Lessons in Freedom

The Bizarre Account of How Truckers Saved our Sorry Asses

One year later, I ponder the bizarreness surrounding the Freedom Convoy.  By “bizarre” I am not referring to the Freedom Convoy protest itself—by comparison that was the most normal element.  Bizarreness describes the conditions that prompted the protest, and the way seemingly normal people were led to believe things and exhibit behaviour that—outside the duress of a protracted pandemic—they would never have considered.

By early 2021—a full year after the pandemic’s start, and a full year before the Freedom Convoy arguably hastened its end—people had had enough.  “Pandemic fatigue”, it was called.  The series of measures various government bodies had implemented to slow COVID-19’s spread did not seem to be slowing it much, if at all.  Businesses were suffering.  People were suffering.  Education was suffering.  It was all pretty bad (except of course for those sectors—manufacturers of PPE, for example, and courier companies—that enjoyed a boon during the pandemic.)

Schools and businesses were closed, then opened, so frequently that the situation was as wryly sinister as a Jack-in-the-box.  You knew a lockdown was coming, you just didn’t know when.  Here in Ontario, restaurants were sometimes ordered shut with so little notice they had to throw out thousands of dollars of food ordered in for the next day’s business.

Since the measures governments were trying weren’t working well, they did what they naturally do—they did more of them!  Measures were implemented so quickly after previous measures it was impossible to assess the impact of any particular plan.  Many political leaders had enjoyed a surge in popularity at the beginning of the pandemic—they were so stalwart and reassuring—now they looked like drunkards playing whack-a-mole.

Then, the vaccines began rolling out.  Hallelujah!  I use that term deliberately, because many people treated the vaccines like a new religion.  Everything was just awful, but The Vaccine was going to swoop in like a saviour and make it all better.

Except, it didn’t.  All the marketing science in the world couldn’t make the vaccine live up to its hype.  In spring 2021 when most adults were getting their first COVID-19 vaccine, it was already becoming apparent the vaccine did not fully prevent transmission.  Oh well, at least it will protect you from getting so sick you have to be hospitalized.  But did it?  Many health authorities ceased disclosing meaningful statistics to the public by late 2021.

With vaccines rolling out and COVID-19 cases surging alongside hospitalization numbers, people began demanding explanations.  Why is the pandemic not over?  Why are the schools still closed?  We did the “right thing” by getting vaccinated—when do we get our lives back?

Governments at all levels faced harsh criticism.  With no tricks left in their bags, some politicians pulled out that old standby:  dodge and deflect.  Eighteen months into the pandemic, they announced the unvaccinated were to blame.

Well, that’s something we can deal with.  An enemy we can see.  We couldn’t fight the virus, but by god we can fight those dirty unvaccinated.  Almost overnight, family member turned against family member, friend against friend.  Unvaccinated people were “murderers”.  People transformed their fear of the virus to hate for the unvaccinated.  They transferred all their pent-up pandemic anxiety to a target they could reach.

Egged on by our sneering prime minister and his merry media maestros, people began calling anyone who had not been “fully” vaccinated, or even anyone who questioned the efficacy of the vaccines, “anti-vaxxers.”

Normally, people who had not lost their wits would understand anti-vaxxers are a very small minority who believe vaccines are designed to harm rather than help.  Now that wits had gone out the window, many people seemed ready to believe that anyone not worshipping The Vaccine God—that is, anyone not fully vaccinated or anyone asking questions or expressing concerns about the vaccines—was an anti-vaxx devil.

It seems dubious some 5 million Canadians—roughly one out of every eight people you know—are anti-vaxxers.  Approximately 60% of Canadians don’t get a flu shot in any given year.  Are they anti-vaxxers, too?  People have many reasons why they decide to take—or not take—a vaccination.  Just because they made a different decision than you doesn’t mean they’re nutters.

Despite Canada having one of the highest COVID vaccination rates in the world, some politicians decided they’d surf the wave of anti-unvaccinated fervor, and introduce vaccine mandates.  In some cases, vaccine “passports” were implemented, denying those not fully vaccinated from certain locations and services.

Bizarrely, many people thought vaccine passports were okay.  Actually, they thought they were great!  People proudly waved their QR code over their head like they held a winning lottery ticket.  Look how wonderful I am!  How superior!

Despite knowing the vaccine didn’t prevent person-to-person transmission, and despite eighteen months of workplace measures reducing contact between employees, employers were encouraged or ordered to bar the unvaccinated (or those not disclosing their vaccination status) from the workplace.

Did that help?  Nope.  Now, adding to the accumulated miseries of the pandemic and pandemic “measures”, we had people thrown out of employment, permanently in many cases, and front-line staff put in harm’s way trying to enforce coercive mandates like vaccine “passports.”

When the federal government announced yet another punishing vaccine mandate, this one to prohibit unvaccinated truck drivers (who spend most of their time alone—in their trucks) from crossing the Canadian-U.S.  border, they finally poked the wrong bear.

