By Nia Williams and Anna Mehler Paperny
COUTTS, Alberta/TORONTO (Reuters) – In late January five friends, just a few years out of high school, piled into a rented camper van and drove 37 hours in the Canadian winter from southern Alberta to Ottawa to join anti-government protests led by a convoy of truckers.
“We were worried about vaccine mandates and our freedom, and it all just going to hell,” said Ursula Allred, 22, from her small, rural hometown of Magrath.
Another member of the group, Justin Martin, excitedly phoned home to say the protest — which occupied Ottawa with tractor-trailers, hot tubs, bouncy castles and scattered symbols of hate for weeks until it was broken up by police — was “the best experience, ever,” said his mother, Lynette Atwood.
“They wanted their freedom back. These were young men who wanted to date, hadn’t been able to date, wanted to have a life,” she said, referring to the impact of lockdowns and restrictions imposed by provincial and federal governments to curb infections during the coronavirus pandemic.
“They just felt that no one was listening.”
Their excitement came to an abrupt end a few weeks later, when all five were arrested at another protest they had joined near the U.S.-Canada border in Coutts, Alberta.
But the reverberations from the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protests against mandatory vaccination policies had only just begun. The protests, featuring hundreds of trucks and thousands like Allred and Martin, had already paralyzed downtown Ottawa and international border crossings for more than three weeks.
Copycat protests featuring trailers and trucks followed in the United States and France. At home, the protests amplified anti-government sentiment among Canadians angry at COVID-19 restrictions and, less visibly, offered a hook for anti-establishment and far-right voices to draw a bigger audience.
Extremists used the convoy “as a pulpit to get their ideas across and, in that sense, it was a success,” said David Hofmann, associate professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick, who has been researching extremism in Canada for about a decade.
They did that directly, with talk of deposing and prosecuting the heads of Canadian government during the protests, as the convoy’s organizers declared was their goal in a “Memorandum of Understanding” leading up to the blockade.
But they were also able to do that less directly, by talking up the merits of the convoy on social media and podcasts that also promoted more extremist rhetoric and conspiracy theories.
They were helped by a relatively high level of sympathy for the protesters’ frustrations — which stood at 46% in one Ipsos poll in February — even if most Canadians did not agree with the convoy’s main message of opposing public health measures.
Around 30% of Canadians agreed with the convoy’s message in February at the height of the protests, a number that has since shrunk to 25% in July, according to polling research firm Ekos Research Associates.
“This has become a lightning rod, a magnet to kind of focus all of this insecurity, disaffection, anger which predated COVID but which has been reinforced and strengthened by COVID,” Ekos President Frank Graves said of the convoy movement.
Its message has become: “You’re not alone. You’re not the only one who thinks vaccines are unnecessary… Come on out,” Graves said.
Though most COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings, wearing masks and vaccine requirements have been lifted in recent months, smaller anti-government protests have continued, with some held as recently as the national holiday on July 1.
Among the most prominent to tap into sympathy for the convoy is Pierre Poilievre, the frontrunner in a leadership race for Canada’s opposition Conservative party, who dueled with rivals in a debate over who was first to support the movement.
Fashioning himself as an anti-establishment force determined to free Canadians from a “gatekeeping elite,” Poilievre posted footage of himself supporting the convoy rolling into Ottawa.
He promises, among other things, to take on the “state media” by defunding the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the public broadcaster, and to sack the Bank of Canada governor.
He has also pledged to ban federal ministers from attending the World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland — a popular whipping boy for convoy participants and far-right supporters more globally.
Anger against the forum has been buoyed by viral videos falsely claiming the WEF used the pandemic to put in motion a plan by “global elites” to subjugate society in a “Great Reset” – a twist on the WEF’s stated plan to identify solutions to major challenges facing the world.
“The gatekeeping elites will try to destroy anyone who threatens their power,” Poilievre said on Twitter in response to criticism that he is pushing authoritarian populism.
“I want to become PM to give you back control of your life & make Canada the freest country on earth,” he wrote in another post.
Poilievre’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview or to questions on his support for the convoy.
Ekos’s Graves says his polling shows that Canadians who support the convoy have “an authoritarian, populist outlook” and could be “the strongest force in the Canadian political landscape” because they are energized and motivated to vote.
Not surprisingly, Canadian conservative politicians are trying to appeal to convoy supporters and tap into the rising populist sentiment, says Jared Wesley, political science professor at the University of Alberta.
“There’s a group out there that conservative politicians want to bring back into the fold,” Wesley said.
“That results in constant escalation of anti-establishment demands, that has the leading candidate for the Conservative Party promising to fire the Governor of the Bank of Canada.”
SIMMERING RESENTMENT IN ALBERTA
The boldness of the convoy movement — with days of honking in downtown Ottawa, border crossing blockades and the open display of a swastika and confederate flags — took many outside Canada by surprise.
But those involved and people close to the protesters said it was a natural progression of frustration and disenfranchisement, especially in parts of western Canada, where resentment towards Ottawa has simmered for decades.
