Canada’s trucker protest has already managed to unseat a political leader.
Since Saturday the so-called Freedom Convoy, numbering several thousand truck drivers, has occupied the centre of the Canadian capital, blaring horns and blocking traffic, ostensibly in protest over Covid-19 vaccine mandates. The demonstrators have been actively calling for the resignation of Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Prime Minister, but it is the leader of the opposition Conservatives who was ousted this week.
Erin O’Toole, who had led the Conservatives since August 2020, was decisively voted out by his MPs on 1 February. Though O’Toole’s party leadership had been regularly called into question after the Tories failed to unseat Trudeau’s minority government in the September 2021 election, it was only after the trucker protest reached fever pitch over the weekend that it became certain his days were numbered.
When the convoy of lorry drivers first left British Columbia on 22 January and began making its way across the country to Ottawa, it garnered very little attention. The truckers vociferously objected to a requirement that those who cross the US-Canada border be vaccinated against Covid-19, but even within the industry it was a fringe concern; the vaccination rate in Canada is around 88 per cent, while among long-haul truck drivers themselves it is thought to be as high as 90 per cent. But by the time it neared the capital, the convoy had attracted the support of seemingly every other disaffected fringe group agitating against the establishment.
Public support from the likes of Elon Musk, Jordan Peterson and Donald Trump drew attention to what became a broader protest against all public health mandates and, indeed, Trudeau’s government itself. Speculation grew that the protest could lead to Canada’s own version of the US Capitol riot.
While the protest has held Ottawa, supply chains and the media captive in recent days, it has failed to attract support among ordinary Canadians. Some protesters waved swastika-riddled flags; others desecrated a statue of Terry Fox, a national hero respected across party lines. Stories abound of service staff in the capital being harassed. All of this has appalled most Canadians. So toxic are many of the fringe views on display that any Canadian politician hoping to pledge support for the central cause will find themselves in danger of alienating the majority of voters.
The convoy posed a particular challenge for O’Toole, who since becoming Conservative leader had tried to shift the party — or at least its image — to the centre. Though he initially voiced qualified support for the truckers, over the past week O’Toole tried to distance the Tories from the convoy protest, saying the party needed to avoid a path that was “angry, negative, and extreme”. This agitated the more hardline Conservatives and in the end 73 of the 118 Tory MPs voted to remove him.
While it’s certainly true that O’Toole’s position within the party was far from secure long before the convoy kicked off, it’s also clear that the volatility of this disaffected, anti-establishment movement poses a more fundamental problem for Canada’s centre-right. Uniting the Conservative Party has been an increasing challenge in recent years for any leader — the party has had three since 2015. They must try to placate the more hardline elements among the party’s supporters without alienating moderate voters.
It’s clear that the trucker protest has only exacerbated this problem: hardliners are now emboldened and less likely to tolerate a moderate leader they suspect doesn’t support them. Yet it’s easy to see how any subsequent Conservative leader will struggle to convince centrist and swing voters that the party isn’t infected with far-right views.
Long after the truckers have packed up and gone home, the Conservatives will be struggling to navigate the anger they’ve unleashed.