Opponents of vaccine mandates have established protest encampments in Ottawa and elsewhere around Canada, blockading several routes crossing the United States border. Far-right organizers and former police officers have prominent positions in this movement, and police have taken a relatively hands-off approach thus far; it appears likely that the model currently being tested in Canada will appear elsewhere around the world shortly. In the following extensive report, our correspondent in Montréal explores the sequence of events that led up to these developments, reviews the agendas of the various forces vying for control, and reflects on what we can do in a situation in which the far right has gained the initiative.
To preface this report, it is necessary to deal briefly with the question of whether the anti-mandate protests in Ottawa represent a movement for “freedom,” as the participants insist.
On October 25, 2021, officers of the New York City Police Department participated in shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge—where they famously kettled and arrested Occupy protesters almost precisely ten years earlier—to protest against a vaccine mandate for municipal employees. While we passionately believe that people must be free to make their own medical decisions and determine their own risk tolerance, the police were effectively demanding the right to expose those they arrest to even greater medical risk. This is a particularly clear-cut case showing that the movement against vaccine mandates is not necessarily a movement against state control or in favor of medical autonomy.
An authentic movement for freedom and medical autonomy would oppose all the forces that compel workers to expose themselves to COVID-19 against their wishes—in other words, it would be explicitly anti-capitalist. Likewise, such a movement would support striking students intent on determining for themselves which risks they wish to take.
When anti-mandate protesters maintain that borders should be tightly controlled by passport checks, yet decry vaccine passports as “fascism”—when they complain about police checking for vaccine cards, but support police in arresting and imprisoning people by the million—when they object to the government placing limits on economic activity, but not to the vast economic disparities that force workers to face potentially lethal risks simply in order to pay rent—they are not taking a stand in favor of freedom so much as they are willfully changing the subject from the encroachments of state power as a whole to a few details of state policy. This is part of the process through which a spurious right-wing opposition functions to redirect rebellious impulses into ersatz movements that ultimately strengthen state institutions.
It is possible that a consistent movement opposing state control in favor of medical autonomy could serve as a space in which those who oppose vaccine passports could go through a process of political development. But for this to be possible, these movements would have to foster a systemic analysis of power, whereas in fact, they are dominated by right-wing elements intent on limiting their political horizons. Therefore, at the minimum, it is necessary to oppose and outflank the right-wing elements in these movements—which is the subject of the following text.
The paranoid fears concerning vaccination and the conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19 concern entirely the issue of the loss of autonomy. They allegorically (and distortedly) project real economic and social experience onto the body. In this manner, they both express and repress the experience, just as dreams, and more generally, the language of the unconscious, do: it’s not, allegedly, that the small store owner or the small businessman has been crushed by large states’ economies of scale, but rather that there is a plan to control his/her brain, or his/her body, his or her reproductive capacities.
Because the anti-vaccine unconscious is, like every form of mass irrationalism, the exact opposite of what it believes it is—because, in other words, it is a deeply conformist way of thinking—it is also a particularly fertile ground for the development of forms of racism, among which the anti-semitic and the Sinophobic elements are predominant.
Without further ado—the report.
A barricade on Rideau Street in Ottawa.
Ottawa Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg
A number of years ago, in a European city, I made a presentation about anarchist participation in the so-called “Maple Spring” of 2012—the student strike in Québec and the larger social movement it sparked, focusing on the place where I live, Montréal. I emphasized the importance of more than a decade’s worth of anti-police activism and agitation against police in our city, which was in no small part the result of anarchists’ efforts over the course of several years. My argument was that a great deal of the student movement’s success in 2012 was the consequence of anarchists’ efforts to both explain and demonstrate the virtues of confrontational tactics and uncompromising hostility towards the police.
The first question, after my talk, was about whether people in Montréal speak French or not. Yes, they do, I answered. The following several questions were all variations on the theme of “So what’s the deal with this Canada thing anyway?” It took people a few minutes to understand that I hadn’t come there to serve as a walking, talking wikipedia entry; I wanted to compare notes about strategy with them on an international basis.
The anarchist tradition has always been internationalist. We want a world without borders, without the divisive nonsense that makes up most flag-waving nationalism. We share an intellectual commitment to understanding the world beyond our own limited geographic and sociocultural contexts, advocating a globally informed conception of total freedom for everyone. Many of us have lived in other countries; we have friends, family, and connections all around the world. Crossing borders is something we do. All of us have been struck by the importance of words originally written in languages we don’t speak ourselves, reflecting on struggles that took place in contexts very different from our own.
Today’s nationalists want an internationalism of their own. Right now, the globalized far-right movement is looking to “the truckers in Canada” for inspiration. There have been calls to imitate the events in Ottawa in other capital cities, including Brussels, Washington, DC, and Canberra. This makes it crucial that people everywhere understand what is happening here in Canada.
