From Trekkers to Truckers: 2022's Freedom Convoy an indictment of the failure of liberal leadership and "left populism"

The Canadian left cannot afford to ignore populist frustration any longer, even when those frustrations are warped by partisan forces into an incoherent howl. Why are they angry? They can’t really say, beyond conspiracy theory and rhetoric. If the left’s job was to give them the words to attain class consciousness, we failed.

As a preamble and disclaimer for what follows: the editorial policy of The Warp is to recognize the efficacy of vaccines as one of many ways to mitigate the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic. In keeping with evidence-based policy including some social and institutional restrictions, social distancing, and proper masking including the use of N-95 masks. We believe that vaccines are an important part of stopping the spread of an infectious disease, and its variants, which have killed 5.6 million people worldwide.

In 1935, Labour in Canada had a problem. Single, unemployed men were being plucked off the streets and pressed into into carceral ‘Unemployment Relief Camps’ (URC) and put to work 44 hours a week building roads and bridges. They were paid twenty cents a day, well below the average rate of pay anywhere in the country.

Ultimately, 1,500 workers, organized by the Communist Party of Canada, went on strike. After some local labour actions, they peacefully commandeered trains, and made their way towards Ottawa as part of the “On to Ottawa Trek”. Their stated goal was to voice their displeasure to then Prime Minister R.B. Bennet’s conservative government.

While the Trek began as a labour action with a specific grievance, it grew into a broad-based public movement, a revolution in miniature born in Canada’s rural west, sparked over slavery conditions for single, unemployed workers and fueled by broad public dissatisfaction with the Bennett government’s handling of the great depression.

While they were unsuccessful in their campaign goals; ultimately crushed and arrested in the Regina Riot by RCMP, the Ottawa Trek and events in Regina are credited with a decline in public support for Bennett (who later admitted the failures of Capitalism, publicly) and his subsequent defeat by William Lyon McKenzie King’s Liberals in October 1935. The relief camps would be abolished by McKenzie King, though, perhaps that is only because 1939’s war against Germany promised a new frontier where the bodies of workers could toil, fight and fall. It is a defining moment in working class Canadian history.

From Trekkers to Truckers

Fast forward to 2022, war looms again in Europe. A pandemic and subsequent economic crisis dominates the Canadian political landscape. There is widespread dissatisfaction. Populism is on the move, and it feels like the contemporary left, which until now has seemingly included social Liberals, is having trouble keeping up with the pace of events.

Beginning in BC and Alberta, a small army of Canadian truckers (or several armies worth, depending on who you ask) are making their way to Ottawa to demonstrate against what they say are unfair Coronavirus vaccine requirements imposed on truck drivers whose jobs necessitate cross-border travel between Canada and the United States.

While only a small percentage of working truck drivers support the labour action, 28% of Canadians agree with the core premise of the demonstration (just shy of the number required to win a parliamentary majority). That’s actually a large number of people choosing to protest against the government around a tangential supply chain issue, during a time of product shortages. There’s no coincidence that both Conservative party and international sources have been gleefully circulating photos of empty grocery store shelves.

Let's first establish that the anti-vaccine mandate protests are much less sympathetic and in no way the moral equivalent of resistance to 1935’s “slave camps” and the very justifiable goals of the 1935 trekkers. The border-vaccine issue amounts to a labour dispute between a conservative political interest group leveraging concocted outrage to exploit real dissatisfaction, and the functionaries and jackboots of the Canadian state saddled as it is with its own legacy of colonialism and the exploitation of the working class.

The Truckers have raised $6 million in a Gofundme, from nearly 60,000 individual donors: an astonishing sum in the context of grassroots Canadian politics. As has been widely reported, the largely white, poor and rural constituency have also brought with them a number of opportunistic political organizers with ties to white supremacist and fringe extremist groups.

It is worth mentioning that some of the same personalities promoting the truck convoy, such as Cory Morgan, a columnist for Western Standard and Epoch Times, were involved directly in groups fomenting threats against Indigenous land defenders engaged in their own anti-government rail blockade protests in 2020. And yes, there is Indigenous support and participation for the convoy, wildly, from the same groups who were organizing and promoting the 2020 rail blockades.

Now, the 2022 “Freedom convoy” rolls across Canada, hailed by crowds prompted to gather on the roadside and wave at traffic. It is difficult (without practicing extreme dishonesty) to ignore the fact that a single issue campaign has, for better (or, let’s agree worse), become a touchstone in igniting public dissatisfaction against the Trudeau government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

An average working family cannot afford to own any kind of home in Justin Trudeau’s Canada. 10 hour days at $10 above the minimum wage is barely more than subsistence in Canada’s largest cities. Neofascist politicians like Doug Ford (earlier revealed to be employing a proud boy supporter) and neoliberal mayors like John Tory have rebranded themselves as ‘family friendly’, ‘woke’ and ‘antiracist’ while boosting police budgets, evicting the homeless from encampments, and facilitating the sale of land to condominium developers and luxury home projects, hand over fist.

