Canada's Freedom Convoy Embodies Fatigue with Pandemic Authoritarianism

COVID-19 policies eroded liberty and many people want it back.


Canada appears to be governed as you would expect of Wisconsin if California's snotty political class were exiled to Madison. This puts generally nice, compliant people under the rule of an especially self-regarding and contemptuous gang. But some Canadians have been driven to revolt against that ruling class's pandemic policies in the form of the trucker-led Freedom Convoy. So powerful are the shock waves of this unprecedented uprising that they crossed the border and flipped the positions Americans of the left and right take on the legitimacy of political protest and suppression of the same. More importantly, the movement cautions the political class everywhere against pushing people too far.

As the Freedom Convoy arrived to fill the streets of Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau focused, as politicians often do, on those few protesters who inevitably engage in bad behavior.

"We won't give in to those who fly racist flags. We won't cave to those who engage in vandalism….There is no place in our country for threats, violence or hatred," Trudeau huffed.

Others tried to wave away the sentiments of convoy participants.

"To the extent that the convoy is anti-vax and anti-science, it is on the margins of Canadian society," Professor Andrew McDougall, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, told The New York Times. "It is not the beginning of a movement but the most extreme manifestation we have seen of frustration about pandemic restrictions."

But "to the extent" is doing a lot of heavy lifting here. People who actually talked to protesters found a range of opinions, not especially hateful, and all related to fatigue with intrusive pandemic policies.

"I have spoken to close to 100 protesters, truckers and other folks, and not one of them sounded like an insurrectionist, white supremacist, racist or misogynist," Ottawa-based Rupa Subramanya wrote February 10 for Bari Weiss's Common Sense. "Ostensibly, the truckers are against a new rule mandating that, when they re-enter Canada from the United States, they have to be vaccinated. But that's not really it.…so it's about something else. Or many things: a sense that things will never go back to normal, a sense that they are being ganged up on by the government, the media, Big Tech, Big Pharma."

That "sense that they are being ganged up on" has a credible basis. While Canada's pandemic response varies at the provincial level just as most of the American response is determined by states, Canada has generally been more restrictive than its neighbor. You'll hear that those policies are relatively popular, and polls say they are—except among those who hate them.

"Canada's citizens feel that they have little control over their lives, a sentiment that has been compounded by pandemic-related restrictions on individual freedoms," The Economist's new Democracy Index 2021 reports. According to data collected in October 2020, "a mere 10.4% of Canadians felt that they had 'a great deal' of freedom of choice and control."

Canada scores more highly on the index than the U.S. but is falling more sharply (globally, democracy and liberty are in decline). That is bound to spark reaction among those who favor free choice. This may help explain why generally peaceful Canada birthed the rebellious Freedom Convoy. 

The more protest-prone United States likely avoided this scenario by not just decentralizing but often ignoring rulemaking. The split may best be captured by the media's constant contrast between locked-down New York and wide-open Florida. Even in restrictive states, many local officials refused to enforce curfews, mask orders, and business closures. Within or in defiance of the law, local policies in-line with local sentiment mean fewer pissed-off people. If the U.S. had widely imposed national mandates, politicians in Washington, D.C., would probably now be wishing the pushback had stopped at traffic jams and honking.

That's not to say the Freedom Convoy hasn't had an impact south of the border. It effectively flipped the positions prominent Americans take on political demonstrations. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who denounced Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality that sometimes degenerated into violence as "organized terror attacks," has embraced the Freedom Convoy. In contrast, former Obama administration official and current Harvard professor and CNN commentator Juliette Kayyem, who supported the Black Lives Matter protests, channeled her inner Tom Cotton when protesters barricaded Detroit's Ambassador Bridge, which carries over a quarter of commerce between Canada and the U.S. "Slash the tires, empty gas tanks, arrest the drivers, and move the trucks," she snarled in a tweet that she later walked back.

That's a bit unfair, since Canada already has its own Tom Cotton in the form of David Pratt, minister of defense under former Prime Minister Paul Martin. "When there is no one else to turn to, the military are there as a disciplined, well-trained and professional body to take orders under strict rules of engagement and get a job done," he wrote last week in the pages of The Globe and Mail. "The Ottawa occupation should be treated as a national emergency."

That longing for troops in the streets reeks of panic for good reason. While Canadian authorities have cleared the blockade on Ambassador Bridge, efforts to chase protesters and their street-jamming trucks from Ottawa have been less successful, and the convoy wins wide sympathy among people on whom the government relies.

"The tow trucks operators on contract to the City of Ottawa are taking a hard pass on requests to haul vehicles out of protest areas, according to the city's top public servant," CBC reported last week.

Meanwhile, more protesters are flooding into Ottawa. Not coincidentally, officials in Alberta, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan blinked, announcing an end to most restrictions.

"The population is fed up. I'm fed up. We're all fed up," Quebec Premier François Legault acknowledged.

And now Freedom Convoy-inspired protests have spread to France, New Zealand, and the Netherlands. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security even latched on to the protest as a justification for its ongoing fretting about domestic dissent.

"Two years after the world first heard about covid-19, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a huge extension of state power over people's lives and the erosion of individual freedoms," the Democracy Index 2021 observes about conditions around the world. That loss of liberty inspired waves of popular but disconnected protests in country after country among people seeking the return of liberal norms and respect for their personal choices. Now, improbably, those protests may be coming together under a maple leaf and a #HonkHonk hashtag.