Over the last few years, right-wing activism and white-majority populism have spread far and wide thanks to high-velocity memes. One important antecedent to the current moment in Canada was the “yellow vests” movement in 2019, which was inspired by (an ideologically refracted view of) a decidedly more heterogenous social uprising in France. The high-water mark of the Canadian yellow vests’ efforts was the “United We Roll” trucker convoy that arrived in Ottawa on February 19, 2019. It also must be said—without accepting the ludicrous notion that this is all outside agitation—that the current movement owes some of its success to significant infusions of money and support from the right wing in the United States.
After the 2022 “Freedom Convoy” rolled into Ottawa on January 28, it took more than a week before the first anarchist writing on the subject appeared. It has been difficult to come by credible information, even for me, only two hours’ drive away. I myself didn’t know what was happening until the news media belatedly started reporting that a convoy was headed east; it took a few more days for me to register the significance of what was going on.
Whether you know your Louis Riels from your René Levesques is not essential to understanding what’s going on here. Economically, culturally, and geopolitically, the settler society of Canada is an annex of the larger settler society of the United States. For now, the United States remains the world’s dominant superpower—though things have become polarized there, to say the least. There was talk of civil war in 2020 and the future looks fraught as well.
Many have argued that “civil war” is not the right term for what some people anticipate. “The crumbles” is an alternative term that’s gaining popularity. Whatever we call it, it is certain that the terrain is shifting as crises proliferate and critical systems reach their breaking points. Let’s think through what this means for us.
A low wall between the lawn of Parliament Hill and the wide sidewalk on Wellington Street.
To understand this situation, we can start by reviewing the events leading up to it.
Donald Trump wins the US presidential election. This has immediate repercussions in Canada, emboldening a variety of groups that oppose “mass immigration” and Islam—most notably La Meute (“The Wolfpack”) in Québec. On January 29, 2017, six people are killed and five more injured in a lone-wolf attack on a mosque in the suburbs of Québec City.
The yellow vests movement begins in France, sparked by the popular rejection of a new tax on fuel. The movement is heterogeneous from the beginning, including a large right-populist component, but race and immigration are secondary and tertiary concerns beside the cost of living. Beyond the borders of France, however, right-wing activists lead the way in appropriating the iconography of the French movement. This happens in Canada, too.
Ironically, the Canadian “yellow vests” are a predominantly Anglophone phenomenon, with over 100,000 members in the Facebook group. By late January 2019, they establish a consistent street presence in the streets of Hamilton, Edmonton, and some other cities, mostly in the form of weekly rallies ranging from thirty die-hards to a few hundred every now and then. Common concerns include Islam, immigration, the purported tyranny of Justin Trudeau, the security of the border, and the future of the oil and gas industry in Western Canada, with participants calling for new export-focused pipelines from Alberta to any possible coast.
“Yellow vests” protesters in Edmonton.
The “United We Roll” truck convoy departs from Red Deer, Alberta, on February 14, and arrives in Ottawa on February 19. The protesters depart on the afternoon of the following day. They had only numbered only a few hundreds, with fewer than 200 “semi, flatbed, and pick-up trucks” according to supporters. Nonetheless, they receive an outsized amount of media coverage compared to significantly more popular demonstrations in Ottawa.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party wins the most seats in the general election, but he loses the outright majority, necessitating an alliance with smaller parties. The provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan are uniformly represented by Conservative parliamentarians. This prompts outrage across the far right, and the registration of a new political party “Wexit Canada” (later to be renamed the Maverick Party) that aims for an independent state in some or all of Western Canada.
Different components of the Canadian state begin to implement emergency measures with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Québec is the only North American jurisdiction that has imposed a curfew on its population. On April 11, after having been previously relaxed by 90 minutes, the curfew is set to resume starting at 8 pm. A call circulates on Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms to show up in Montréal’s Old Port to defy the curfew. Accounts associated with the graffiti subculture are the first to boost the call, but then Rebel News picks it up—a Canada-based right-wing agitprop outfit that has journalists on the ground, especially in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.
What transpires is a street party featuring a few hundred people, fireworks, garbage can fires, loud music, and (relatively safe, outdoor) masklessness. Most participants in the event are presumably residents of Montréal and the near environs. Despite rhetoric to the contrary from journalists in Toronto, the event is multi-racial, probably majority people of color. Teenagers and young men are disproportionately represented among the participants.
It is unclear when the more ostentatious acts of vandalism and arson begin, but towards 9 pm, riot police move in to shut the party down, issue tickets, and make arrests—though in fact, they make none. The next few days see a number of people, especially younger people, attempt to defy the curfew in collective as well as individual ways. One kid explains that she will continue to defy the curfew “every day.”
People setting up a burning barricade in Old Montréal on April 11, 2021.
Trudeau wins another Canadian election. The balance of power in parliament doesn’t change at all, but there is an alarming development: the People’s Party of Canada (PPC)—the vanity project of disaffected Conservative politician Maxime Bernier (who had nearly become Conservative leader in 2017) and, since its founding, the most credible electoral option for the anti-immigrant far right in Canada—quadruples its share of the vote, though without winning any seats.
