other travelers.
Last year, the Canadian government signaled that exemption was going to end—with the Biden administration following suit not long after.
Ottawa and Washington announced they would require that all cross-border truckers, responsible for nearly half of the 10 million trips made across the border each year, would need to show proof of their vaccine — otherwise, they would have to pay for a COVID-19 test or spend 14 days in quarantine.
That measure caused some ire: The Canadian Trucking Alliance has warned that the mandate would cause headaches, and could force some 12,000 to 22,000 (10 to 15 percent) of their workforce, and another 16,000 (40 percent) of U.S truckers who enter Canada, off the job. Already-strained supply chains could buckle, and inflation could increase as a result, they warned.
As both governments tried to nudge up their vaccination rates, facing a surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant, they forged ahead just the same.
Vaccine mandates across Canada, from various levels of government, have been slowly stacking. The federal government has required proof of vaccination, or a valid medical exemption, for all public sector employees. Some industries, like airlines and banking, have mandates as well. Some provinces and cities have slapped a vaccine requirement on cops, firefighters, nurses, doctors, and a raft of other employees. In Quebec, you must show proof of vaccination to enter most major stores.
The slow mounting of vaccine mandates appears to be working. Of those eligible for the shot (5 years of age and older) 88 percent of Canadians have received the vaccine, making it one of the most-vaccinated countries in the world.
But with every new restriction, the noise from the anti-vaccine minority has risen as well. Rolling protests have crawled through Canada’s major cities weekly—weather permitting—since the vaccination campaign first began. Some doctors gained infamy, then reprimand from their medical associations, for handing out dodgy vaccine exemptions. Organizations have popped up to serve as hubs for disinformation and coordination amongst the anti-vaxxers.
The symbol of a circle with a red line painted through it has become an increasingly-common sign in rallies across the country: It represents anti-lockdown group The Line, a group which has recently advertised “PureBlood Dating,” a dating website for unvaccinated people.
There’s also Strong and Free Canada: An organization that has become a core proponent of the idea that the pandemic was all a ruse to get the world on a Chinese-style social credit program. They advertise a “jabless job board” and, perplexingly, another dating website: “Sovereign Citizens Canada.”
There are anti-vaccine politicians, like Maxime Bernier, leader of the far-right People’s Party, which garnered nearly 850,000 votes in last year’s national election; and Randy Hillier, who sits in Ontario’s Provincial Parliament.
A supporter carries a US Confederate flag during the Freedom Convoy protesting Covid-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions in front of Parliament on Jan. 29, 2022 in Ottawa, Canada.
A constellation of media operations, from DIY livestreams to full broadsheet newspapers, have sprung up to offer a voice to the anti-vaxxers. The largest of which is The Rebel News, which has been more than happy to publish articles with misleading, or outright false, accusations such as “Pfizer lied, people died?”
And then there’s the doctors. A number of self-styled experts, often with a “Dr.” in front of their name, have emerged to offer the veneer of science to the anti-vaxxers opposition.
Dr. Laura Braden, for example, warned in an interview last year that vaccinating children against COVID-19 meant letting “big pharma experiment on your children.” Braden advertises herself as “a PhD with molecular immunology with about 15 years experience in research and science.” She does not disclose, however, that her career has been studying the immunology of salmon. (Ironically enough, Braden works for a company pioneering how to genetically engineer salmon.)
Few of the doctors joining this movement have any expertise in virology or immunology. One of the most prominent, Dr. Byram Bridle, teaches at the Ontario Veterinary College. (Though he has done work on human cancers, including the development of a cancer vaccine.) Dr. Roger Hodkinson has claimed COVID-19 itself is a hoax—he is not, as he has claimed, a past chairman of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.
Some of these doctors have been removed from their jobs.
Both Braden and Bridle, including several other doctors as well as Bernier, sit on the board of Taking Back Our Freedoms, an umbrella group which claims that “C-19 [COVID-19] Vaccines Are NOT Safe” and which misrepresents adverse reaction reporting to claim that there has been “more deaths and serious health damage from the C-19 vaccines in 9 months, than from all other vaccines combined, over the past 30 years.” (Deaths caused by adverse reactions from the COVID-19 vaccines are exceedingly, vanishingly rare.)
This motley crew of anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown, and anti-mask groups had not really come together in any major way: Until now.
All of these groups and figures have coalesced around the convoy to Ottawa, under the banner of a hitherto marginal group: Canada Unity.
Last October, James Bauder came up with an idea: A convoy to Ottawa.
“We must put an end to the dehumanizing and ILLEGAL vaccine passport,” he wrote on the website for his organization, Canada Unity.
The idea wasn’t totally novel. In 2019, Bauder had joined an anti-Trudeau convoy which left the oil-rich province of Alberta and headed to Ottawa to demand the prime minister resign over his carbon pricing program. (It failed.)
Over the course of the pandemic, Bauder has shared the "#WWG1WGA" hashtag used by QAnon and called COVID-19 a "plandemic."
This time, Bauder left Calgary for Ottawa, in his RV, armed with a “Memorandum of Understanding.” It is a legalese document, between himself and his wife, as representatives of the citizens of Canada, and the Senate and Governor General of Canada. (Canadian senators, as members of the upper chamber; and the Governor General, as representative of the country’s head of state, are appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister and are discouraged by convention and Canada’s constitution from setting government policy.)
Nevertheless, Bauder hoped to convince the upper chamber of Parliament and the Queen’s representative in Canada to sign the document and agree to banish all vaccine mandates and requirements. He has tried to convince his followers that the document would require Trudeau to leave office. It's a frequent fixation for Bauder: He has repeated that the prime minister ought to be tried for treason.
