In a world of converging and urgent crises, the pandemic, water and food shortages, climate change, rampant inequalities and potential war, how is a demonstration of a few hundred people in Canada making such a disproportionate impact in the words news and social media. The answer is lorries, very big lorries and public health mandates for cross border travel.
Truckers vs Trudeau
In Canada, Austria and elsewhere, mandates have exposed divisions between those seeking individual liberty and the majority who see the vaccination drive as a necessary collective effort. The usual dull online trope that the Mainstream media are not reporting this is only believed by those who never read a newspaper or watch the news – the Canadian protest in particular has been widely reported, both here and in the US. It is big news – though far more prominent on social media and antivaccine sites where the truckers have been all but sanctified.
Behind the mandate comes the fact that there have been three times a many COVID deaths in the US compared to Canada – Canadians would like to keep it that way – and so mandates have been enacted on both sides of the border, as they have for any cross border travellers.
Mandates seem to work well for a group of people who need a nudge. In these terms they have been in place and effective at saving lives in some nations for some time; they have worked well in Italy, and indeed in Canada, whose pandemic performance is to be envied, particularly by those south of the border. For every individual who proclaims ‘never’ there are many who just go and get the vaccine when mandates are introduced.
The mandate is supported by the majority of Canadians and indeed elsewhere, but the minority totally opposed to vaccination is significant. Now some of those are driving big big lorries, are well funded and organised, and are effectively using as their trucks as weapons.
Of course, this really does divide society, though not evenly – 87% of Ottawa’s residents want the truckers to leave, which leaves a small fraction of the other 13% sufficient to organise supplies to the truckers, particularly the diesel and its consequent fumes which is making life so tough for residents.
This opinion poll shows that Canadians opinions on mandates are generally at odds with the occupying truckers.
The other truckers…
What about other Canadian truckers and their trade unions? The blockade has been condemned by the Ontario Trucking Association and the Canadian Trucking Alliance, which said that “a great number of these protestors have no connection to the trucking industry and have a separate agenda.”
Who are the leaders? One is Tamara Lich, a fundraiser and leader of the “Wexit” movement represented by the “Maverick Party” (think UKIP) who want independence for the Western oil rich states and clearly someone not keen on Trudeau’s government.
It seems the convoy was the brainchild of James Bauder, a self confessed conspiracist, and not the only QAnon supporter behind the truckers – say no more. The police say that much of the funding comes from right wing sources south of the border. Go Fund Me closed down the truckers account when the protest turned into an occupation and funding from GiveSendGo a right wing Christian fundraising organisation has stepped in with $C5m raised in 3 days. Notably, they have previously funded the Jan 6th Capitol hill riots and have obtained funds from extremists such as the racist “Proud Boys”. Of course, they are supported by Trump, ever the opportunist.
This flavour is therefore of a well funded fringe movement who have disproportionate power to disrupt.
The situation in Ottawa is pretty horrible for residents. The trucks were allowed into the city by the local authorities for a three day protest, but have torn up that agreement and now claim to be in for the long haul, or at least until mandates are lifted, which is likely to happen anyway in the medium term. Attempts to issue parking tickets have been met by intimidation and violence, meaning only 700 tickets have been issued to the hundreds of vehicles who have now been clogging up the city for two weeks.
In the first few days the pollution and noise from the prowling trucks created real problems for residents and resulted in a successful class action from residents unable to sleep. I feel for anyone with asthma living near the occupation.
Health sector woes
Hospital workers have started 12 hour shifts instead of the usual 8 as they are having problems getting to work. Patients are struggling to get to the hospitals, with ER visits down, and appointments cancelled.
Health workers too have been targeted, with, according to Ottawa Paramedic Service, two ambulances attacked with stones and racial abuse of the paramedic inspecting the damage.
What do they want?
This leaves a vocal minority in position to make plenty of noise, literally in the case of the ever hooting truckers. It is paradoxical how a small number of lorry drivers can have such a big impact when only 10% of them remain unvaccinated.
The truckers want to change the law which is supported by most Canadians, passed by their democratic representatives, supported by the health sector and don’t, in the opinion of the courts, restrict human rights. There are echoes of the Jan the 6th Capital Riots where a small number, tiny number in population terms, make a big and very disproportional noise.
In New Zealand too there is a small protest ‘siege’ of parliament conducted by some of the 6% unvaccinated who, among other demands, want to save an oil refinery from closure. Online content from the demonstrators reveals what I feel is the usual misunderstanding of ‘genetic manipulation’ by vaccines, and the wish for leaders, as in Canada, to be prosecuted under as criminals according to the also misunderstood Nuremberg Laws.
Here In the UK
We have not been keen on vaccine mandates and generally do well with vaccination campaigns, Wakefield’s toxic legacy aside. A mandate for Hepatitis B vaccination is widely adhered to without, in my experience, any noticeable problems. In my former practice, we agreed to all get annual flu jabs, not only for our own benefit, but also to protect the patients and to reduce the stress to each other resulting from sick leave.