The PPC, in effect, has become the most high-profile political force against lockdowns and vaccine mandates. Some people are buying what they’re selling.
Just as many people believe that the pandemic is drawing to a close, the omicron wave begins.
The first inkling of an idea for a convoy to Ottawa emerges, apparently among some people with variously anti-vaccine, white nationalist, and Western separatist affiliations organized under the name “Canada Unity.”
January 15, 2022
A mandate comes into effect that obliges transportation workers who cross the border from the United States into Canada to be vaccinated.
January 22, 2022
The convoy departs from Prince George in British Columbia, heading east to Ottawa. There are allegedly about “1200 trucks and other vehicles” by the time the convoy reaches Winnipeg on January 24, but true numbers are hard to estimate. Solidarity convoys later depart from southern Ontario and Nova Scotia. There are reports that there may also be a convoy or two coming from the United States, but these do not pan out.
The first trucks arrive in Ottawa. From the very first evening, the protest is extremely loud. It will get louder.
More trucks arrive in Ottawa. Some of the participants harass people wearing masks and local service workers, and desecrate the monuments around downtown Ottawa. The border crossing at Coutts, Alberta, facing Sweetgrass, Montana, is the site of a blockade. It remains in place as we publish this text.
Readers outside Canada may not know who Terry Fox is, but a lot of people considered this offensive.
A counter-demonstration in Vancouver is the largest mobilization against a convoy protest to date, certainly outside of Ottawa. It is not actually that big. People do their best to hold the convoy up in traffic. There are other convoy protests in various cities around the country.
A judge rules that the protesters cannot honk their horns for ten days. Although things quiet down a bit, a lot of honking goes on nevertheless. Aligned protesters block the bridge between the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor.
Aligned protesters establish another blockade between Emerson, Manitoba, and Pembina, North Dakota. It remains in place as we go to press.
A scene from outside Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa in the Byward Market neighborhood of Ottawa, a short walk from Parliament Hill, on Saturday, February 12.
There are more rallies around the country, typically drawing hundreds of people, including one in Montréal and one in Halifax. Anarchists participate in counter-demonstrations—with smaller turnouts—at both of these. Another blockade is set up at the border crossing between Vancouver and Seattle.
After an operation lasting more than 24 hours, police clear the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge.
As of now, we’re don’t know all the details about what happened in Windsor. The police operation to remove the occupiers began on the morning of February 12. They were not removed until very late on February 13. The police report that “up to 30 protesters” were arrested.
Why Has the Situation in Ottawa Gone On So Long?
None of the following theories are entirely satisfactory, but here are some of the possible explanations for why the police have permitted the occupation to continue.
Theory 1: The police in Ottawa are racist instruments of colonial and white supremacist law. The police in Ottawa react differently to protest movements that are predominantly white, right-wing, and Canadian nationalist than they do to other protesters. Some of the police are in cahoots with politically ambitious fascists inside and outside of government.
Yes, this is true. But this is anarchy 101. While it is important context to remember, by itself it doesn’t do much to explain the situation in Ottawa or anywhere else.
Kids and cops in downtown Ottawa.
Theory 2. The authorities fear an outbreak of chaotic violence and bloodshed.
I have heard a lot of arguments about this theory in recent days. Since when has the state cared about people getting hurt? In the lead-up to the November 19 raid on Coyote Camp, there was a blitz in the media about how there were guns and US citizens (“foreign agents”) in the camp. In that case, that was the state’s justification for escalating. Of course, the average convoy protester has more in common with the police than the average target of police violence (see Theory 1).
It is possible that there might be serious weapons available to some of the protesters, whether they are stockpiled in the trucks themselves or elsewhere. It is clear that a lot of the participants have had police or military training. I’d be shocked if there weren’t a few Americans involved. It’s true that government spokespeople will always play up how extreme and dangerous an adversary is, whether their agenda is to justify caution or aggression—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to it in this case. There have already been some acts of violence, including vehicle ramming and attempted arson.
Being appropriately cynical here, I think it’s fair to say that most politicians and other officials calculate that their careers will be in trouble if decisions they are responsible for provoke anything deadly or otherwise outrageous.
Standoff at Ambassador Bridge.
Theory 3: The Trudeau government is incompetent, the state has lost its capacity to govern, there are “chain of command” issues.
Sure, someone must have fucked up. That’s always a safe bet. People hesitate, people pass the buck, people don’t know what’s coming at them or what they ought to do about it. As in Theory 1, though, this is always happening, so it doesn’t explain everything.
Some liberals have been speculating about how surprisingly easy it was for protesters to occupy areas on Parliament Hill. Perhaps they assumed that there was a high-tech security system for situations like this, ready to deploy at the touch of a button. The truth is, when these facilities were established, the threat model they were facing was the possibility that a few hundred men with rifles would wander over from the United States. Later, the threat was nuclear war. No one envisioned this sort of situation—specifically, the hybrid mixture of tactics that has made it difficult for the authorities to decide how to respond.