Truckers are not stupid.  Truckers have plenty of time to think.  Truckers belong to a tribe of thousands.  They are organized.  And—they have trucks.

Within weeks of the trucker-vaccine announcement, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of truckers were on the move—straight for the seat of federal government in Ottawa.  As truck convoys steamed in from all directions, their numbers multiplied.  Supporters lined roadsides and bridges to wave their support.  This wasn’t a “fringe minority” as our petulant prime minister described it—this was the people exercising their voice.  Canadian people.

It took weeks for all these trucks to drive across the country to get to Ottawa.  They were not invisible.  Everybody knew they were coming.  Everybody knew why.  But, bizarrely, some politicians pretended either they didn’t know, or it wasn’t their problem.

Ottawa is the sometimes-reluctant host to hundreds of protests every year.  The city, and the federal government, know how to handle protests.  But for this protest—likely to be the largest one the city had ever seen, both the mayor of Ottawa and the prime minister of Canada decided on similar strategies—they would just ignore it.  “Not my problem.”

The weekend of the planned Freedom Convoy protest, the prime minister exited himself from Ottawa.  The mayor stayed, but tried to downplay the protest as much as he could.  On that first weekend, the mayor’s biggest beef was parking violations.  Within days, the mayor said he’d directed city staff to try to appropriate some of the convoy’s donated support funds.

The Ottawa Police, who were later thrown under the truck, as it were, took the protest seriously, and helped mitigate its impact on everyday life in Ottawa as far as was possible.

Often when a protest is mounted against federal government policy, representatives of the government meet with representatives of the protesters to negotiate some manner of resolution.  It doesn’t mean the protesters’ demands are met necessarily, but that they are heard, and the concerns will be given due consideration.  The protesters go home.

For the largest protest Ottawa had ever seen, the official plan was to do—absolutely nothing constructive whatsoever.

And so the protesters stayed.

The city of Ottawa had to do something, despite great reluctant to acknowledge the protest at all.  In an effort to “starve” the protesters out—deny them access to food supplies, toilets, and waste disposal—restaurants and grocery stores were persuaded to close, and garbage cans removed from downtown streets.  All those businesses, who had lost so much earlier in the pandemic and could have benefitted from the influx of people, had to lose even more.

The truckers did not starve.  They, and their supporters, trucked food in from all over the province.  They brought in portable toilets.  They collected their own garbage.  How dare they!

The protesters, for the most part, were well behaved.  On the second weekend, convoys of farmers on tractors drove to Ottawa to show support for the Freedom Convoy.  Visitors to the protest were amazed to find how different the protest was from what they’d heard on media reports.  Instead of angry men honking their horns at all hours, people found a community block party.

The federal governing party faced increasing criticism from the opposition party.  “Do something!”  they pleaded.  But “do nothing” was the strategy, and the governing party stuck to that.  (Oh, except for the flag-toting, resident-harassing agents provocateurs, but they don’t officially work for the government, right?)

Until the guy at the top began to look ridiculous.  The whole world was watching, and the truckers were winning.  Truck convoy protests sprang up in other countries.  “When will the prime minister act like a prime minister?” an opposition MP asked during a House of Commons question period.  When indeed.

Enter the Emergencies Act.  Probably the biggest gap between doing nothing and doing everything ever spanned in a matter of hours.  Despite having done nothing for so long, suddenly the federal government felt like they need more tools to end the protest.  They had not even picked up the first screwdriver, but now they needed jackhammers.

Whether or not the Public Order Emergency Commission looking into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act finds it was justified or not, to me the end result is the same.  The truckers won.  The Freedom Convoy delivered our freedom.  Not just for the unvaccinated, but for everybody.  Even for those who, following in the steps of their dear leader, looked on the convoy and its supporters with contempt.

Mandates began lifting in all jurisdictions almost immediately.  No more masks.  No more passports.  The kids could go back to school.  Things opened up.  Bizarrely, one of the final mandates to be lifted was the one requiring truckers to show proof of vaccination to cross the border into Canada.  (Even people in positions of power savour the flavour of vindictiveness.)

The Freedom Convoy and the weeks-long protest in Ottawa lifted the veil of fear—from the public, anyway.  Some politicians, I’m sure, still shudder when they hear a diesel engine.

As for the dreaded virus, it did as viruses do:  it evolved.  It morphed into variants less virile and more agile.  More people got it (despite the high vaccination numbers) but fewer succumbed to it.  No respiratory virus has ever been eradicated by vaccination, and this one is proving no different.  It’s still with us, and it’s still serious.  And we’re living with it.

Before the next pandemic arrives, I hope we will have learned some lessons from this one.  We have to be willing, from both organizational and social standpoints, to reflect on, and learn from, our collective and individual failures from this pandemic.  Who knows if anyone will want to save our sorry asses next time.