Researchers point to a history of anti-government sentiment in largely conservative, oil-rich Alberta. The province prides itself on a frontier spirit and has long felt alienated from eastern Canada, accusing the federal government of relying on its fossil fuels without offering respect or autonomy in return.
“Albertans see themselves as the people who pay for everyone else in Canada,” said Peter Smith, a researcher for the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a non-profit organization that examines hate crimes and hate groups.
In Magrath and the nearby town of Raymond, where Allred’s four camper van companions lived, anti-government sentiment and worries about federal over-reach remain strong.
Shortly after Allred and her friends were arrested in Coutts in February, a large black flag reading “Fuck Trudeau,” with a red maple leaf replacing the first word’s “u,” flew in a backyard along the main road into Raymond.
Another house bore “Hold the Line for Freedom” painted in red across a downstairs window, while many vehicles sported Canadian flags and symbols of support for the blockades.
There was widespread sympathy for Allred and her companions, who were each charged, along with five others, with possession of a weapon for dangerous purpose and mischief. They have since been released on bail.
In the most serious charges related to the convoy movement, four men from southern Alberta involved in a border blockade were arrested in February and accused of conspiring to kill police officers. They remain in custody awaiting trial.
Two weeks after the Coutts blockade disbanded, another protest camp remained on the side of the highway farther north in Milk River: a small encampment of trailers and a food truck in a large open field, monitored by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police cruiser parked a discreet distance away.
“That is waking the country up,” said Elliot McDavid, one of the camp organizers, adding the protests had achieved their goal of forcing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to invoke the Emergencies Act to disband them.
In the Ipsos survey in February, 58% of Albertans found convoy participants’ frustration legitimate and worthy of sympathy, compared to the 46% national figure.
‘A DANGEROUS TIME’
With broad support for policies like universal healthcare and gun control, Canada has long been viewed as more moderate than its southern neighbor. But analysts say right-wing extremism has long had a home north of the U.S. border — and the “Freedom Convoy” movement and related anti-government protests against COVID-19 restrictions have given it new momentum.
A 2015 study identified about 100 far-right extremist groups. The number has tripled since then, Hofmann said.
Larger groups have splintered but the overall number of participants has also grown, Hofmann said.
He and his colleagues have identified about 1,200 visibly active participants who have either had contact with police or the media or have been active on social media, he said.
This is up from previous counts but changing methodologies make comparisons difficult, he said.
One group that has drawn the attention of analysts in recent months is the Hammerskins, an offshoot of a U.S. neo-Nazi organization. It had been quiet in Canada for nearly a decade but now has a presence in cities like Hamilton, Oshawa, and the Greater Toronto Area, with members also recruiting in British Columbia, said the Canadian Anti-Hate Network’s Smith.
Attempts to contact the Hammerskins for comment were unsuccessful.
“The convoy was huge and significant and will be a propaganda tool for a long time,” Smith said.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino in February alluded to the link between the convoy protests and extremism, saying: “We need to be clear-eyed about the seriousness of these incidents.”
He said that some of those charged had “strong ties to a far-right extreme organization,” which a source in his office said at the time referred to the Diagolon right-wing network.
Patches featuring Diagolon’s flag were affixed to body armor police seized in connection with arrests at the Coutts border blockade in February.
Jeremy MacKenzie, the de facto founder of Diagolon — a fictional breakaway state that has become a symbol of anti-government sentiment among right-wing Canadians — has given prominent space to the convoy on his podcast and Telegram channel.
In an interview with Reuters, MacKenzie said Diagolon started as a joke and is a loose social network of “patriotic people”, rather than a political movement. He says he is being unfairly targeted by Canadian authorities.
The convoy was a success for Diagolon “because it is part of their goal is to destabilize and to sow doubt, and to delegitimize the government and the state,” a federal government source familiar with the matter said in February.
Another group, Veterans 4 Freedom, emerged from the protests and aims to protect anti-establishment protesters and opposes COVID-19 restrictions, said Andrew MacGillivray, a military veteran who is part of the group.
“The rights and freedoms of Canadians are eroding and we are going to work to sustain lawful civic action in order to restore those fundamental rights,” MacGillivray said in an interview.
“We just want to make sure that if there’s any sort of protest and counter-protest that our volunteers can help keep the peace.”
The group helped organize a June 30 protest in Ottawa featuring a veteran who walked thousands of kilometers to protest vaccine mandates and who now faces a court martial for criticizing vaccine policies while in uniform.
Other anti-establishment voices have also been galvanized.
Outspoken Calgary pastor Artur Pawlowski, who reckons he racked up about 40 tickets for violating pandemic restrictions, was charged with inciting people to damage or obstruct essential infrastructure during a speech at the Coutts blockade.
Out on bail, he told Reuters he is fighting the charges and that the convoy had “awakened” people to fight for freedom.
“The truth is I have become a symbol of freedom,” he said, later adding he is considering running for office.
“I would clean your swamp. That’s what I do.”
His son Nathaniel Pawlowski said he worries about what will happen if people angry at government restrictions are pushed too far: “If you study history, you know this is a dangerous time.”
(Editing by Deepa Babington)