If you listen to a certain kind of conservative, you’ll hear that the muscles of the state—specifically the military—have been allowed to atrophy, and that this problem goes back decades. In the face of external threats, Canada has always relied on “the security umbrella” of another power to protect its existence as an autonomous geopolitical entity. At first, that other power was Britain, but it has been the United States since the end of World War II. This is a problem, given that, historically and perhaps right now, the greatest threats to “Canadian sovereignty” haven’t come from Russia or China but from the United States—sometimes from the federal government in Washington, sometimes from non-state political actors. It was the Hunters’ Lodge and the Fenian Brotherhood back then. Maybe it’s Trumpists and QAnon today?
The one obvious error on the part of the police and government was allowing the convoy to enter Ottawa at all. In February 2019, the last time a right-wing truck convoy rolled into town, it was all over in less than 48 hours without much fuss. Perhaps that gave the authorities a false sense of security, or perhaps we have to return to Theory 1—that the cops are colluding with the fascists.
Theory 4: Very powerful people like that this is happening.
There is a conspiracy theory circulating to the effect that the governing Liberals want the situation in Ottawa and the border blockades to continue because some Conservative politicians support the movement. The logic is that this will provide material that the Liberals will be able to use to beat the Conservatives for many elections to come.
Another theory has it that this is happening at the behest of “corporate interests,” specifically those connected to the oil and gas industry. Vaccine skeptics are also climate skeptics, and there has been a lot of fear-mongering from the Ottawa occupiers about future “climate lockdowns.” If we are to believe self-styled “gangster for capitalism” Smedley Butler about the Business Plot, I do not put it past corporate interests to do whatever they can to secure conditions that will allow them to continue to maximize their profits forever. Under the present system, there is probably no longer any electoral path to a sitting Canadian parliament that would furnish ideal conditions for petro-capitalism (i.e., no carbon tax, even more heavy-handed approaches to anti-development camps and activity, and the like). This could represent petro-capitalists experimenting with another approach.
Ultimately, attempting to explain this situation is akin to the sociologists trying to explain the May 1968 uprising in France. By themselves, our theories won’t change what is happening. The question is, what should we do about it?
By the Way, We Probably Shouldn’t Call These People “Truckers”
The “transportation industry” has been under threat for a long time now. At some point, it is presumed, automation—that is, self-driving vehicles and delivery drones—will become the new means of delivering goods from place to place. This will significantly reduce the need for human workers who drive big rigs, if not eliminate it entirely. “The trucker” might be a reasonable stand-in for a problem that faces large segments of the working class as a whole.
In Canada, as many have noted, the vast majority of truckers are vaccinated already. About one in five people employed in the industry is South Asian, and there are more who are non-white and/or come from other countries. The convoy, the occupation, and the aligned blockades and rallies are not representative of “truckers” at all. Certainly, there are some truckers involved, but—are we talking about hard-working people who got fired over their vaccination status? Or those who own trucking companies—capitalists with fleets of big rigs and spare time? Whatever the case, I think it’s pretty clear that most of the participants in this event have historically made a living in some other way than trucking. This is especially true of the crowd that has been gathering on Saturdays and Sundays.
Among the hardcore Ottawa occupiers, there are all sorts there by now. Some of these people are Rainbow Gathering types—or young, perpetually high locals who were on their way to becoming Rainbow Gathering types, if only circumstance would grant them the opportunity. Some of them are probably people whose previous housing options were not very desirable, who have the right attributes to fit in among the convoy folks; they may not be “political” at all, just happy to just help out in the ways that they can, among people who haven’t (yet) given them the cold shoulder. It seems obvious to me, however, that the most commonly shared characteristics of most of the resident occupiers is that they were involved in right-wing street activism of some kind before 2022. At the very least, their politics are generally aligned with some of the right-wing populist movements in Canada, be that La Meute, Maxime Bernier’s PPC, or the Canadian yellow vests.
Last week, the anarchist radio show and podcast From Embers interviewed a union-involved anarchist employed in the transportation industry, who spoke with some insight on the “labor” side of this issue—such as it is—and how much buy-in there really is from “truckers” as a class. Among other things, the interviewee mentioned the Naujawan Support Network, an initiative born in part of local efforts to support the farmers’ protests in India but focused on local issues, including wage theft by the employers of truckers in Peel Region, a major center of logistics in the Greater Toronto area and Canada as a whole.
Make no mistake: I don’t think the exploited workers that the state media is only talking about now are the “real” truckers any more than the ones in Ottawa are. Anyone who’s done much hitchhiking on this continent knows that a lot of truckers spend a lot of time by themselves listening to radio programs—or, these days, podcasts and livestreams—that amplify some pretty wild ideas. The Biden administration has also imposed a vaccine mandate on truckers entering the United States. Keeping in mind that some truckers are business owners, not workers, I expect things could look pretty different if the planned US convoy effort succeeds.
