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Canadians have a reputation for being polite, nice people. But the high-profile weeks-long civil disobedience actions by some Canadian truckers that began in late January in the capital city of Ottawa has undermined this reputation. Truckers and their allies caused traffic snarls within the city and wreaked havoc along the international supply chains crossing the United States-Canada border.
By many accounts, it seems as though the United States has exported its brand of toxic right-wing extremism across the northern border. Indeed, there are credible reports of Confederate American flags and swastikas being displayed by the Canadian protesters.
Unsurprisingly, the so-called Freedom Convoy has also garnered outsized media attention in the United States, becoming a cause célèbre among domestic conservatives who see it as yet another front in the culture war around which to whip up frenzied hysteria and score political points.
The truckers started out protesting vaccine requirements for their cross-border deliveries, demanding that the unvaccinated among them be exempt from quarantining—in essence asking for special treatment. One truck driver told the BBC, “We want to be free, we want to have our choice again, and we want hope—and the government has taken that away.” That sentiment quickly expanded to a demand to drop all safety standards regarding the pandemic.
How ironic it is that those proclaiming they want “freedom” are protesting against the very thing that offers society a path toward liberation from the pandemic. The protests are taking place around the one-year anniversary of when lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines first became available to residents of Western nations like the United States and Canada. To most of us a year ago, the vaccines offered a tantalizing glimpse of what the end of quarantine and isolation could look like.
If the Freedom Convoy sounds extremist, that’s because it is. Poll after poll shows that a majority of Canadians do not support the protesting truckers. Even most Canadian truckers find the blockade distasteful, with the Canadian Trucking Alliance disavowing the actions and warning that “many of the people you see and hear in media reports do not have a connection to the trucking industry.” In fact, there is widespread support for vaccines among Canadian truckers, with a whopping 90 percent being vaccinated—a higher percentage than the general Canadian population.
South Asian truckers, who comprise a significant percentage of the truck drivers in Canada, are particularly disgusted. Many are resentful of how the Freedom Convoy is ignoring real-life issues facing truck drivers in Canada that are far more worthy of protest. Gagan Singh, a spokesperson for the United Truckers Association in British Columbia, explained, “It’s all about safety and pay structure for the truckers… people are upset about a lot of other issues and those issues are not being represented by those [Freedom Convoy] folks.” Manan Gupta, who heads a magazine for South Asian truckers, said, “I wish we were talking about congested highways, road safety, the lack of parking spaces, the small number of border officers, and the dearth of restrooms for truckers.”
And yet the Freedom Convoy has captured attention on both sides of the border that is vastly disproportionate to its size. One reason is that it doesn’t take many trucks to block a street or even a border, and therefore a small number of trucks can have a big impact.
But even in areas far from the northern border, the truckers made headlines all over the United States, largely because Fox News has been amplifying their demands in the typically selective manner it reserves for extremist fringe right-wing views. According to the media watchdog group Media Matters, Fox News shows devoted many hours of coverage to the issue and interviewed Freedom Convoy participants who were vociferously denouncing vaccine mandates.
But Fox’s anchors and hosts failed to mention during the broadcasts that their own workplace requires vaccines as part of safety protocols keeping them safe. More than 90 percent of all Fox News staffers are vaccinated.
Similarly, former President Donald Trump has expressed his support for the Canadian antivaxxers, saying that they “are doing more to defend American freedom than our own leaders.” Meanwhile, not only has Trump been vaccinated, but he has also had a booster shot.
In spite of this double standard, Fox News and the Republican Party have fallen deeply in love with the Freedom Convoy. Perhaps that is because the seemingly grassroots protests are in fact bought and paid for by conservative American elites—the core base of both institutions. A Washington Post analysis of leaked donor data from the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo found that “[t]he richer an American community was, the more likely residents there were to donate, and the biggest number of contributions often came from communities where registered Republicans made up solid majorities.”
One analyst told PBS that the Freedom Convoy was simply another opportunity for the GOP to whip up its base ahead of the fall midterm elections. “It’s a terrific [issue] eight or nine months before the election for them,” said Ian Reifowitz, the author of a book called The Tribalization of Politics. He added, “It allows you to bank money, bank volunteers and energize the base, which is what you want to do.”
In other words, the Republican Party may simply be adding the Freedom Convoy to its roster of wedge issues like the attacks on critical race theory, transgender athletes and more.
Love for the Canadian Freedom Convoy runs so deep among American conservatives that Politico’s Rich Lowry found that it has even united the libertarian and populist wings of the GOP. This may be because, ultimately, crippling the ability of governments to impose regulations for the public good is a cause both sides can get behind.
Right-wing wedge issues centered on vaccine requirements aren’t just fueling partisan fundraising in the United States. They are literally fueling death. If this sounds like hyperbole, the numbers speak for themselves. Sixty-four percent of Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19 compared to 80 percent of Canadians, even though Americans had more access earlier on to the vaccine than Canadians and vaccine supplies remain abundant in the United States.
The results of this disparity in vaccination rates are stunning. The American death rate from the virus is 279 per 100,000 people, compared to Canada’s 94 per 100,000. In other words, Americans are nearly three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than Canadians. We have right-wing institutions and leaders like Fox News and Trump to largely thank for the American reticence to vaccination, and, by extension, the resultant disproportionately high death rate.
Because right-wing leaders and their allied media platforms like Fox News are so relentless and disciplined in amplifying their favorite causes no matter what the consequences, they have an outsized influence on American politics. In response to their exaggerated importance, U.S. governments and agencies bend over backward to give credence to regressive forces and treat them with kid gloves, from the Bundy occupation in Oregon in 2016 to the violent attack on the Capitol in 2021.
There is now an American version of the Freedom Convoy being organized, which is likely to express the same sort of impunity as its earlier, aforementioned counterparts and to enjoy the same sort of outsized media coverage, donations, and headlines as the Canadian actions.