Where the Canadian trucker movement stands as bridges reopen and global copycats pop up

Business Insider US
An Ottawa protester and his truck covered in support messages.
  • The Canadian truckers protest-turned-occupation is facing new interventions from law enforcement.
  • The Ambassador Bridge connecting Michigan and Ontario has reopened with a heavy police presence.
  • Speculation about an American trucker convoy has emerged in conservative media over the past week.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

In just over two weeks, the Freedom Convoy of Canadian truckers protesting vaccine mandates has gone global and begun to encounter its first major interventions from law enforcement.

It started as a protest involving convoys of big rig trucks, but by the time other right-wing groups joined, it expanded to block several US ports of entry. Late last week, Ontario's government escalated its assessment of the Freedom Convoy to "an illegal occupation."

Over the weekend, police officers from multiple Canadian agencies cleared a six-day blockade of the Ambassador Bridge connecting Ontario and Michigan. By the time traffic resumed early Monday morning, the stoppage caused by the truckers had racked up a $3 billion pricetag, according to the Windsor Mayor Andrew Dilkens. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Monday that he will invoke the country's rarely used emergency powers to crack down on the protests.  

While some 90% of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, according to Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra, those who refused the shots have been able to boost their message with the help of far-right social media influencers and the broader conservative media ecosystem in the US and Canada.

"We are now aware of a significant element from the United States who have been involved in the funding, the organizing, and the demonstrating," Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said at a press conference on February 2. 

With close proximity and direct economic implications, an American version could be on the way. 

In conservative media circles, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and others have joined former President Donald Trump in courting one.

"Truckers in this country are watching all of this, and you wonder: What do they think about it?," Carlson said in his monologue last Tuesday. "What would happen if American truck drivers decided they'd had enough of people like Joe Scarborough and went on strike? What would happen then?"

And a Department of Homeland Security memo last week warned of potential disruptions to the Super Bowl on Sunday in Los Angeles — which ultimately didn't come to pass — in addition to American copycat versions that could focus on major events, such as President Joe Biden's State of the Union Address on March 1.

While the economic and logistical ramifications of the Canadian trucker protest may be beginning to wane as Canadian law enforcement ramps up its response, the geopolitical effects of their movement are still developing.

International expansion among the far-right

While truck blockades have been a form of protest in other countries before — notably in India last year when farmers came out in droves against Prime Minister Narendra Modi — there is a distinct mix of anti-vaccine sentiment and other right-wing grievances at the heart of the Freedom Convoy's global appeal. 

A person wears a surgical mask that has been cut out, as truckers and supporters continue to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Canada on February 6, 2022.

Similar trucker-led protests have already popped up in France, Australia, and New Zealand over the first and second weeks of February, all targeted against government vaccine mandates. More than 7,000 police officers on Saturday launched tear gas into a blockade of trucks and other vehicles blocking the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

In New Zealand and Australia, where governments have enacted far stricter Covid-19 restrictions than those seen in the US or Canada, blockades invoking the Freedom Convoy have copied many of the same blockade tactics. Some 10,000 Australians have been occupying Exhibition Park in the capital city of Canberra since last week, according to Sky News.

Beyond the specific vaccine requirements ostensibly motivating the protest from the beginning, the Ottawa occupation has featured more fringe elements. QAnon has found a new home in the global trucker movement, with some protesters going beyond protesting vaccine mandates to falsely claiming that the entire pandemic has been a hoax and masks are part of human trafficking, and pushing the debunked claim that Covid-19 vaccines are linked with 5G.

US right-wing media leans into the story

Fox News segments on the Canadian protests have risen dramatically from January into February, according to an analysis from left-leaning Media Matters for America, dominating coverage well ahead of the border crossings being blocked.

While cable news competitors CNN and MSNBC have also covered the Canadian trucking protests — including with reporters on the ground in Ontario — Fox's coverage has been both more voluminous and celebratory. 

The network's primetime opinion hosts have been championing the truckers and inviting Freedom Convoy organizers on air. Former President Donald Trump has also been encouraging the movement, praising the truckers in recent rallies and media appearances in addition to calling the US a "tinderbox" for a similar phenomenon.

"I see they have Trump signs all over the place and I'm proud that they do," Trump said during a "Fox & Friends" interview on Saturday morning. "But that's what happens, you can push people so far and our country is a tinderbox too, don't kid yourself. And there are plenty of [people from] our country up there right now."

Between Trump, Fox News and far-right social media influencers, speculation about a full-fledged American trucker convoy has been bubbling up in the conservative media ecosystem over the past week.

On Thursday, an American trucker sparked an initial wave of chatter by saying there's "something in the works" for a similar blockade by US long haulers.

"I know that firsthand knowledge," trucker Brian Ilsley told NewsNation, a conservative cable channel owned by Nexstar Media Group. "But we're not really trying to go too far with it. We're trying to keep it in house as much as we can. Because we want to make sure that this stays a grassroots movement."

The Tea Party midterms playbook

Two protesters with signs walk in front of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office as demonstrators continue to protest the vaccine mandates on February 9, 2022 in Ottawa, Canada.

With the 2022 midterms offering potential GOP majorities in both the House and Senate, there's also a thematic fit that has less to do with the specific demands of the Canadian truckers — or President Joe Biden's weakened federal vaccine mandates — than a simple messaging playbook that's worked in this situation before: in the 2010 midterms with the rise of the Tea Party movement. 

The Canadian protesters' tactics — such as occupying a nation's capital— are very different from those employed by Tea Party protesters, who held more conventional protests in public spaces where demonstrations were permitted, but both movements are framed as grassroots uprisings in response to government overreach.

The Canadian truckers story has many parallels to the Obamacare backlash, which became the central theme for the GOP in the 2010 midterms. Republicans repeatedly used racist rhetoric about Barack Obama to fuel what they claimed was a fiscally conservative movement that helped the GOP retake majorities in the House and Senate in 2010.

President Biden and the Democrats have faltered significantly from previously strong polling numbers on the government's pandemic response, correlated with a slide among independent voters that has brought Biden's approval rating to historic lows.

And Tea Party protests ahead of the 2010 midterms contained racist, nationalistic, and conspiracy theory-oriented messages in a very similar fashion to those that have begun appearing in Ottawa — often in the form of swastikas, Confederate flags, and other antisemitic or separatist symbols. 

The Canadian truckers and other anti-vaccine protesters have also adopted the "we're not gonna take it" rallying cry from the 1984 Twisted Sister song from the Tea Party activists. (Singer Dee Snider has asked anti-mask and anti-COVID restriction protesters not to use the band's song.) 

The ability of these movements to become catch-alls for broader white nationalist grievances is especially pronounced in how quickly the Canadian truckers phenomenon has earned international support from right-wing groups, such as the Proud Boys and Action4Canada.

Both the trucker and Tea Party movements also reflect increasing educational polarization and a strong demand among the base for culture war issues, and the concise messaging and sense of community can make for a good fit as a midterm elections theme for Republicans.

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