Beyond Ottawa: The Movement in the Streets
Although there have been many other demonstrations in Montréal against curfews, lockdowns, vaccine passports, and the like, February 12 was the first convoy-related demonstration in the city. It was immediately obvious that most of the people who attended were “normal” people. That is alarming, because judging from the signs they were carrying, “normal” people are capable of believing things that I consider absurd or unconscionable. But of course, I am not a “normal” person.
In “A Wager on the Future,” Josep Gardeneyes writes:
“It makes perfect sense to speak of ‘normal people’ in reference to a category from which we are excluded. The normal person is the normalized person, the one who follows society’s norms. Being an anarchist is not normal.”
Gardeneyes referred to “society” as if it is always a single thing. But today, parallel societies are emerging along the fault lines determined, at least in part, by living in rival information silos. In this situation, we can speak of the norms that the normal normalized people inherited from the previous society, as well as the new norms that are coming into being.
One thing that was normal, that was widely accepted—in theory, if not always in practice—was the idea that in a democratic society, when you are mad about a government policy, you march around, peacefully, with flags and signs; you chant and sing; you become something that “they cannot ignore,” to paraphrase an old slogan from 2012—but you stop there. Although Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others like them faced opposition every step of the way, there is now a consensus that they were good people, and the simplistic, whitewashed memory of figures like those provides a template for what one “ought” to do in a situation like this, when everyone is angry about the general state of things.
Considering that at least one poll suggests that a third of Canadians surveyed felt they had “a lot in common” with the goals of the convoy when it initially rolled into Ottawa, it is imperative to understand that many of the people showing up to these actions do not have fixed political identities yet. They are less politically literate, less politically entrenched than we are, and therefore less likely to recognize the telltale signs of overtly racist, chauvinist, and otherwise objectionable politics in their fellow marchers, but also less likely to understand our arguments or be moved by them.
We need to identify what opportunities these events might open up, rather than simply seeking yet another confirmation that we are all doomed or that everyone else in our society has lost their minds. The political terrain itself is shifting. I do not think “the left” is going to be able to stop that shift simply by showing up and opposing the right-wing people who see themselves as opposing the current order. Some of the people who are calling for that approach are my friends, and I share their concerns, but I think that is a recipe for failure. We have to think bigger.
When we only react, we tire ourselves out without ever setting the agenda. Worse, we enable the far-right to portray us as shills for the liberal ruling order who lack any genuinely transformative program of our own. We need to look for new possibilities in this situation.
In April-May 2020, when the far right were holding armed protests at government buildings in the US, anarchists didn’t go and defend the city halls. Anarchists and many other people who hate the police took action on a different front, responding to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people, and thereby changed the whole terrain of discourse. In fact, because of their brief friction with the police who were defending those government buildings, the far right took weeks to react to the uprising of May 2020, during which the uprising gained a tremendous amount of ground and temporarily eclipsed their entire agenda in the public eye. In short: anarchists were not reactive, but proactive, and it paid off.
In the face of massive historical developments, the inclination to react to everything that our adversaries do and the inclination to “keep doing what we were doing before” are both blind alleys. When things change, it’s a good chance to re-evaluate what we were doing, look for new opportunities, and hazard new experiments in light of the new conditions.
Here are some notes towards that purpose.
Obstacles and Hazards
1. This is a reactionary movement.
In 2015, friends in Ontario’s Common Cause Anarchist Organization (since defunct) wrote that “reactionary ideas [emphasis in original], broadly defined, are political beliefs that develop in response to social change and which seek a reversal of said change—usually in the form of a return to some idealized past.” Using this definition, I think it is pretty clear that these ideas are what motivate the mass mobilization of the convoy to Ottawa and things happening elsewhere. The pandemic has meant profound social change, and a lot of people have been afraid and angry about that change the entire time. At this point, now that the promise that we could simply vaccinate ourselves back to normal has failed, many relatively progressive or at least sober-minded people want “a return to some idealized past.” It’s not just folks who thought this was all a Chinese plot from Day one.
Common Cause argued that “reactionary tendencies […] are reactionary ideas, public forums, small organized groups, and other elements that have not yet coalesced into a full-scale reactionary movement.” In 2022, though, it’s clear that this is indeed a movement.
Some people in the movement are particularly noxious. Consequently, some anarchists and other radicals are doubling down on arguments that we should oppose and attack everyone involved uniformly. There have been lots of arguments about this recently, mostly to the effect of “I don’t care if you’re a person of color, lost your job, lost your small business, just a houseless person looking to get a meal, etc.—if you’re marching next to Nazis and you’re not punching Nazis then you are a Nazi and you should be punched too.” I’m paraphrasing, obviously, but this is the real position expressed by some folks in my city’s radical scenes. Someone said “So who’s the Canadian David Rovics?” with respect to this reportback from a walk-around in Ottawa, even when the article (and a subsequent comment) strongly opposes the notion that there is “anything good” to be found in “movements organized by fascists.”
