It only took six dozen trucks, and a few hundred protesters to bring Canada’s capital to a standstill and close a critical border crossing with the US, throttling the car industry that straddles the line between both countries and relies on a constant flow of trade.
On Saturday, Canadian authorities finally began taking action to clear the Ambassador Bridge into the US, the busiest land crossing in North America, which had been blockaded by just over a dozen trucks and smaller vehicles, and a crowd a few hundred strong.
The bridge has been closed for the best part of a week now, and meanwhile downtown Ottawa has been under a form of siege for more than a fortnight, blockaded by crowds gathered under the banner of opposition to Covid regulations.
The protest has melded genuine grievances and fears about how the pandemic has upended lives with conspiracy theories and racist extremism, helped by some degree of funding from abroad. A handful of demonstrators have turned up with Trump banners and Confederate flags.
The seductively open-ended rallying call for a “freedom convoy” has sparked an unlikely global movement. Around the world other police forces were moving this weekend to clear or block copycat actions.
In New Zealand, the parliament Speaker, Trevor Mallard, used a sound system playing Barry Manilow songs to tackle a gathering in Wellington, and in France thousands of police fanned out to motorway tollbooths around Paris to stop a “convoi de la liberté” from getting into the city, and used teargas on protesters in the Champs-Élysée.
“The right to demonstrate and to have an opinion is a constitutional right guaranteed in our republic and in our democracy the right to block others or stop them from coming and going is not,” said prime minister Jean Castex. “If they block the traffic or try to block the capital we will be very strict.”
In North America, authorities are drawing up longer-term plans to tackle truck convoys, whose organisers have floated the idea of trying to barricade events from the Coachella music festival to the Super Bowl, and mooted a convoy from California to Washington DC.
* * *
The protest in downtown Ottawa that thrust Canada into an unwelcome international spotlight may prove harder to dismantle, and the shockwaves from the last two weeks may prove harder still for the country’s political class to shrug off.
The protesters are a tiny minority in a country which has, on the whole, embraced the protection against Covid offered by science. Canada has one of the highest rates of full vaccination anywhere in the world, with more than 80% of people covered.
The truckers are also a minority in their profession. The union Teamsters Canada, which represents 15,000 drivers, has also denounced “despicable displays of hate” at the protests, which it said did not represent “the vast majority of our members”.
But the trucks form an obstacle that is much harder to move from the freezing streets than the crowds of individual protesters or smaller vehicles that police might have faced in the past. A state of emergency has been declared, residents have launched legal action against protesters and prime minister Justin Trudeau has moved out of his official residence.
Police are meant to be trying to choke off the group by keeping food and fuel supplies out of the main protest zone, although they are taking limited action on the ground. A bank has frozen their funds and two sites, GoFundMe and GiveSendGo, shut down their fundraising.
But several protesters told the Observer that the rights they were fighting for were worth any financial hit. Rebecca, who did not want to give her last name, lives near the protests and has joined them regularly. She has been on unpaid leave from her government job for months, after a request for a vaccine exemption on religious grounds was rejected. “I am a human rights activist. I don’t think that vaccines should be mandated for people to keep jobs. And that is the primary reason I’m down here,” she said.
That sense of a heroic mission, also fuelled for some people by conspiracies such as QAnon, may make these protests far harder to end than demonstrations on behalf of specific political demands.
“[They think] ‘We’re here to save you, we’re here to wake up the sleeping masses to the true reality of what’s going on.’ They’ve become heroes in their own story,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, an associate professor at Queen’s University in Ontario who specialises in social movements and extremism.
“I don’t think that’s a challenge for security reasons from a terrorism perspective … But I think it does have an impact on how long this goes for because it’s not simply something you can negotiate with and say, ‘OK, the mandates will disappear’ or ‘this will go away, you can go home now.’”