Canadian Anti-Hate Network
Credit: Peter Smith
“Ottawa is planning ahead for Freedom Convoy 2.0.” “Weekend rally rolling into Ottawa shares roots with Freedom Convoy.” “Freedom Convoy protesters return.” “Freedom convoy” protesters are heading back to Ottawa.”
These are a typical smattering of headlines that equate numerous events throughout Canada with the protests that overtook the streets of Ottawa and blocked border crossings in 2022. Many of the subsequent events since February are cast, by organizers and detractors alike, as an extension or continuation of the “Freedom Convoy.”
This association might not be wrong, but is nonetheless inaccurate. The movement that inspired, supported, organized, funded and participated in the Ottawa and border blockades existed long before any rubber met the road on the way to the capital and continues to this day – but not as a cohesive group as it is often made to seem.
What we are facing now is not one group but multiple groups. Not one goal or interest, but a diversity of them. The convoy, and its remnants, are a faction of a much larger force of interconnectedness.
In short, it is all about the networks.
Same Tactics, Different Day
Most Canadians are intimately familiar with the various pandemic street protests that spread throughout cities and towns across the country. Many are acquainted with the protests through involved friends, family, coworkers and social media connections.
Significantly fewer know the direct connection between previous, less successful, protests using the same tactics, rhetoric and even organizers as before. Several convoys have made various attempts to descend on the capital – the closest to the events in January was the United We Roll convoy in 2019. While the issue at hand for the latest convoy was clearly vaccine mandates and ongoing objections to health measures, notable participants have histories of involvement in far-right populist movements.
Canada Unity founder and one of the organizers of the action in Ottawa, James Bauder, has participated in a number of convoys. Besides driving down with United We Roll, in October 2021 Bauder organized less than 100 protesters into a very similar action attempting to blockade the residences of the prime minister and governor general.
The usefulness of large semi-trucks as both a means of transport and in taking up space is apparent. As a symbol, trucks are inextricably tied to working, blue-collar people. Ones who spend weeks or months at a time away from their friends, families and homes transporting goods. Truck drivers are a vital piece of many nations’ economic infrastructure and responsible for everything from luxury goods to the essentials of life reaching their destinations.
Health measures in the United States and Canada placed major impediments on unvaccinated drivers crossing their respective borders, making it difficult or impossible for them to continue working. Policies in both countries impacted Canada’s truckers, but in the north, the plight of the workers facing the restrictions took off in a small but broad demographic.
What compelled a large and mostly unfamiliar group of individuals to band together for a single action, even one that puts them at odds with most of the country?
Think of networks in the same way as a group of supporters for a franchise or team. There is nothing inherently negative about this arrangement. It is the manner in which politics and collectivity organize naturally.
The same elements uniting sports fans are at play. Games are scheduled and fans know the colours to wear, the words to songs, the chants and slogans. There is history, important figures and leaders, even mythology in some cases.
The networks that make up political movements are not so different.
Group membership and affiliations are significant, but no longer a particularly useful determination of the size or forces steering the “convoy” movement.
Flags, groups, and slogans are easy to understand. Simple allegiances make for simple explanations, especially attractive to media. But these banners, real or symbolic, are something to organize under, parade around for attention, and then discard when no longer useful.
Much of this has been facilitated by networks of another kind. Digital communication and social media allow for the quick and widespread dissemination of images, videos, books, and data. Like any type of marketing, the rhetoric and ideas of any ideology can be repackaged, reframed and now disseminated faster than ever.
Pat King, Tamara Lich, James Bauder and many others are icons and figureheads pushed to the fore due to their various levels of involvement in coordinating the money and messaging of the Ottawa convoy. These are the leaders; they admit and often embraced the role of organizers. Chiefly though, they are influencers. presiding over an intertwining web of social groups.
The ultimate goals of the protests may never have been reached, but the networks forged before and during the event continue to live on. The convoy, both as a movement and a tactic, carries with it the populist ideal of a true citizenry versus a corrupt ruling elite, that politics should be solely reflective of the people’s volonté générale (general will).
A “convoy,” as we think of it now, may never come again, but the people, politics, and ideas that drove them to the streets continue.