For my part, I have no idea what an anarchist could possibly get out of participating in the occupation in Ottawa as a good faith actor. I was scandalized to hear that someone—in a scene quite different from mine—might have gone to Ottawa with an “anarcha-feminist sign” and chilled with the protestors. From my perspective, this person was merely providing a thoroughly reactionary movement some rhetorical cover: “Look, we are the people. We even have some (nice) anarchists involved.”
A scene from outside Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa in the Byward Market neighborhood of Ottawa, a short walk from Parliament Hill, on Saturday, February 12.
2. This movement is spearheaded and promoted by fascists, authoritarians, and other enemies of everyone else who genuinely values freedom and solidarity.
I know that people like to argue about what terms like these mean—hey, so do I. But at least one of these designations is applicable in the cases of Pat King (who was involved from very early on, and who is concerned about whites being “replaced” and hates immigrants and gay people), Jason LaFace (background in the fascist group Soldiers of Odin, organizer for the Ontario contingent of the convoy), Rambo Gauthier (background in La Meute, organizer of the less successful convoy to downtown Québec City), and Donald Trump (who signaled his politically important support for the movement even before many Canadians had heard of it, and colluded in a coup attempt last year).
Just because these sorts set things off, that does not mean they control the movement, let alone own it. They are probably destined to fight each other over the remains of the movement at some point in the future. There is currently a campaign to disassociate a few people who, it seems, lit some things on fire in the lobby of an apartment building where some residents had apparently fought with convoy-associated protesters earlier. Although the claim that the seeming arsonists had “nothing to do” with the right-wing protest seems unlikely, it also seems likely that this initiative had nothing to do with any strategically-minded higher-ups. Groups of people who already knew each other—or who have gotten to know each other by now “on the ground” in Ottawa—have their own agendas, their own ways of doing things, and at some point, a lot of them are going to suspect that some of the high-profile leaders that they thought were on their side are willing to sell them out.
A scene from outside Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa in the Byward Market neighborhood of Ottawa, a short walk from Parliament Hill, on Saturday, February 12.
3. This is creating a liberal backlash.
The events in Ottawa and at various points along the US-Canada border are setting the stage for a liberal, pro-police, pro-civility backlash that will hit us as well. At some point, the occupation will come to an end. That may come after bloodshed, or the loss of access to funds, or targeted arrests, or the actions of people in Ottawa themselves who are sick and tired of “the Flu Trucks Klan” encamping in their city. But after that happens, it may be more difficult for us to act, as well.
I used to know some punks who lived in Centretown in Ottawa, back when it was still relatively affordable. If things had gone differently in my life, I might have moved there, too. Even assuming my street was relatively quiet, I imagine I would be a little antagonistic in response to sustained honking and people chanting “FREEEEEE-DOM!” whenever I had to go downtown. I suspect, too, that if I were by myself, I probably wouldn’t feel very safe pushing back. This feeling of impotence would make me feel even angrier.
I’m an anarchist, so I would deal with those feelings the way that an anarchist does, but other people might not. Underslept because the Honkening has kept them up, others might go onto Twitter and coin a new word like “Honkening”; they might say “I want to see the same sort of force that is applied against the Wet’suweten protesters applied against these protesters”; they might begin talking to their friends, neighbors, and “allies” (e.g., party Maoists shipped in on short notice, or Trotskyists from the local universities) seeking more direct solutions to the problem. As a resident of noisy downtown Montréal, I’m sympathetic to an anti-noise position.
I hate Ottawa as much as anyone else does, I guess, which is to say—a lot. But the nation’s capital is not just bureaucrats, politicians, and other people with cushy gigs, even if that’s the stereotype. Ottawa has always had a working class, and it still does. In view of the politics of the occupiers, my sympathies are with “the people affected” by the occupation.
From the reports I’ve heard, it appears that some anarchists are participating in the counter-protests opposing the occupation. But if they are trying to assert anarchist ideas and priorities in doing so, that is not apparent from afar. The dominant current in the counter-protests is settler NIMBYist, not anti-colonial revolutionary. It’s hard to imagine how that could change.
It seems to me that it might be more productive to distinguish ourselves from the NIMBYists too, because their movement is also reactionary according to the Common Cause definition. They too want to go back to the way things were before. Things like this—in the histrionic terms that some people are using, the “insurrection,” “the siege of Ottawa”—aren’t supposed to happen here. Make them all go away! If the police won’t enforce peace and quiet, the citizens must take over the job of the police! The role of the anarchist in this case is not to show up to protests with better signs than the cop lovers. It’s to create a “third side” that is neither pro-police nor pro-occupation, a side rooted in the concerns of locals who are variously pro-revolutionary (against the Canadian state), anti-colonial (for indigenous sovereignty), and against the police.
