How Canadian Activists Fought Back Against a Far-Right Occupation
After several years of far-right insurgencies in the United States, the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, and Trump’s return to public life, few expected Canada to be the location of the next great explosion of right-wing energy. Over the past several weeks, people around the world have watched as a series of protests and occupations — self-titled the “freedom convoy” — brought out long-haul truck drivers and others to ostensibly challenge the vaccine and COVID-19 mandates coming from the Canadian government. Despite being vaccinated at a rate exceeding 90 percent, some cross-border truck drivers were incensed at the vaccine requirements that Justin Trudeau’s administration has issued. This became a catch-all moment for anti-establishment right-wing activists to band together against Canada’s liberal political consensus.
While the protests in Canada saw thousands of participants and were able to block border entrances to the country, they were still largely unpopular with Canadians. The protests were planned by figures well known on the Canadian far-right, and have led to frightening incidents, like a giant spike in reported hate crimes and swastikas and confederate flags appearing with some prominence. As these trucks descended on Ottawa, and eventually other areas around Canada, counter-demonstrators also came together, outraged that a full-scale occupation of their communities was taking place and grinding daily life to a halt.
While the Canadian government declared a state of emergency and many of these protests have been quelled for the moment, the movement they started is spreading around the world. Right-wing activists first took up the mantle in places as far as France and New Zealand. It was only a matter of time, before a similar effort began in the United States.
Protesting COVID safety measures and other policies that they disagree with, dozens left Adelanto, California last week as part of a new convoy crossing the country to Washington. They hope to build up steam along the way, and the National Guard is working to fortify the capitol in preparation for the arrival of the convoy.
Activists who want to protect their communities from these far-right convoys are looking for lessons from those in Canada who had a recent crash course in how to push back.
As the trucks headed into downtown Ottawa at the end of January, local organizer Dan Sawyer saw that these protesters were laying siege to people’s actual neighborhoods. Thousands had joined the anti-vaccine protesters and the diesel fumes were overwhelming people’s homes, making it nearly unlivable, while at the same time the occupiers were doing things like jamming the 911 emergency lines.
“The combination of the vehicles and the fact that they were so dug in at their encampment downtown made it seem really overwhelming,” Sawyer said, noting that the ability of the far-right demonstrators’ interference was heightened by the trucks clogging up their roads. The occupiers were themselves well organized, creating a pathway to funnel in fuel and resources on a 24-hour timeline, essentially using a type of mutual aid to keep their protests going.
Left-wing organizers looking to defend their cities from a right-wing incursion were unprepared for a coordinated gathering of this size. But they soon launched mutual aid efforts of their own, helping people in the city who were unable to get normal resources. This included building on networks that had already existed and were exercised during the pandemic.
Sawyer’s group, the Punch Up Collective, began supporting these efforts, as well as the planning for a large demonstration against the occupation. There was a small rally on Feb. 5, but this was just a lead up to the much larger march that happened on Feb.12, led by a series of community groups and public sector unions that coalesced into the new group Community Solidarity Ottawa.
“There was a really huge interest in doing something public, showing public opposition,” said Sam Hersh, an organizer with the progressive group Horizon Ottawa, which joined the loose Community Solidarity Ottawa coalition. “There was such a palpable air of anger and frustration in the city. There were people engaging in things like direct action that never would have happened.”
Many in town were scared to leave their home, particularly given the reports of violence against marginalized people. “Strategically, the most important thing was to engage as many people as possible, so we chose a march route that would avoid the downtown occupation,” said James Hutt, an organizer with the Canadian Association of University Teachers who helped organize the mass march on Feb. 12.
They trained 50 marshals and got people ready for the mass demonstration, which drew a crowd of 4,000 participants, united by many of the same workers who were being impacted by the aggressive occupation. Unions were a key constituency, particularly given their resources. Instead of keeping the messaging just on vaccine mandates they wanted to shift the conversation to real solutions for working-class Canadians, such as paid sick leave, a living minimum wage and career protection for truckers.
The momentum from the large demonstration helped the groups to mobilize a blockade of their own the next day. Participants organized autonomously to prevent more right-wing supporters from entering the city and fortifying the occupation.
“We had planned our blockade as a small affinity group comfortable with taking more direct action and the risks that comes with it,” Hutt said. “But to our surprise, residents were so fed up with the occupation and had been primed by the march, that affluent liberals with no organizing experience decided to do the same. We then decided to merge blockades with the one along the busier and more central road into town, setting up an additional blockade on the rear-end of the convoy as well, effectively immobilizing the vehicles.”
Coordinating across three separate neighborhoods, activists created barriers for supporters to actually enter the occupation area, artificially initiating a traffic jam that lasted hours. A caravan of right-wing convoy supporters calling themselves the “Blue Collar Convoy” was coming to bring resources to the central trucker convoy, so organizers needed to break that chain. They held the trucks back and only allowed the right-wing interlocutors to go if they gave up their signage, including any “hateful insignia” such as confederate flags, and fuel.
“The crowd wanted concessions from them,” Hersh said, noting that they wouldn’t allow the truckers to leave otherwise. Despite the convoy sending people in to provoke fights, local antiracist activists had a team of de-escalators to help avoid violence. “It got to the point that there were a thousand people blocking this convoy,” Hersh added. This was one of the most effective strategies and was an intervention that would have grown had the police not started arresting the convoy attendees.
Organizers set up “Red, Yellow, and Green” areas to designate which level of risk was likely to exist in each space, so protesters could make an informed decision on how they wanted to participate. “At the blockade, when we heard that fascists threatened to come attack us, we held assemblies to inform people of the risk and to check with those they came with about their comfort levels,” Hutt explained.
