Time to get over the myth of Canadian exceptionalism: we need to address the dangers of extremism on the right

By Wendy Moss

February 21, 2022

Concept of manipulation and brainwashing with a man who speaks by repeating information entered into his head using a funnel.

Canada is a good country to live in for most people, relative to the quality of life available in most countries around the world. Numerous global indexes measuring well-being and governance support this. 

At the same time, Canadians have displayed blind spots respecting entrenched human rights failures impacting Indigenous peoples and other racialized communities. We periodically acknowledge these issues when it is unavoidable and then, push them aside until the next crisis. 

Most Canadians seem to assume that our democratic system of governance will necessarily keep chugging along, on its own, between elections. And most citizens have probably engaged in self-congratulatory back slapping when we compare Canada to the United States of America on matters of human rights and extremism.  Now it is very clear that Canada has under-estimated the problem of right-wing extremism, both home grown and foreign influenced.  

The truck convoy that turned itself into an occupation of downtown Ottawa for over three weeks, the seizure of an arsenal of guns from sympathizers in Alberta, the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge that was only removed by a police action as well as flare ups in several other cities (from Halifax to Vancouver) and evidence of complicity by some police officers, all reveal a blind spot that threatens the rights, and the peace and security, of all Canadians.  

The policy issues convoy participants wanted addressed are now overshadowed by the issues of public security they created. Also overtaking any issue of pandemic restrictions is the failure of Canada’s political parties to manage, rather than aggravate the dangers of political populism. The Conservative Party of Canada was especially reckless in this regard.

At the national level, Conservatives have taken a sharp and hard right turn in its politics. During this crisis, the Conservative Party made pro forma noises about non-violence but made no real effort to educate the dangerously misinformed about how our system of governance actually works and made no sustained, effective effort to discourage the worst of the “convoy” participants from harassing local citizens including the most vulnerable  – infants, children, seniors and the disabled.

The bylaws of the City were apparently free to be disregarded completely. The dangers of literally deafening air horns going on for hours weren’t of much concern either to Conservative MPs nor the fact that convoy participants so regularly harassed service workers in stores, restaurants and hotels for wearing the masks that provincial health regulations required. This was so bad that two (of three) major grocery stores in downtown Ottawa closed to protect employees.

Despite pro forma protestations, the Conservative Party of Canada appeared very comfortable embracing a so-called “protest” in which high profile notorious racists like Pat King played starring roles. It is time to heed a growing list of experts and people from many points on the political spectrum that Canadian politics is not only more polarized but is so, in a way that is dangerous for the health of democracy as a whole. Such warnings have come from Senator Patterson, former CPC Attorney General Peter Mackay and Senator Vern White and former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman. Our blind spot on this should be evaporating.  

Just as disturbing as the harmful behaviour of many convoy participants is the failure of authorities in Ottawa to prepare and effectively contain the worst of it.  It is clear that local government and police forces in Ottawa failed to recognize quickly enough what they were up against, and when they did, they communicated a throwing up of hands. This emboldened the worst element even more.  

Just as seriously, the municipal government, the provincial government and the federal government failed to coordinate with each other, with the result that the occupation continued, and produced, a multiplier effect, impacting critical infrastructure like the Ambassador Bridge. Which one of the levels of government is more responsible is not of great interest to ordinary citizens.  They expect and deserve better.  We need federal, provincial, and municipal governments and police forces to address the failings of coordination and leadership that contributed to the prolonging and spreading of the crisis.  

It’s also time to acknowledge the very visible double standards in police treatment of protestors when we look at the experience of Indigenous peoples and racialized communities in Canada.  No Indigenous or Black Lives Matter demonstration in Ottawa has wreaked such damage. In fact, Ottawa residents have never been harassed and certainly haven’t experienced the taking over of whole streets for weeks at a time. No protest in Ottawa has ever flouted with such abandon and disrespect, basic bylaws, public safety or rained disrespect down on citizens like this one. If that did happen, we can guess the response would have been much more “robust” (a favourite adjective of policy wonks in Ottawa).

In the face of a vacuum of leadership in Ottawa, citizens had to step up themselves at risk to their safety – from unarmed standoffs in the street to seeking an injunction.  The federal government invoked the federal Emergencies Act when both the Ottawa and Ontario provincial government were by turns in effective or inactive when it came to the convoy crisis in Ottawa.

All levels of government (as well as Parliament respecting its authority over the Parliamentary precinct) hold multiple powers and pressure points at their disposal to develop appropriate strategic responses – if they work together or simply show leadership where it is lacking elsewhere.  We need less finger pointing and more leadership and actual strategy. Also critical was the irresponsibility of Conservative Party of Canada leadership for pretending there was not a critical crisis of public security in Ottawa, and in fact egged on the participants.

I’m sure it is confusing for many Canadians.  They wonder why authorities in the nation’s capital – municipal, provincial, and federal – have failed to reassert control to deliver peace and security to residents, businesses, and visitors in the downtown area of the capital.

