TORONTO — One of the titles originally considered for Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch comedy series was “Whither Canada?” It’s not known exactly why Cleese, Palin, Jones and the rest thought this so funny but, back then at least, Canada wasn’t taken entirely seriously. I’m not sure if it is now, really, but that doesn’t particularly bother this well-governed, prosperous, productive country of more than 38 million people.
I came here from the UK in 1987. I married a Canadian — a typical Canadian trick to grab British journalists! For 34 years I’ve assumed the place to be wonderfully different from its enormously powerful southern neighbour. While that’s still the case, I now genuinely fear the influence of US political extremism, bellicosity, and sheer hysteria.
The phenomenon has been evolving for some time now, for a whole slew of reasons. Fox News and ultra-conservative podcasts cross the border; Canada’s ethnic composition has changed and that worries certain people; a new and far more right-wing Conservative Party replaced the more moderate Progressive Conservatives in 2003; and an increasingly active and organised number of people in western Canada – Alberta in particular – see Ottawa not as the seat of government but as a threat, even an enemy.
Now comes a convoy of lorries, self-styled “Truckers for Freedom” or the “Freedom Rally”, making its way from British Columbia on the west coast to Ottawa, a distance of about 2,800 miles. It’s ostensibly a group of truck drivers and their supporters who are opposed to Covid-19 vaccine mandates, but the truth is a little more complex and unsettling.
On 15 January the federal government announced that Canadian truckers had to be fully vaccinated if they wanted to avoid a 14-day quarantine when they crossed back into Canada from the US. Not an unreasonable demand, and the Canadian Trucking Alliance, which is opposed to the convoy, reports that more than 85 per cent of the country’s 120,000 drivers who make regular crossings to the US are indeed fully vaccinated. That leaves perhaps 16,000 drivers who may face quarantine. Vaccines are readily available across Canada, and while some argue that this is about opposition to mandates rather than vaccines themselves, that simply doesn’t fly.
Frankly, supporters of the convoy know that. For them this is about roaring at the government, abusing the Prime Minister (“F*** Trudeau” signs and shouts are ubiquitous), throwing their weight around and displaying anger that the Liberal government has been in power for more than six years while the Conservatives show no sign of winning an election. There are echoes of the Capitol Riots of 6 January in Washington DC in this apparent rejection and denial of the democratic process.
The Facebook page supporting the convoy has almost 200,000 followers, a GoFundMe has raised £3 million, and social media, Tory MPs, conservative newspapers and of course talk radio hosts are cheering the convoy on. Jordan Peterson, who arguably enjoys far greater respect outside of Canada, broke from his increasingly eccentric meanderings to tweet on how impressive the convoy was. “Truckers vs Justin Trudeau,” he wrote. “I’ll lay odds on truckers.” Elon Musk weighed in, tweeting “Canadian truckers rule”.
Organisers claim that the convoy stretches for more than 40 miles and while that’s probably an exaggeration, it’s large, loud and greeted by sizeable groups of people as it makes its way east. It’s also caught the attention of white nationalists and the police have prepared for the risk of violence once it reaches Ottawa on 29 January. Convoy organisers say they won’t allow anything illegal and have condemned all fascist involvement, but while that may or may not be sincere, it’s definitely somewhat naive.
The fundamental issue here is that while Canadians often look and sound American, the essence of the country — its political, emotional and sociological identity — is actually far more north Europe than North Carolina. Just like the NHS, Canada’s socialised medical system has an iconic status, and welfare provisions, absence of military bombast and sheer self-perception have always distinguished Canada from the United States. Canadians may watch US television, benefit from the US economy and many spend winters in Florida, but for generations they’ve been governed by and from the centre.
It’s this reality that so riles the truckers and their base. The convoy is an outward manifestation of a deeper break in Canadian society, an attempt to smash the sacrament and reject the orthodoxy. There’s a whole smorgasbord of resentments and beliefs swirling around: opposition to gun control, dislike of official bilingualism, anger at entirely justified and long overdue Indigenous protests and demands, and the usual certainty that “real” Canadians aren’t being listened to.
This isn’t a nation divided, in that the new conservatism is a minority voice, but it is a country in process and progress, perhaps realising that easy governance may not be as straightforward as was once thought. Canada doesn’t face the same polarisation as the US, has far fewer illusions about its place in history, is less insular and is built more on the communal than the individual. Nor does it have such a dominating Christian right, which is more important than Europeans might think. But it can be smug, which can be alienating to those on the fringes — and that’s not good right now.
The actor and author Peter Ustinov once said that Toronto, the country’s largest city, was “New York run by the Swiss”. For all of his flippant condescension he may have been on to something, as Canada has for the most part avoided the excesses of many other nations, especially the US. Cynics might interpret this as dull, well-travelled realists as fortunate. Let’s hope that can hold true for all of Canada, for a long time to come.