Bauder ran his convoy in October, but few joined in.
When the Trudeau government announced that it would be forging ahead on its vaccine mandate for truckers, Bauder gained a powerful ally: Pat King.
King had embarked on a similar journey as Bauder. In the summer of 2021, King claimed that he had successfully overturned his province’s COVID-19 restrictions while fighting a $1,200 fine for violating pandemic restrictions.
King had been an activist in the yellow vest movement that emerged in France in 2018, but soon popped up elsewhere, including Canada. He later became a core organizer in the Wexit movement, which sought to break the more conservative-leaning Western Canada away from the rest of the country. King had become a particular target of anti-fascist activists after expressing support for the white genocide theory and organizing a rally that turned violent, when his supporters attacked anti-fascist counter-protesters.
King had become a particularly popular figure after defying COVID-19 restrictions. Representing himself in court, King managed to beat a subpoena—but was ultimately forced to pay the fine. Nevertheless, he claimed that his court victory exposed the fraud at the core of the COVID-19 pandemic, and led his provincial government to drop its public health measures. That wasn’t true, and he was ultimately told by a court to pay the fine.
With King’s significant social media following, Bauder pitched a second convoy for early 2022.
In the vaccine mandate for truckers, the pair had a sympathetic figure: The lonely rig driver, an unsung hero of the pandemic who has kept supply chains functioning. They also had a useful organizing tool: Radio app Zello functions as a digital CB radio, letting supporters from across the country and the world communicate with the convoy directly.
Other organizations climbed aboard. Anti-vaccine groups like Taking Back Our Freedoms, Strong and Free Canada, and The Line; politicians like Hillier and Bernier; media outlets including Rebel News. Suddenly, Bauder’s tiny convoy had exploded into the most significant cross-country coalescing of anti-vaccine groups to date.
As their stature grew, their GoFundMe page started raking in donations: It hit $5 million CAD ($3.9 million USD) before the convoy even began in earnest.
In the days before the convoy arrived, a podcast called Bigots Corner celebrated the idea that the protest could spawn it's own Canadian insurrection. One host said: “I would like to see our own January 6 event and see some of those truckers plow right through that 16 foot wall,” referring to a temporary barrier that surrounds the Parliament.
Concerns mounted that Canada was gearing up for its own version of the Jan. 6 insurrection after video emerged of King warning that the “only way this is going to be solved is with bullets.” On Friday, the Sergeant-at-Arms, who is responsible for security on the Hill, sent an email to Members of Parliament, warning that “solicitations were issued to the online community for Members’ residential addresses.”
As scrutiny grew on the convoy in the days before their arrival in Ottawa, GoFundMe froze all but $1 million of the $8 million total, pending the outcome of the demonstration. Other organizers, particularly the woman in charge of the fundraiser, tried to distance themselves from King.
Despite their attempted pivot towards respectability, Bauder’s nonsense Memorandum of Understanding—which still seeks to have this unruly mob set government policy, usurping the elected government of the country—gained momentum too: It now boasts 258,000 signatures.
Throughout the day Saturday, as the last of the convoy arrived, protesters seemed unsure of what to do or where to go. A small staging area, which was supposed to host the protesters, was left empty. They instead congregated around Parliament Hill, as politicians and activists delivered remarks from the back of a flatbed truck.
Hillier made a feeble attempt at his own insurrection: Shaking some metal barricades and tweeting out a demand that Parliament Hill security open the gates to protesters “or we might have to open it up for ourselves.”
Elsewhere, protesters harassed and heckled reporters—in one case, nearly hitting a journalist with a beer can.
As night fell, and the temperature neared 0 degrees Fahrenheit, protesters milled about downtown, firing fireworks, huddling around makeshift fires, and drinking in the streets. Bands of police roamed the streets as heavily-armed tactical teams waited in staging areas nearby.
Hundreds of protesters occupied a downtown shopping mall, ignoring the mask mandate and, according to reports, harassing staff, before police moved in to clear out the protesters.
What happens next is an open question.
One thing is for sure: The movement has benefited from a tremendous credibility bump. Not only were right-wing politicians tripping over themselves to appeal to the crowd, but the mainstream Conservative Party —the second-largest party in Parliament—came out to show support for the movement. Leader Erin O’Toole met with truckers Saturday morning to “support their right to be heard,” while other members of his party, and potential challengers for the leadership, came out to more enthusiastically get behind the truckers. One Member of Parliament, Michael Cooper, was filmed on Parliament Hill standing, seemingly unaware, next to an upside down Canadian flag with a swastika drawn on it.
Few of the other organizers were seen in the raucous and celebratory scenes near the capital on Saturday. King, however, was front-and-center: Livestreams on his Facebook page, which has exploded to over 200,000 followers, show him being mobbed by supporters.
From the beginning, Bauder and his co-organizers have insisted that they intend on staying put until their demands are met. Some have been blunt that they intend to blockade the city until Trudeau is removed from office, and all vaccine mandates are forbidden.
Speaking to supporters last week, King offered some indication of what’s to come.
“You have people who want to block the big supply chains—that will be later on,” he said, in a video uploaded to his partner’s Facebook page. “But if we start hindering people getting their food, and getting their medicines…then we're going to become that radical look that they're expecting,” he said. “What we want to focus on are politicians, their houses, their locations, their police authorities, and all of that. We want to disrupt the government system.”
While many of the protesters are likely to leave on Sunday, many are here for the long haul. Eight million dollars in the bank can finance an extended occupation. Many of the protesters are likely to be sleeping in their rigs, parked in front of the seat of Canadian democracy.
With the Trudeau government unlikely to back down on its vaccine mandates, and even more unlikely to cede power to an unruly mob, there’s no telling what happens next.