- Xiaodan He
Trucker Protest in Ottawa: The Growing Vulnerability of Democracy
Updated: Apr 11, 2022
On January 28th, thousands of protestors gathered near Parliament Hill, Ottawa, protesting in the name of freedom against the state’s constant lockdowns and vaccine requirements amid the pandemic. The protest was triggered by the Canadian government’s new vaccine mandate on all truckers crossing the US-Canada border. The protestors, who now collectively assemble as the “Freedom Convoys,” have gained support from many Canadian citizens tired of the government’s inability to contain the virus without lockdowns and vaccine mandates. While the protest itself is a response to the ongoing pandemic fatigue and vaccine hesitancy, Trudeau’s administration’s reaction of curbing free speech and plan to expand the definitions of hate speech are announcing Canada as a new contributor to the global decline of democracy and a country of growing right-wing politics.
“Individuals are trying to blockade our economy, our democracy, and our fellow citizens’ daily lives,” said the prime minister in an emergency meeting on Monday. Trudeau’s response reflects a main cause of the conflict—the administration believes that strict mandates are part of the solution for securing democracy and maintaining economic recovery while its citizens believe they are part of the problem.
The results of the differing interpretations of democracy are beginning to portray its limits and vulnerabilities, which will only grow after the administration invoked The Emergencies Act in response to the protests. The execution of this act will give the government authority to legally suppress protests and freeze protestors’ bank accounts without a court decree, threatening the nation’s free speech. Trudeau’s Liberal government has also proposed to expand the definitions of illegal hateful language, making it easier to impose legal charges on individuals suspected of hate crimes.
The Emergencies Act and the administration’s new definitions of hateful language lay Canada’s democracy under siege, making it another country experiencing the global phenomenon of declining democracy in the 21st century. According to The Freedom House, 73 of the 195 independent countries assessed have experienced a significant decline in democracy in the past 15 years with only 20% of the global population currently living in a free country—the lowest level since 1995. The emergence and growth of far-right extremism (which has taken a presence in the recent protest in Ottawa) are also responsible for this stark decline. The need for concentrated power to combat the pandemic has only exacerbated the process of declining democracy.
The blurring definition of democracy since the pandemic has contributed to emerging far-right politics. The frequent lockdowns, masking requirements, and vaccine mandates have forced people worldwide into involuntary encroachment, making citizens under democratic nations question their state’s execution of democracy. The disappointment in democracy fueled by the tolls of the pandemic contributed to the presence of right-wing extremism such as Nazi swastikas and calls for overthrowing the Canadian federal government.
The protest also witnessed support from right-wing representatives abroad. Users from around the world have donated millions of dollars in support of the protest and its associative far-right politics utilizing multiple crowdfunding platforms. Donations on GoFundMe, an online fundraising platform, had reached over $10 million, almost half of the donations for the George Floyd incident. Republican politicians like former US President Donald Trump have also condemned Justin Trudeau for being a “far-left lunatic” with his strict Covid mandates. On Monday, Canada’s public safety minister warned U.S. officials of intervening with Canada’s domestic affairs and joined Canadian leaders in rejecting the support of protest from prominent Republicans.
While the protest unveils the global phenomenon of declining democracy and rising right-wing politics, it also presents the pressing challenges for today’s governments—recovering the economy to pre-pandemic levels and increasing the vaccination rate to deter the emergence of new virus variants, which can be interconnected.
The pandemic hurt Canada’s economy and its citizens' livelihoods like any other nation. Canada’s national GDP is witnessing an annual decrease by 5.4% in 2020 with the unemployment rate reaching new heights of 9.5% in 2021 and about 1.89 million unemployed. Schools are navigating towards hybrid learning, businesses are struggling to recover, and public sectors are working hard to maintain their effectiveness. According to The Conference Board of Canada, the new wave of Omicron is still hindering the country’s economic recovery by affecting labor productivity despite the recovery of unemployment rate to pre-pandemic levels.
The many uncertainties and instabilities caused by the virus have prompted various stress levels and concerns within the population. The government’s prolonged strategy of enforcing mandates and lockdowns and endless new virus variants also add to the pandemic fatigue.
“I’m at the point where a regular car horn is setting me off,” Mr. Renaud, a government employee said after walking away. “I’ve never felt so abandoned by the government.”
Vaccine hesitancy persists within Canada’s population despite increased access to them. Currently, only 78.69% of Canada’s total population is fully vaccinated, with less than half of the population (40.51%) having received an additional booster dose. According to a poll conducted for Global News in late 2021, nearly 20 % of Canadians still need to be convinced to get vaccinated and 1 in 10 insist on never getting vaccinated. The ongoing protest in Ottawa against vaccination requirements is only making the 1 in 10 seem underestimated.
The protest in Canada presents the world with a rising international challenge—the ability to protect a nation’s democracy while in need of concentrated power. How Trudeau’s administration tackles the conflict will not only shape the future of Canada but also that of a nation under state emergencies. The results will either be lessons for the world to learn and avoid or a survival guide to observe and pursue.