While many in the city wanted police to simply remove the convoy, organizers with a more abolitionist perspective had to offer up counter-narratives, pointing to the alleged complicity the police showed with the right-wing demonstrators. Many police were seen taking photos with protesters and described them as peaceful and friendly.
This ended up being one of the clearest strategic lessons: You will have to protect your own community. Many Ottawans expected that the police would be the ones to keep them safe from the encroaching far-right, but when they didn’t, community activists had to come together to fill the void.
After”the first 10 days it became really clear … the cops weren’t coming to save us,” Sawyer said. “The cops put on the best display for why they need to be defunded that we’ve ever seen.”
Expanding to the rest of Canada
As the freedom convoy movement started to expand out of Ottawa, it hit smaller cities like Halifax, Nova Scotia. When convoy enthusiasts first rallied in Halifax on Feb. 5, they were met by counter-protesters immediately. Within a few days, a bigger right-wing rally was planned for Feb. 12, and local activists wanted to have a more coordinated response, rather than “wing it.” They began reaching out beyond their networks to local political organizations and pulled together promotional materials for a quickly organized rally.
“I tried really hard to de-emphasize issues of vaccination/COVID restrictions that were being used, in my mind, as cynical ‘wedge’ issues, and to emphasize opposing the convoy as a political vehicle of the far-right,” said Brad Fougere, a Halifax resident who typically organizes with the radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World. He and his fellow organizers faced debates from many corners about whether it would be better to simply ignore the far-right convoy supporters and deprive them of publicity. This ultimately had a negative effect on turnout.
“It really highlighted for me how unprepared we were locally,” Fougere said, adding that the hundred people they amassed still managed to show the convoy there was opposition, even if it wasn’t sizable enough to outnumber them. This is one of the key lessons they are taking away from the experience — and one they are offering to organizers in other cities now having to deal with the threat of a convoy occupation.
“Learn from what we did wrong: Start making plans now. Don’t wait and react,” Fougere said. “Push ‘antifascist’ organizations to do the work — wearing the label isn’t enough. Have up-to-the-minute, easily available updates during any events in case people might be walking into a dangerous or heated situation. If possible, make plans to ensure that far-right propagandists are kept from getting a platform.”
In Winnipeg, the trucker protests showed up later, and a response was started by the “pop up” group Defend Winnipeg, which organized mutual aid and counter-demonstrations. When the convoy came in they had a similar effect on the city, despite being fewer in numbers. They used things like semi-trucks and tractors to block roads and make them appear larger than they were numerically. The counter-demonstration on Feb. 12 — the same day as those in Ottawa — brought together hundreds in a show of opposition, though they chose to keep a little distance from the truck occupation rather than directly confront them.
“There were chants, and there were a couple of speeches, but there was also a lot of crowd autonomy,” said James Walt, a local police abolitionist organizer who was at the demonstration. “It was a really important event, so people could show up in a space that was close but not necessarily clashing with it.”
Like in Ottawa, protesters found that if they had been prepared in advance, they would have been in a better position. “These things really have to be anticipated and organized ahead of time,” Walt said, pointing out that you need labor, religious groups, feminist groups, LGBTQ organizations and others to come together in a common front against the far-right. “Just because they are gone now, we can’t just step back and assume that this kind of thing won’t happen again.”
They also offered an abolitionist perspective — since many people simply wanted more police to intervene in the protests. This was despite the fact that the police had been far more hands-off with the far-right protesters compared to the left-wing and indigenous counter-demonstrators (two of whom were arrested for what protesters allege was briefly standing in front of a truck).
Other cities around Canada have followed suit. In Kingston, the convoy was reportedly “thwarted” by protesters and healthcare workers who, after converging on city hall, blockaded the road, arm in arm, to stop the convoy from getting in. In Vancouver, British Columbia, the convoy was met immediately by counter-demonstrators who wanted to let them know that they were “not welcome” and that Vancouver residents “support our healthcare workers.” This included road blockades trying to stop the incoming convoy and demonstrations at the regional hospital.
As these convoys build up steam in the U.S, the experiences of those over the border in Canada show that community preparedness is important before a crisis explodes — both in responding to the far-right and to a wide range of other issues. In Ottawa, the coalition Ottawa Community Solidarity that formed is now continuing their work, including organizing a march on March 5 to demand continued COVID-19 protection policies, protections for workers, accountability for government officials who they say allowed the occupation, and opposition to white supremacy and all forms of oppression.
“[This has] showed people the real importance of direct action,” Hersh said. “Not only reacting when this sort of thing is happening but also the longer-term thing of building an antifascist movement.”
The lessons from the blockades that prevented the far-right from entering Canadian cities are particularly useful because, once they arrive, it’s difficult to get them to leave. Strategically, organizers also saw that planning routes around the specific layout of the city and figuring out which days of the occupation had the lowest numbers gave them an edge when it came to effectively blocking efforts to resupply the occupiers. Such efforts can choke off far-right caravans and undermine their longevity.
“Map out which roads they’ll take and where the choke points are. It only takes a couple dozen people and a few bicycles to render their vehicles useless. And if they’re deterred for [six] hours or a day, it will undermine their entire [operation],” Hutt said, who also notes that having safety plans are critical given the far-right’s penchant for violence.
By building up more long-term infrastructure, both for mutual aid and for defense, communities have the resources to respond quickly and with precision when something so seemingly sudden occurs. “If they say they are coming to your city and don’t plan on leaving, take them at their word,” Sawyer warned. As these convoys potentially grow, it will be on the existing groups in each city to figure out how to keep residents safe, and to show displeasure for how anti-vaccine groups have tried to hijack working-class angst.