Alexandria, Va.: Suddenly Canada is interesting. Yes, there is the massive “Freedom Convoy” that is turning the nation’s capital, Ottawa, into the world’s largest truck stop, honking with a sound and fury described by one observer as louder than the trumpets at the walls of Jericho.
We’ll get to that but, first, to the man that likely is worrying, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just as much, if not more, than the thousands upon thousands of truckers and their supporters heading his way.
On 26 January, as the convoy built in size and coverage, the former Premier of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Brian Peckford, did an interview with Jordon Peterson. Peterson’s YouTube channel has over 4.5 million followers, and soon the story was out: “Last living signer of Canadian constitutional charter of rights sues government over COVID travel ban.”
CANADIANS GET BILL OF RIGHTS 193 YEARS AFTER AMERICANS
Now, you might be wondering how old someone would have to be to have been an original signatory to a Chart of Rights and Freedoms in a major western country. Mr Peckford is 79. The Charter was enacted in 1982. It can take Canadians a while to get around to doing things. But when they do, they take it very seriously indeed. As can be seen by the convoy. Yes, we will get to it. But first more Canadian constitutional history. It is more interesting than you might think.
Canada became a country in 1867 when what are now the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick legally entered into a Dominion through the British North America Act. During Canada’s early years, the United Kingdom retained control over Canada’s legislature and foreign policy.
As Peckford explained, in terms of a Constitution: “We were still relying on the British common law, which was unwritten. And then we decided into the 20th century that that wasn’t good enough, especially with the influence of the United States that had a bill of rights almost from day one.”
Various efforts were made, and in “1981, we completed that process by doing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Constitution Act of 1982, which gave every Canadian the rights and freedoms written in a Constitution.”
Peckford, in his role as Premier, was deeply involved in the crafting and drafting of the Charter, and was one of the signatories. As was then Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau.
Now Peckford is suing the federal government of Pierre’s son, current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on the grounds that the mandates related to Covid-19 are illegal under the Charter. Specifically, he is contesting a federal mandate—one of the strictest of any country—that anyone over the age of 12 must be vaccinated to take a flight (domestic or international) or a train.
Peckford says he isn’t against the vaccine—he is against what he says are illegal mandates that contravene the “Charter of Rights and Freedoms, especially those freedoms and rights that are in sections 2, 6, 7 and 15 of the Charter—which I helped craft. And they are freedoms of association, freedoms of expression, religion, conscience, freedom of assembly…freedom of mobility—the right to travel anywhere in Canada or leave Canada… Life, liberty and the security of the person… Every Canadian is equal before the law. As we sit here today those provisions are being violated by all the governments of Canada.”
TRUCKER CONVOY’S DEMANDS
Peckford’s suit gives a legal framework to what the organizers of the trucker convoy have said about their own aims. Like Peckford they say they aren’t against the vaccines, they are against what they consider to be illegal political overreach.
Directly referencing the Charter, they ask the government to: “terminate all vaccine passports, including inter-Canada passport systems; Eliminate mandatory programs of vaccination and contact tracing; Respect the rights of those who wish to remain unvaccinated; Cease the divisive rhetoric attacking Canadians who disagree with government mandates; Cease limiting debate through coercive measures with the goal of censoring those who have varying or incorrect opinions.”
The response of Prime Minister Trudeau was to call the convoy a “small fringe minority” who “are holding unacceptable views”.
It was his “deplorables” moment. Within minutes people were adding “unacceptable” to their Twitter handles.
Shortly afterwards he announced on Twitter that: “I learned that I have been exposed to COVID-19. My rapid test was negative. I am following @OttawaHealth rules and isolating for five days. I feel fine and will be working from home.”
Meanwhile, others were responding differently. Some mandates are federal and apply to the whole country, as with the travel mandate. Others are determined by the provinces. Around the same time Trudeau was going into isolation, the province of Saskatchewan announced that those is close contact with someone with Covid (as was the case with Trudeau) no longer have to self-isolate.
While some provinces ease restrictions, others are going the other way. In the province of Quebec, as of 24 January, to enter a store of more than 1,500 square meters (which covers most stores like Walmart, IKEA, Costco, etc.), you now need a government issued proof of vaccination QR code and government issued ID, which are scanned and logged upon entry.
Apart from the mandate issue, this has also raised privacy concerns, especially given that the Public Health Agency of Canada recently said it accessed the location data from 33 million cellphones to monitor activity during lockdown, and it has asked to be allowed to continue to do so.
Additionally, the mandates, even within one jurisdiction, can be contradictory. For example, you need a negative Covid test to enter Canada—unless you can show you’ve had Covid within the last 180 days. This implies someone in the system believes in natural immunity—unless it applies to boarding a plane or train in Canada.
As for the vaccines, the Canadian government lost a lot of trust when, in May 2020, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) signed a deal with Tianjin-based CanSino Biologics for vaccines that were to undergo human trails in Canada.
