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Canada’s Peaceful Persona Stained by American-Style Populism – BNN Bloomberg

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Feb 18, 2022

Danielle Bochove and Derek Decloet, Bloomberg News
Trudeau holds a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 11. Photographer: David Kawai/Bloomberg , Bloomberg
(Bloomberg) — Canada, generally comfortable out of the spotlight, was forced into it this month as protests against vaccine mandates shut down cross-border trade, paralyzed the capital and raised questions about the future of populist politics.
By the time a wrong-footed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the never-before-used Emergencies Act — giving police sweeping powers to clear protesters and ordering banks to freeze accounts linked to demonstrations — the ground had shifted, perhaps irrevocably.
“Is it an insurrection under the guise of protest or are we seeing a protest under the guise of insurrection?” asked Christopher Cochrane, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. “One thing we can agree on, neither of those things is good.” 
That ambiguity will likely haunt Canada for some time, as will the ramifications of government measures to end the protest. The extent to which the pandemic has increased extremist views in a country that likes to boast of its moderate political spectrum remains unclear. What’s no longer in doubt is the ability of a radical right-wing group to mobilize, tap into broader anti-establishment sentiments to gain critical mass, and attract significant financial and ideological support from other countries, especially the U.S.
It could be a cautionary tale for other unassuming democracies: if it can happen in Canada, it can happen anywhere. 
Trudeau called a snap election last September in hopes of using his handling of Covid-19 to increase his party’s standing, taking a tough line on anti-vaxxers along the way. Canadians saw through the maneuver and he failed to secure the hoped-for majority. Tensions continued to grow. After a vaccine mandate for truckers on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border was announced, a “Freedom Convoy” moved in from opposite ends of the country, coalescing in Ottawa.  
Staid, tidy and law-abiding to a fault, Ottawa wasn’t used to this. Just five years ago, it was mocked by international media when officers shut down a lemonade stand because the little girls running it didn’t have a permit.
Within hours of trucks and protesters arriving, very different images and accounts filled social media: swastikas, a Confederate flag, protesters dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Global news outlets, as well as domestic ones, began ruminating about the demise of Canadian “niceness.”
The reality, of course, is that Canada, like most democratic societies, is a complicated and sometimes divided place. And two years of Covid restrictions have resulted in real economic pain for many. Even as outrage swelled in some quarters over the desecration of beloved monuments, so did the protests.
Thousands took to the streets in major cities. Following the lead of a group of truckers in the western town of Coutts, Alberta, demonstrators shut down commercial traffic at the Ambassador Bridge on the Windsor-Detroit border, the busiest crossing between Canada and the US, halting $13.5 million in trade an hour. The premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, declared a state of emergency.
The vast majority of Canadians, and truckers, are vaccinated. So this was about something larger — anti-establishment sentiment aimed at Trudeau and other well-off Canadians who weathered the pandemic comfortably, often at home, insulated from the worst economic effects as others were laid off and the cost of housing rose.
“What happens to all those people in the last two years that lost their homes, lost their jobs, and now have nowhere to live?” asked Jerome Beal, a self-employed construction worker at the Windsor protest. “They’re making it impossible for the middle-class people to be middle-class.”
But if concerns about inequality, Trudeau, and nanny-state Covid restrictions were the motives for the bulk of protesters, the narrative among the hardliners was far more radical. They threw out claims about the mainstream media being corrupt, vaccine science being bogus, and called for the Trudeau government to be replaced — views familiar in the U.S. but thought to have little traction in Canada.
“When you watch not the fake news, hospitals aren’t overrun: they are at like 45% capacity and all the fake news is saying they are at 120%, 140%,” said Marshall Bock, a 21 year-old farmer at the Coutts, Alberta protest. “They are trying to get the hype to make the people scared so they won’t stand up for what’s right.” Another farmer said the Covid rules signaled the beginning of communism.
Others accused labs of deliberately falsifying Covid tests to ensure “compliance” and said hospitals are offering different treatment to unvaccinated patients. “They murder people,” Richard Drouillard, a Windsor protester said. “We’ve tried to take them out. We could have saved them.”
Once again, Trudeau underestimated what he was up against. He called them a “fringe minority.” It was bigger than that. “Fck Trudeau” banners proliferated. “I hate to say it — they found a weakness in our democracy and are exploiting it,” said Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University who studies security and counter terrorism.
Leveraging populist anger — historical veins of which run deep, particularly in the west — protesters raised more than $10 million in grassroots funding and created a crisis in a staggeringly short time. Donations were roughly split between Canada and the U.S., according to various media reports, mostly through crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe and GiveSendGo. Donors included scores of individuals, businesses and, as CBC News reported, the former leader of Newfoundland’s Progressive Conservative party.
There were examples of civility. Protesters arranged garbage collection and shoveled the sidewalks regularly. But while the tone was as mixed as the messages, it was all damaging to Canada’s reputation and economy.
“We’re a country that loves to talk big about the rules-based international order and the importance of democratic governance and practices,” said Wesley Wark, senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Ottawa. “But when we don’t seem to be able to apply those principles to our own domestic scene, that’s not good for Canada’s reputation.”
On February 13, police managed to reopen the Ambassador Bridge after almost a week, in a mostly peaceful denouement, but other protests continued. In Ottawa, worrying images emerged of children at demonstrations. In Coutts, Alberta, police seized a cache of weapons – news that seemed to deflate the broader protest along with the threat of property seizure — and many headed home. Even among those Canadians who had quietly sympathized with the truckers, patience wore thin.
On Valentine’s Day, the prime minister evoked the Emergencies Act in a kind of deja vu for the Trudeau dynasty. The act replaced the more draconian War Measures Act, which Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre, used to declare martial law more than 50 years ago during a Quebec separatist bombing and kidnapping campaign.
The new emergency measures gave authorities powers to commandeer banks and towing companies alike, choking off protesters’ funding and impounding their trucks. The move raised the ire of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which plans to sue the government. 
“Every time there’s a difficult and challenging and painful situation, the government can say, oh, this is a national emergency,” said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the organization’s executive director. 
So far, the majority of Canadians have seemed more upset by the police standing by than by use of the emergency powers. Now, as the protests are winding down and Ottawa police prepare to clear remaining demonstrators, Covid restrictions will also undoubtedly start to ease. Whether tensions will too is unclear.
After tens of millions of dollars spent on policing, hundreds of millions in trade lost or delayed and new parameters potentially established around the government’s ability to restrict civil liberties, protesters appear emboldened and the country’s divisions are deeper than ever.
Researchers have been warning that the pandemic was priming people for conspiracy theories and extremism. The online echo chamber has amplified high-profile voices outside the country, from Donald Trump voicing his support for the truckers to Elon Musk comparing Trudeau to Hitler in a subsequently deleted tweet. What’s unfolded over the past month may hold lessons for democracies around the world.
 “If this was a group seeking to undermine a liberal democratic, political authority, they obviously didn’t achieve a moonshot here,” Cochrane, the Toronto political scientist, said. “But they’ve certainly made some gains – as everyone will recognize in hindsight.” For these weeks, the world has been watching Canada. It had good reason.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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