If there is any silver lining to the chaos and negative energy of the past few weeks, it is that those with any functional understanding of democratic process in Canada, will be motivated to examine the dynamics of right-wing extremism and its role in the events over the past couple of weeks.  The failings in policing in Ottawa and the lack of inter-governmental coordination cannot be ignored.  In a press conference on February 7th, Minister Marco Mendicino said this question needs to be asked and answered – “How can we be better prepared in the future?”  

Ultimately, there will be ongoing study of how each level of government, each police force and other authorities responded – how they communicated to the public and to convoy members and just as importantly, how they coordinated or didn’t, and how they showed leadership or did not.

No one begrudges any person or any group the right to express their views or to assemble but rights are not absolute. Rights are not to be exercised in ways that infringe on the rights and well-being of others. Too many people in the truck convoy displayed characteristics that were, and are, threats to peace and public safety.  The truck convoy action was distinctly different from any protest or demonstration in Ottawa of any political stripe in living memory:  

  • The constant use of air horns that recklessly ignored harm to the health and well-being of local residents (such as risk of hearing loss from noise levels consistently above 85dbls)
  • Callously ignoring the impacts on differently abled citizens, seniors and engaging in reckless and dangerous activities in efforts to keep warm 
  • Harassing and berating residents and businesses in the City for not agreeing with their views on mask wearing or anything else they adhere to
  • Harassing behaviour at schools
  • Displaying white supremacist symbols including the Nazi flag and Confederate flag
  • desecrating war memorials
  • Ignoring a multitude of city bylaws day after day
  • Using children as shields when police came to disperse the blockades and exposing children to the danger of diesel exhaust, double digit freezing temperatures and complicating police operations
  • participants who express support for “civil war”
  • The daily harassment of journalists including actual assaults
  • Including in their midst people who are crazy enough to be swearing in of so-called “deputies” from their group to potentially arrest people
  • Foreign interference by right wing political actors in the United States such as Senator Ted Cruz who explicitly encouraged these convoys in both countries (and I am confident Canada will get to the bottom of the foreign financing of convoy participants).

Ottawa has had winter protests before this one but none carted around jerry cans of diesel or littered downtown with propane tanks while emitting noxious diesel fumes from massive rigs.  And downtown Ottawa saw some highly unusual and dangerous set-ups. In other demonstrations taking place in Ottawa in winter, protestors made do with mittens and hot chocolate. I guess these “protestors” were much more delicate. They clearly had no respect for the safety of city residents.

The white supremacist element of the convoy cannot be ignored nor the coddling of it in ways we know would not happen if the participants were largely from racialized communities. The Conservatives who were so concerned about the Canadian flag being at half-mast for weeks to honour Indigenous children lying in unmarked graves, seem completely unfazed by the numerous upside down Canadian flags held by convoy participants and displayed for weeks. The hypocrisy of white entitlement seems always to be able to outdo itself.

Many have commented on increased polarization in federal politics.  Some are predicting fault lines in the Conservative Party of Canada could lead to a split again like the Reform and Conservative party. In the last Parliament, people used to fret over political polarization in Parliament. Now we have a much bigger problem – an actual security threat from a movement of right-wing sympathizers that basically don’t know how to, or don’t care to, demonstrate without harming others. There were symbols of white supremacy on display early in the convoy occupation.

There will of course be the inevitable inquiries and parliamentary studies of the events in Ottawa and across the country connected to the “trucker convoy”. In the meantime, even small steps would be welcome to promote a climate of human rights and respect. NDP House Leader, MP Peter Julian has introduced a private members bill, Bill C-229, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (banning symbols of hate) that would make it an offence punishable as a summary or indictable offence to wilfully or recklessly promote hatred or violence against an identifiable group by displaying or offering for sale symbols of hate (such as the Nazi swastika, Ku Klux Klan’s insignia, the flag standards of Germany between the years 1933 to 1945 and those of the Confederate States of America between the years 1861 to 1865). Canadians need all parties in the House who have not attached themselves to right wing extremism to get this done: a small step but important and symbolic commitment to anti-racism of all kinds.

It is crystal clear now that Canada is not immune from the dangers of political extremism, whether foreign influenced or home grown.  It’s time we collectively get over the myth of Canadian exceptionalism on right wing extremism and the threat that it poses.  

We are not immune from political forces, foreign or domestic, willing to exploit and whip up irrational fears to the point that the well-being of many innocent citizens across the country are threatened directly and indirectly.  Sadly, Canada has added new images to the global history of extremism run amok and now has its own brand of far right extremism. It’s time for Parliamentarians (and Premiers) to set an example by getting a grip on their political emotions and ambitions — and to put the security of Canadians first.

Previous generations of Canadians dealt with two world wars, the Great Depression and various pandemics. Are too many Canadians so imbued with a sense of first world entitlement, and to lives not intruded upon by global disruptions, that they can’t take a few years of inconvenience? How can wearing a small piece of fabric and requiring vaccinations for certain occupations or activities to protect others, lead to such shameless, self-entitled cries for “freedom”?

We will await the studies and inquiries to determine whether right wing political forces, in or outside Canada, have seized upon the fears and impatience of a few, and manipulated them in a gross display of political opportunism. But many Canadians concerned with human rights have been shocked out of their complacency and will be ready and willing to push back.