In order to stave off an actual revolution, Ottawa dumped tens of millions of dollars into the economy in the way of pandemic stimulus and emergency support. Much of it was disbursed as employment insurance. Employment insurance is itself, ironically, a direct result of the 1935 trek and riot. The effect of this pandemic bailout policy, only half realized under a flawed system, was to take millions in public funds and to force Canadian residents to provide them directly, as a bailout for corporate and residential landlords and for no other reason than the claim of ownership of property. The same corporate and residential landlords who, in the case of Ontario, have been allowed to raise rents by Doug Ford. For his part, John Tory failed to stand in the way of the evictions.

In the case of Canada’s most populous city, their solution to a housing crisis appears to be a return to the bad old days of Toronto’s “shacktown”. Nevermind that Ford’s daughter (and former cop son-in-law) have been some of the most vocal supporters of anti-vaccine causes a fact which no establishment journalist has been willing to publish.

As to the core issue which sparked the protests, left wing thinkers ought to be willing to entertain a degree of nuance about vaccine mandates and social restrictions. Drastic actions in the face of a global pandemic are necessary and good, but it is important to recognize that actions taken to control the spread of disease in society, and measures taken to enforce those actions, also have a way of disproportionately affecting marginalized communities while simultaneously serving an elite, capitalist agenda.

It is demonstrable that the greater part of the establishment response to the pandemic has been about maintaining power and control, than it has been about actually alleviating the strain or burden on individuals and groups experiencing hardship or suffering.

The growing wave of unrest, split between justifiable working class outrage and a right wing conspiracy theory circus ringlead by a cast of conservative political leaders and racist, populist grifters, has triggered a great deal of alarmism and pearl clutching for figures in Canada’s liberal media.

It also seems that without firing a shot, an indeterminate number of predominantly white truck drivers venting their weird and misguided anger, have struck terror into the hearts of CBC reporters and Liberal partisan organizations whose bread and butter depends entirely on keeping the liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in power. Perhaps this is because they know that if the fledgling populist movement discovers real class politics or correctly identifies who is really behind the curtain, it will spell the end for the neoliberal state.

While it is unlikely that Ottawa will see serious violence or an attempt at democratic subversion or regime change as a result of what is being dubbed the #IvermectinInsurrection or #FluTruxClan, the groundswell of popular support would appear to be the writing on the wall for the Liberal party’s political fortunes.

And there’s no political counter to this. After selling a nation out to landlords and bankers, there simply won’t be a progressive base to rally around their party in the next election. Playing to public sympathies for those poor, misunderstood politicians being threatened by those terrible meanie truckers, Police have issued press releases. Politicians in Ottawa have been told they aren’t safe in their homes. On the bright side, at least they can afford homes to be terrorized in.

In a conflict between the populist far right and the state, it behooves activists opposed to capitalism and hierarchy to abstain from picking sides. As a bulletin released by Toronto Against Fascism earlier today stated “This is a three way fight.”

This isn’t the time for truly left-wing activists to side with the state in an alliance of convenience, or with a populist movement which lacks a political analysis, has its roots in far right groups and is underwritten by Conservative partisanship. It is of critical importance that the authentic left take this moment to remind people, loudly, what the real issues at play are and to confront specific incidences of hate, racism and bigotry, without inflaming or parroting either far right populism, or liberal scaremongering about threats to the state, its leaders and its institutions.

Populist Warning Signs

And there were warning signs another wave of right wing populism was coming. This isn’t the first attempt at such a populist convoy, in 2019 the ‘United We Roll’ Convoy, headlined by Andrew Scheer (and white nationalist Faith Goldy) brought pro-oil transport industry groups, white nationalists and Conservative party supporters together in a rally in Ottawa.

The 2022 Convoy is a different beast. For one, rising dissatisfaction with federal handling of the pandemic has lead to a crescendo of outrage. There is genuine populism at play here, the kind that left wing voices should have been better prepared to work with. That anticommunism has become a de jure position for populist insurrectionaries, is further evidence of a catastrophic failure of left wing organizing, since it was communists who organized the 1935 Trekkers and guided them in their ultimately victorious labour action. It’s an astonishing bit of political chicanery on behalf of conservative political organizers who have learned the true name of their true foes, and then project it on to liberals.

The anger is palpable and not entirely unjustified. Inequality has risen to staggering levels unseen in Canada for generations. It’s a pressure cooker scenario. For the moment, we need to allow space for the realization that a groundswell of populist support for far right causes on Ottawa’s doorstep is an indictment of the neoliberal state and a testament to the left’s failure to understand or include populism in its toolkit, at a pivotal time. Every person who joined their side because of this protest, is someone who the left lost. Reassuringly, populism is a sort of pendulum, albeit a slow one. The left should be ready next time.

The truth is that 2022’s convoy participants and supporters simply don’t have the correct or accurate words to articulate those things which truly give cause for outrage. And in part, that's on the left. These are people who have eschewed any semblance of class consciousness or awareness of the chains which bind them, subscribing instead to a panacea of conspiracy theories, bigotries and conservative heuristics about ‘taking their country back’. Now if there’s one lesson the freedom convoy can take from the striking “slave camp” labourers who undertook the 1935 Ottawa trek, it’s that since the arrival of Europeans, whether Trucker or Trekker, they never owned the country to begin with, the politicans, landlords and bankers always did.