20 February 2022

Canada’s protests settle down but could echo in politics

20 February 2022

The fallout from Canada’s trucker protest could echo for years in Canadian politics and perhaps south of the border, analysts have said.

The protest, which was first aimed at a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers but also encompassed fury over the range of Covid-19 restrictions and hatred of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, reflected the spread of disinformation in Canada and simmering populist and right-wing anger.

“I think we’ve started something here,” said Mark Suitor, a 33-year-old protester from Hamilton, Ontario, speaking as police retook control of the streets around parliament.

Protesters had essentially occupied those streets for more than three weeks, embarrassing Mr Trudeau and energising Canada’s far right. Mr Suitor believes the protests will divide the country, something he welcomes.

The protest has given both the Liberals and the Conservatives a black eye

“This is going to be a very big division in our country,” he said. “I don’t believe this is the end.”

While most analysts doubt the protests will mark a historic watershed in Canadian politics, it has shaken both of Canada’s two major parties.

“The protest has given both the Liberals and the Conservatives a black eye,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

Mr Trudeau’s Liberals look bad for allowing protesters to foments weeks of chaos in the capital city, he said, while the Conservatives look bad for championing protesters, many of them from the farthest fringes of the right.

The conservatives “have to be careful not to alienate more moderate voters, who are generally not sympathetic to the protesters or right-wing populism more generally,” said Daniel Beland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal.

The self-styled Freedom Convoy shook Canada’s reputation for civility, inspired convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands and interrupted trade, causing economic damage on both sides of the border. Hundreds of trucks eventually occupied the streets around parliament, a display that was part protest and part carnival.

A protester wears a giant placard with a call to “Hold the Line” as police work to clear the streets in front of Parliament Hill (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP) (AP)

Authorities moved quickly to reopen the border posts, but police in Ottawa did little but issue warnings until the past couple of days, even as hundreds and sometimes thousands of protesters clogged the streets of the city and besieged Parliament Hill.

On Friday, authorities launched the largest police operation in Canadian history, arresting a string of Ottawa protesters and increasing that pressure on Saturday. Eventually, police arrested at least 170 people and towed away dozens of vehicles. Many protesters retreated as the pressure increased.

The Ottawa protests – the movement’s last major stronghold – appeared to be largely over by Saturday evening, though some protesters warned they were only regrouping.

As it did in the United States, Covid-19 quickly became a political issue in Canada.

Coronavirus health restrictions became a political cudgel for Canada’s far right, which accused Mr Trudeau of authoritarianism. But while the restrictions clearly benefitted the far-right People’s Party of Canada, things are more complicated in the Conservative Party.

Only recently have some Conservative leaders fully embraced the pushback against vaccine mandates and coronavirus restrictions.

Police arrested at least 170 people (Cole Burston /The Canadian Press via AP) (AP)

Even so, the protests may open the door to the sort of populism that former president Donald Trump used to vault himself into the White House.

Pierre Poilievre, who is running to become the next leader of the Conservative party, has cheered on the protesters, gambling that voters will back him. But it remains unclear whether that will get him to the top of the party, or whether it would help or hurt him if there is a showdown between him and Mr Trudeau or the next Liberal Party leader.

“Poilievre is clearly playing by the populist playbook right now,” Mr Beland said. “If he becomes Conservative leader, the party might effectively shift towards Trump-style populism. However, it’s unclear whether enough Canadians support this vision to make it appealing beyond the party’s base.”

Though the situation in Ottawa appeared to be ending, there were new signs the protests had not died out entirely.

The Canadian border agency warned late on Saturday afternoon that operations at a key truck crossing from western Canada into the United States had been slowed by protesters, advising travellers to find a different route.

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