One thing that this third side could do would be to organize mutual aid initiatives. A lot of spontaneous initiatives have already cropped up in downtown Ottawa during these last weeks, in response to real and perceived needs. Anarchists should be there, building a “counter-civility” that is polite but has no patience for statist bullshit. The goal to make sure that locals who are mad right now have “mixed loyalties” later on, which would be much better than rock-solid loyalties to the Liberal Party or the local police chief.
If the counter-demonstrations do gain momentum, we must emphasize that the police are not a solution to the problem of outsiders disrupting our communities—they are another manifestation of it. If the occupation has gone on so long because of the complicity of the police, this is not an aberration from what the police are “supposed” to do—it is consistent with the way police always behave. In the United States, police officers participated in the storming of the Capitol on January 6, too, but afterwards the Democrats were still able to use the whole debacle to rehabilitate their image. We should not leave them any space to do the same here.
What’s more, if the police are indeed part of the problem, then those who are decrying the so-called “insurrection” today will have to learn what is valuable about disruptive tactics themselves.
An anti-convoy/anti-occupation demonstration on February 12, moving north on Bank Street in Ottawa’s Glebe neighborhood.”
When this little chapter of Canadian history reaches its conclusion, we don’t want the police or the liberals to be able to use the events in Ottawa to justify exerting more pressure on us when we engage in protest activity ourselves. It is certain that any legitimacy they acquire through these events, they will employ against us.
4. This looks like it might be another step towards civil war in the United States.
If this is a step towards civil war, personally, I’m not looking forward to it.
I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow, but civil war—or worse, an unopposed authoritarian coup—has become thinkable. Most of the crises that have affected the United States in the last few years, from the subprime mortgage crisis to riot waves, have hit Canada only glancingly. A civil war would hit existentially hard.
The Ottawa occupation has provided a new template for political action that apparently works. We have heard tell of a copycat action in Washington, DC on March 4. I’ll be paying attention to see what happens. My feeling is that we need to be prepared for the worst outcomes. Sometimes the paradigm changes really fast.
The sun setting over the occupation in Ottawa.
1. Other people can occupy too, and create zones where people can meet their needs without money.
To some degree, in some places, this has already been happening.
In Montréal, the terrain vague (more or less, “wasteland”) in the city’s East End is an example of this. Anarchists and numerous others—neighborhood leftists who are not anarchists, people without steady or reliable access to good shelter, ravers, taggers, dog walkers—have been using the space for years, but starting at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a new investment of energy (among the people I know, at least) towards resisting the area’s long-planned redevelopment. (Efforts to redevelop the area include expanding the capacity of the nearby port, “rationalizing” the road layout, improving highway access to the area, with some promises of family-friendly and aesthetically pleasing bits of parkland in the future.) There are many aspects to this struggle and the ways that people have been using the space more recently, but it provided a space that was lacking in the context of worries about COVID-19. It was a place to socialize, where the norm was probably a little COVID-unsafe, but where people with less cavalier attitudes could still hang out and maybe even drink a beer.
I don’t want to offend anyone, but the terrain vague kind of sucks. There’s no free food. It’s also far away from everything. It’s possible to get lost or trip over things. The weather impacts the pleasantness of the place in a big way. In all this, the situation is very different from what we’ve seen in Ottawa, where money has poured in that has facilitated a significant degree of infrastructural development. There are buildings around, there are truck cabs, they apparently even have saunas there now.
Many other people have been creating spaces elsewhere around Montréal. There have been secret Black Lives Matter dance parties on the mountain; there have been swells of people cheering for the local hockey team, shooting fireworks in the streets, turning over police cars, and so on. Most of this has lacked a counter-logistical purpose or even a “political” intent of any kind, and while there is a certain sort of anarchist who may like it for just those reasons—fucking shit up for it’s own sake has its charm—I think that limits the scope of how far those things can go. Sure, it would be nice if the police would clear out for long enough that we could see how things might develop without them. What if the people who showed up in the Old Port on April 11 of last year had been able to hold ground in one of the fanciest neighborhoods of the city, a place chiefly reserved for tourists? Where could that have gone after three weeks?
This is just what-could-have-been, of course. We know the reason that April 11 didn’t continue: the police would never tolerate an occupation of that character in that place. But in the current moment, when policing logistics are being stretched thin across the Canadian territory—in some regions more than others, sure—it might be more possible to choose a site and hold ground. By doing so, we could contribute in a small way to the breakdown of the logistics of the police, which is arguably a good thing.
To liberals who argue that we need the police to protect us from the sort of people who have congregated in Ottawa, we can answer that the police have done very little to protect ordinary workers in Ottawa even without us disrupting their logistics at all. Based on what we are seeing in Ottawa, the best way to ensure collective safety will be to develop our own networks, spaces, and collective experience, rather than depending on the police, who mostly focus on evicting people and keeping poor people hungry in any case.