The CanSino vaccine was created by the scientific research arm of China’s military. The Canadian government counted on that supply and spent valuable months waiting for deliveries from China before realizing that, for its own reasons, Beijing wasn’t going to come through. Currently, the only vaccines readily available in Canada are mRNA vaccines. And almost 90% of people are vaccinated.
However, the federal government would like to see that rise. Trudeau has said, “(The unvaccinated) don’t believe in science progress and are very often misogynistic and racist… This leads us, as a leader and as a country, to make a choice: Do we tolerate these people?”
WHO IS SUPPORTING THE CONVOY?
The mandate inconsistencies across the country (and within jurisdictions), past government bad judgment on respov nse, the growing evidence that social isolation and other Covid-era factors are creating a severe and growing mental health crisis in Canada, especially among the young, are some of the factors motivating the truckers and their supporters.
And those supporters are many, and varied. Over 94,000 people (as of 28 January) have donated a total of over $7.5 million Canadian to support the truckers’ logistics. A CTV News online poll asking, “Do you support the truckers’ convoy coming to Ottawa?” received close to ten times the usual number of respondents, with the outcome 78% in favor. Just one of the Convoy-related Facebook pages got over 770,000 members in around a week.
Meanwhile, along the route, where in some places it was -30 degrees Centigrade, farmers were organizing parallel events at provincial legislatures, families sang the Canadian anthem while cooking meals for the truckers, children called them on the road with encouragement and thanks, Mohawk said they are heading to Ottawa, police officers were voicing support (and risking their jobs), Sikhs (and more Sikhs—there are a good number of Indo-Canadian truckers) helped out, and 25 colonies of Hutterites (a Pacifist religious community) who were blocked by the RCMP from feeding the truckers in one location, drove for hours to make them a bbq in another.
Significantly, there seems to be participation from First Nations and Métis who are saying they know what it looks like to have their rights taken away and their communities damaged—and it looks like this.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
This is just starting, so it’s hard to tell where it will end up. But there are a few things that have already happened that are having major repercussions.
Politicians in Canada are finding it harder to hide (unless you have to self-isolate), so positions are becoming more defined and hardening. At the same time those who are against the mandates are becoming more vocal. Political leaders are staking their careers on their response.
Trudeau’s not budging. On 27 January he even tweeted about National Kids and Vaccines Day. The Federal Liberal Party is all in with the mandates.
The leader of the Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole published an op-ed in the Toronto Sun saying there should be “educational programs for truckers to better address vaccine hesitancy”. And “Vaccine clinics should also be established along trucking routes to encourage more vaccination among the industry”.
O’Toole’s comments didn’t play well as truckers are around 85% vaccinated—and the convoy isn’t anti-vaccine, its anti-mandate. Nor did he condemn the truckers enough for the pro-mandate lobby.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh issued a statement saying: “I’m concerned by the dangerous rhetoric we’ve seen from the convoy. I am concerned by extremist elements that are spreading misinformation and attempting to turn the convoy into a Canadian version of the terrorist attacks on the US Capitol.”
With the leaders of the three main national parties all seemingly pro-mandate to some degree or another, the new People’s Party of Canada, which ran on an anti-mandate platform in the last election, has seen its share of the vote surge to around 13% of the vote, up from around 5% during the recent election. It is closing in on the NDP.
With membership of the Conservative Party split on mandates, and with some members shifting to the People’s Party, there is pressure on O’Toole’s leadership. The Conservative’s Shadow Finance Minister Pierre Poilievre garnered a lot of attention when he answered a question about extremist elements in the convoy by saying that it was “interesting” that when there are left-wing protest, “we don’t see the liberal media going through every single name of the people who attend to try and find one person that they can disparage the whole group with.”
O’Toole is now trying to course correct and has now said he’ll address the truckers in Ottawa.
At the start, there was sparse coverage outside social media of the convoy, and almost no coverage of Peckford’s case. It was largely once the online influencers took note, especially Musk, that there was some breakthrough, though then the coverage from the media was mostly negative. This is reinforcing the belief of many involved that the ‘mainstream media’ is ‘dishonest’. And it has emphasized that the online ecosystem is now the place to go if, like Brian Pickford, you want to reach your audience ‘unmediated’.
There has been widespread support, with trucks joining from the United States, and online calls for similar events in other countries. It has also fundamentally changed the way some see Canadians—and the way some Canadians see each other.
There is no tidy ending to this piece. The story is still being written. But whatever happens next, in Ottawa, in the courts, online, in communities all across Canada, a new chapter of the Covid era has begun. And after the muted silence of the lockdowns, it’s going to be loud.
There is a video of the trucks starting to arrive at the Parliament building in Ottawa—rumbling and honking their horns. The sound is cacophonous. A man in a high visibility vest looks into the camera and shouts above the noise: “You said it’s important for the government to hear…it’s crucial that you listen, listen to the people. Listen to this, Mr Trudeau, listen to it. Can you hear us now? CAN YOU HEAR US NOW?”
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent as well as Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.