There are high levels of trust in the NHS and advice tends to be listened to by the vast majority of people leading to mandates being rarely needed. The recent removal of the proposed vaccination mandate on NHS staff was welcomed by anyone working in the health care sector. Leaving aside and arguments about pros and cons of mandate effectiveness, the NHS is simply far too vulnerable to lose even 1% of its staff, never mind 5%. Happily, Omicron made it easier fo find a compromise. Problem sorted – for now.
Militant lorry drivers are not new. I remember the 2000 oil refinery blockades over here in the UK. Opposed to the fuel escalator, designed with a tiny nod to climate change, lorry drivers blockaded refineries and forced the governments hand. Support was said to be high, though fell dramatically when essential services were affected. I felt the hauliers held the government to ransom in a way the peaceful protesters could not. They succeeded with no reference to the ever external costs of our ugly and unsustainable patterns of consumption and trade, or climate change.
Deja Vu – UK 2000 fuel protests.
The noble Insulate Britain protesters have used the roads to make their valid and important point, and paid a heavy personal price. So far the personal price paid by the truckers seems to be little. Police have taken a light touch, but how much longer will that last. Laws might soon be enacted to remove the licenses of those who use lorries to disrupt what lorries are meant to do, as might a doctor who decided to prevent entry to a hospital.
The future of protest in the UK
Of course, any such thing will soon not be permitted in the UK once the new Police bill goes through, as seems likely. Such demos here would be greeted with prison sentences and huge fines. You need police permission to demonstrate, even with a placard and a few protestors on foot. The Police can simply say no if they consider, for instance, that you will make too much noise.
The right to demonstrate is fundamental to any sense of freedom, but being eroded all around the world. It has made big differences in the past, particularly in achieving the vote for women, but frequently fails to make the difference the demonstrators want. Hence the Extinction Rebellion movement and their direct action techniques. Given the cataclysmic mature of climate change, I support them 100%, the Truckers, no.
Cake and eat again?
For me the Truckers desire for freedom lies at the root of so much of our global predicament. Freedom has become a badge of the new right who dislike being told what to do by any government and like to live the myth of independence, despite being, like us all, at the end of long chains of production with lives moulded by public works and public expenditure. The vast majority of people experience life which does not involve as much choice and freedom as the protesters imagine when they claim, against the grain, to be ‘fighting for everyone’.
Indeed, the right wing American and Trumpian version of “Freedom” bellows hypocrisy. It comes from a nation whose foundations are built on the freedom to commit genocide of Native Americans, the freedom to enslave millions and even after emancipation, take measures to perpetuate that hatred into deep racial discrimination. Freedom to start countless wars, sell weapons, pollute the world coupled with freedom from the regulation which might have prevented more than one financial crash and consequent depression. Freedom has to be balanced by responsibility for ones actions.
Freedom in the modern world
There are many places where any personal freedom does not exist. Myanmar comes to mind, as do the Uyghurs. The freedom to be able to express yourself is worth fighting for, but diminishing around the world. The freedom to blockade a city and bridges is quite different. Justified in my opinion to make the point about climate change – its that serious, but against isolation when infected, mandates and masks – I don’t think so.
This has to be seen agains the backdrop of the lack of freedom to to breathe unpolluted air, drink clean water and eat healthy food; to lead lives free from financial worry and the daily misery of poverty. We should not forget that our children face a world of unimaginable difficulty. Much of which has come about as a consequence of our freedom to drive cars, fly planes, shop in supermarkets, use as much energy and materials as we want and can afford.
There has been no limits of our consumption and few limits on our freedom to pass on the costs, now impossible to repay, to those who will struggle to live as the next few years and decades roll by and climate change races on. What will they make of our concepts of Freedom?
For me, it would be a good thing to have less truckers in the world. Less refineries, less travel, less consumption and an almost totally local life. Freedom to do all the things we now take for granted curtailed by the wish to care for our (potentially at least) countless generations of descendants.
For me, the polluting, gas guzzling trucks, that oil on the wheels of rampant, unregulated capitalism and global trade, is what is in reality represented by the truckers and others who just want to get back to our devastating normal. Perhaps it is no surprise to see the demonstrations prominent in nations with slightly left leaning administrations.
Indeed, with cases and hospital admissions falling in Canada as elsewhere, the northern hemispheric days lengthening and the more transmissible Omicron, the trick for Canadas politicians will be to follow others and ease off the mandates, including travel restrictions which were on the cards before the truckers rolled into town, without appearing to be giving way to bullies.
The cynic might well think the timing of the protests, just before easing of mandates was set to take place, might well have been planned, and if not planned then welcomed, possibly to be signalled as a victory by the libertarian right, in my opinion a force for evil.
Would Freedom have prevailed!! I think not.