Speaking of which—this past summer, downtown public parks in Halifax, Montréal, Toronto, Vancouver, and other cities hosted encampments of people who don’t have enough money to live in a house or an apartment. Across the board, city governments (including those of ostensibly “progressive” administrations, like Valérie Plante’s government here in Montréal) cleared these encampments, giving people (“our fellow Canadians,” if you like) the option of living in highly surveilled and invasively managed shelters, often far from resources they rely upon that had been much more accessible from those parks. If it is “a nuisance” for people to occupy public parks in this way, then why not seize buildings instead? For those involved in the spirited but unsuccessful efforts to defend encampments at Lamport Stadium in Toronto or in front of the old Halifax library last summer, now might be the time to launch something just as ambitious. Maybe it will possible to make the last leg of Canadian winter more tolerable for people who are currently sleeping on the streets.
2. This could be a good time to mobilize against the border itself.
If there is a contradiction inside the protests centered in Ottawa, it is that right-wing people love borders, police, and state power, but this is ostensibly a protest against the border, the police, and the power of the state under its current management. This could be a fault line along which we might force a rupture between the people who are there out of an ignorant desire to rebel and those who are there out of a cynical desire to advance a fascist, statist project. The fact that right-wing anti-mandate protesters consider vaccine passports “fascism” but also want to establish more border controls—to make it harder to get any kind of passport—should represent a vulnerability for them.
In France, anarchists used the tactic of property destruction to carve out space in the Yellow Vest movement: much of the far right did not want to be associated with property destruction, whereas many of the random angry people who got involved in the movement were comfortable with it. Perhaps actually opposing the border itself could have a similar impact here? At the minimum, it would force the far-right participants who pretend to want freedom to show that they actually support borders, police, state control, and being oppressed.
This is personal for me. I hate the US-Canada border. All anarchists who have to deal with it hate it. Although dual citizens have it easier than most, even they can be interrogated for hours every time they cross. Anarchists with only one of the relevant passports find it very difficult to cross at an “official point of entry” if they have a certain kind of detectable criminal record.
I came of age after September 11, 2001. The US-Canadian border has always been a challenge—nothing like the mostly seamless intra-Schengen borders I have experienced. It used to be that you could cross it without a passport; a driver’s license from one country or the other was enough. Certainly lots of people were denied entry in the 1990s and earlier, but the border was long and not particularly well defended. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, things got a lot harder, mainly thanks to new policies on the US side. As of June 1, 2009, Canadian citizens need passports to enter the US, with another option for a somewhat cheaper special identity card called the Nexus card.
Today, there are more cameras and remote sensors all along the border than there used to be, and the consequences for getting caught are severe. But if it were easier to go from one country to another, I would probably go more often, and my life might be richer for it.
The occupation in Ottawa and the bigger movement has always been broadly opposed to all mandates and measures aimed at mitigating the pandemic, whatever they are. What is novel about the current mobilization, in comparison to the enormous anti-lockdown demonstrations that have taken place in Montréal, Toronto, and other cities, is that it has been about freedom of movement across the border from the very beginning. The justification for all of this was the vaccine mandate imposed on truckers crossing into Canada from the United States: “Unvaccinated workers who regularly worked border-crossing routes lost their jobs!”
The convoy’s arrival in Ottawa coincided with the establishment of a blockade at the Canadian side of the border between Coutts, Alberta, and Sweetgrass, Montana. This was followed by a blockade of another Prairie border crossing in Manitoba, and then the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit, which is the largest single trade corridor by volume on the entire border. There is talk of another potential blockade at the Fort Erie-Buffalo crossing, perhaps with US allies on the American side. A new blockade has just appeared at Douglas, British Columbia.
The blockade at Coutts, Alberta—not at the border post, but just north of town, initially all preventing from moving north or south. The situation has changed a few times, but as we publish, the blockade has “softened” (there is one narrow lane of traffic open, for emergency vehicles, police, and local Coutts residents), but it remains solidly in place. For the first few days, when the blockade was at full force, Coutts was effectively cut off from the rest of Canada.
If things continue to develop in this direction, we may well see open defiance of the border itself—that is, irregular border crossing. It seems to me that if we are to intervene in the convoy movement at all, the better opportunities are not in Ottawa, but along the border, with the intent of pushing for its effective negation. Considering that we find those who are leading the other border disruptions despicable, it might behoove us to organize our own blockades, with our own messaging, perhaps with our own allies on the other side. Perhaps, in the general confusion, our efforts could blossom into spaces that are worth coming to on their own merits, like many other counter-logistical occupation sites. Maybe this will contribute to the larger general chaos. I would like to think that we could make common cause with some of the people who live in border communities who hate the border too.
There has never really been a good opening for anti-border organizing in Canada before. We might not be able to persuade everyone that a borderless world would be a better one, but we could at least force more people to question whether the US-Canada border actually benefits or protects them. This is an issue that could split both both the conservative and liberal camps, disrupting the false dichotomy they have established.
For now, this is all talk, and it would be a major challenge. But it could be a significant missed opportunity to sit out the first popular protest against the border without posing the questions we want to ask.