My career as a political essayist began 13 years ago. I had been asked by a left-wing Canadian website to expand on my views about a then-ongoing constitutional crisis—and explain why public opinion had turned so sharply in favour of then-prime minister Stephen Harper, even among supporters of parties trying to topple his government. I argued that in many cases, a “government’s legitimacy comes not from its ability to appeal to the majority, but instead from its ability to control and discipline its own supporters and potential supporters.”
Since then, this phenomenon has become more pronounced. If a Canadian candidate for office or legislator expresses any view contradicting his or her party’s leadership in any significant way, it becomes a scandal, even if the offending view is broadly supported by the public while the head-office view is unpopular.
These incidents are covered in the media as a threat to a party’s ability to govern, because the leadership’s control over its legislators and prospective legislators is less than absolute. It reveals not that a party is diverse, complex, and pluralistic (all qualities that once were presented as core Canadian values) but rather that the party is weak and even unsafe for having permitted diversity, complexity, and pluralism. This is happening despite the fact that on the other side of the Atlantic, the country that invented the Westminster parliamentary system still routinely witnesses MPs voting against their party’s leadership, often by the dozen, and yet not just remaining within the fold but eligible for future promotion. Indeed, the Westminster system was designed to handle major splits within the factions it contains.
Back in the 20th century, Canadian caucus rebels were expected to vote against (and/or publicly contradict) their leaders during every term they served. Today, on the other hand, the definition of a caucus rebel is a legislator who votes in lock step with the party, and never makes a public pronouncement that isn’t pre-approved by the party, but who grumbles in private about having to do this. And even thisprivate behaviour gets punished by chiefs of staff and party whips if it is discovered.
This political obsession with top-down control has now spread into the broader culture, as we now are seeing with the mainstream Canadian centre-Left’s reaction to the recent large national truckers’ protest in Ottawa, an event that dominated the country’s news for days in late January. Many of the participants were bound together by an opposition to vaccine mandates. But no permanent organization ran the protest, which appears to have been built around social media, a GoFundMe page, and a loose affiliation of local groups that had developed amidst provincial-level protests over the past few years.
And of course, the protest did not represent all or even most truckers in the industry. The crew who were in Ottawa were whiter, more rural, and more right-leaning than the industry as a whole—which is, in turn, whiter, more rural, and more right-leaning than Canadian society as a whole. The folks in Ottawa were also more likely to be “owner-operators,” who have financed their heavy equipment through banks. Those driving trucks owned by extended families or by trucking companies directly were much less likely to be part of the protest.
There is no doubt that a small fraction of participants were members of Canada’s tiny fascist militias—such as the Sons of Odin and the Proud Boys. In addition, the spirit of the protest and the issue it took up, vaccine passports, had already attracted members of right-wing groups that are not themselves truckers but wished to express solidarity or exploit the protest as an organizing and recruitment opportunity.
Those of us who cut our teeth in the 1980s peace movement know this pattern well. The Vancouver Peace March once attracted as much as 10 percent of the city’s population (50,000 protesters at its peak) for an annual walk across Burrard Bridge to support global nuclear disarmament. The vanguard of the march comprised the Trotskyites, Maoists, and other communist sectarians and foreign-dictator enthusiasts, who saw this as their big annual opportunity to radicalize and recruit ordinary anti-nuclear activists.
Right-wing commentators sought to discredit these protests by heavily featuring and platforming the most off-topic or radical protesters, and then seeking to paint all protesters with that broad brush. This approach generally failed, and was mocked by the mainstream press, which depicted the diversity of protesters and homemade signs as a sign of the depth of the movement’s support.
But in the case of the truckers, that hatchet-job approach is working, because our society’s values have changed, and because the target audience is different.
Canadians as a whole, and especially centre-left voters, have come to believe that the legitimacy of a movement inheres not in its size or the diversity of people and views it represents, but rather in its ability to discipline and control its supporters. By that lens, this protest looked illegitimate and frightening. Trucks were parked everywhere. Many people partied and got drunk. Some carelessly disrespected a military monument and other public landmarks. One driver was pictured driving by with a Confederate flag. Not only were the speech and signage of protesters not being controlled by any central authority; but some participants even celebrated the presence of heterodox opinions.
During and after the protest, the most bigoted and ignorant tweets and Facebook comments by individuals supporting the truckers were cherrypicked, and reported as supposedly representative specimens of the protesters’ shared beliefs—usually without even checking to see if the person in question was even in Ottawa. Meanwhile, mainstream politicians such as veteran Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus attribute any hate mail or abusive communication they now receive to “the convoy crew.”
This kind of move, akin to covering a peace march by profiling the views of pro-North Korea activists and nudists who’d tagged along, went over shockingly well, signifying to urban media consumers that, at worst, the truckers were all homophobic Klansmen; or, at best, the protest leaders were unable or unwilling to tell everyone what to do—which, as noted above, is now considered to be a damning indictment.
In attacking Justin Trudeau and vaccine mandates, some protesters made false and unreasonable comparisons between present-day Canada and the early days of Nazi Germany, even using a swastika to make the point. Like most Canadians, I find these comparisons deeply offensive. But that is what they are: deeply offensive comparisons, born largely of ignorance and a persecution complex. They aren’t attestations of fascistic political belief.
The prevalence of such comparisons among the truckers would, in my view, be a reasonable issue for news media to cover in a factual way. But, instead, what we got was rhetorical overkill that extended into falsehood. News media depicted hand-drawn swastikas and upside-down Canadian flags as endorsements of Nazism and opposition to Canada’s very existence.
While it is true that I agree with the truckers on the main issue they raised—vaccine passports and mandates, they are not my political community. I agree with them on few, if any, other issues. Many do hold views I find not just disagreeable but repugnant. I would guess many are climate-change denialists, for instance.
I am not writing this piece to advocate for the protest and its participants. I am writing this piece to ask Canadians like me whether we want our future protests to be judged and covered by standards applied to the truckers today. I am asking us to think about what happens to the horizon of possibility for mass organizing when we throw in with the idea that actual, authentic grassroots protests are a thing of the past—because the only “legitimate” public demonstration is one choreographed from above, its participants either carefully reading from an identical script or intimidated into silence.
We should also think about the Proud Boys and Sons of Odin who may well have gone to the rally to radicalize its participants. The on-the-ground experience of regular folks participating will have been that of being called Nazis, traitors, Klansmen, bigots, and so forth. Not only will this alienate the participants from Canadian society; it will make them look less unfavourably on others who are called Nazis and Klansmen. How bad could those guys really be, they will ask themselves, if they’re supposedly just like me? Were they, too, denounced unfairly?
As someone who has been smeared as a transphobe, homophobe, pedophile, white supremacist, racist, and ableist in the past year and a half—all after I dissented from the progressive consensus on a single issue—I can no longer simply accept the opinion of centre-left media on whether someone is a dangerous, bigoted member of the alt-Right. I can no longer look to the government-financed Canadian Anti-Hate Network to answer the question of whether someone is a dangerous hatemonger, because many of my comrades and I are on their list. And not everyone is going to be like me and check those claims against the facts.
In time, most people will just start ignoring those claims. This being an age in which the authoritarian threat is real and society-wide, a high price may one day be paid for all this crying “wolf” over fascism.
What I am really trying to do is sound a cultural alarm bell about the exaltation of order, discipline, and control. These are authoritarian impulses. In a nation where rapid change is not just a moral necessity, but an ecological one, we must not only retain the capacity for mass mobilization, but also the ability to properly recognize and resist actual authoritarian forces, irrespective of whether they fly under progressive or conservative banners.
An earlier version of this article may be found at the Hub.