Winter sieges of North American capitals
The worrying new model of politics in American and Canadian insurrections
It is uncanny to watch two proud North American capitals stormed by their own citizens in the space of about a year. Just last January, no government authority was able to protect the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. Now, just a bit more than a year later, something very similar is unfolding in Ottawa.
On January 28th, truckers began a siege the Canadian capital. Since then, some of the echoes with January 6th 2021 have been eery, right down to the the far-right organizers and the Confederate flags. The January 6th protestors were of course trying to overturn an election. The people who planned the "Freedom Convoy" Canadian truckers proposed a "Memorandum of Understanding" demanding regime change (which has now been abandoned). On January 29th, the prime minister was led away to an undisclosed location. The sergeant at arms of the House of Commons warned Canadian parliamentarians to avoid the truckers, and to avoid being seen, lest they be followed to their houses and attacked there. Amidst the tumult, some representatives of the more right-wing of the major parties expressed their support. More echoes there. And as in Washington DC last year, the locals in Ottawa are generally aghast.
Perhaps the deepest similarity was that the cause of the protestors made no sense. The Americans who stormed the Capitol last January purported to believe that Trump had won an election that he lost. There was no evidence of this; what is more, there was no logic: if the Democrats really stole elections, surely they would have arranged comfortable majorities for themselves in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Canadian trucker protest plumbs similar depths of unreason. The ostensible pretext for the "Freedom Caravan," the use of trucks from around the country to disable Ottawa, was the need for Canadian truckers to be vaccinated before they enter the United States. But this is not something over which anyone in Ottawa actually has control.
The American federal government makes the rules for crossing the American border. Back in October, the U.S. ended a period of exception which had allowed Canadian truckers not to follow the vaccination rules that bound others. Canadian truckers were then given three additional months to get vaccinated. That grace period came to an end on January 22; and on January 23 the trucks got on their way to Ottawa. To be sure, Canada also requires vaccination to get back in to Canada; but Canadian truckers cannot do business in America without crossing the American border and complying with American rules, so this does not really matter. The protestors might then say that they are opposing vaccine mandates generally. But in Canada, these rules are set in the provinces, not in the capital. The Canadian federal government cannot change American and provincial policies. But this senselessness, it seems, is part of the point. Making demands that cannot be met makes it hard to bring the chaos to an end.
The disease itself is a form of disorder. The convoys can apparently be traced by the corona virus truckers and their families left behind in sewage as they made their way across the country. Illogical as the protest itself might be, these truckers' opposition to masks, vaccines, etc. is no doubt perfectly sincere. Having arrived in Ottawa, some of them violate the local rules by entering shops and restaurants unmasked. This is one more example of a general trend: what seems to be opposition to health measures is perhaps better understood as friendliness towards disease. One way to make a country harder to govern is by allowing infection to spread. Angry maskless unvaccinated people moving quickly around a country shouting angrily are what is known as a vector. Republicans running American states, vaccinated and boosted themselves, seem perfectly happy to let more of their constituents die, provided that this puts off the day when the country as a whole can return to normal. In Ottawa, the most directly irritating thing for the locals seems to have been the constant blowing of air horns and the blockage of traffic by the trucks. In a much more direct way, this causes chaos.
What seems to be emerging is a model for disabling the central government of major democratic countries through the actions of a small number of people. The "Freedom Convoy" is a tiny, unrepresentative group. More than 80% of Canadians are vaccinated. The Canadian Teamsters Union, which has issued a powerful statement opposing the siege of Ottawa, claims that 90% of its members are vaccinated. That would suggest that the number of truckers who are at all effected is in the low thousands. The number of trucks actually parked in Ottawa seems to be about four hundred. And yet a few hundred people in the wrong place at the wrong time can change history. The terrorists inside the U.S. Capitol last January 6 came very close to disabling government by capturing, humiliating, or even killing elected officials. The truckers causing mayhem in Ottawa are using large and loud objects just to get in the way. And by their symbolic presence they attract others.
There are people who have no greater hope than just to show that democratic government, as traditionally understood in places like American and Canada, does not work. Some of them are in Canada and America, of course. It is the Americans who have the loudest voices: Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Elon Musk, have expressed in various ways their support for the truckers. Trump referred to Justin Trudeau, the sitting prime minister of Canada, as a "far left lunatic who has destroyed Canada." This is inflammatory and provocative in the extreme. These Americans are of course foreign actors in a Canadian crisis. But what they see in Canada is quite clearly what they would like to see more of in America: government dysfunction.
Taking a step back: this action looks very much like what hostile foreign actors would like to arrange in democratic countries generally: a cause that is apparently homegrown, vaguely adjacent to a controversial policy issue, roiled up social media, funded from abroad, causing hugely disproportionate damage. If the possibility of involvement in such a scenario from beyond North America seems unlikely, recall the 2016 American elections, when Russians pretending to be Americans organized actual protests.
The people who organized the siege of Ottawa are certainly Canadians, even if the conspiracy theories that some of them have advanced on social media are generic. We now understand that Facebook was deeply implicated in the events of January 6th. It will be interesting to see what an internal investigation of the Facebook's role in the "Freedom Convoy" would reveal: here's betting that it was significant. A great deal of the money seems to be coming from abroad. The siege was paid for by a campaign on GoFundMe, where a third of the donors were anonymous or pseudonymous. When GoFundMe stopped after the first million, its place was taken by a "Christian" fundraising site whose credits include Kyle Rittenhouse. Where the money is actually coming from is unknown.
The grievance is nonsensical or, when generously regarded, minor. And yet the consequences are grave. A major democracy is in turmoil, over a non-issue raised by a small number of people. Canadian politicians are less addicted to hyperbole than American ones, and so when the mayor of Ottawa declares a state of emergency and speaks of "the most serious crisis our city has ever faced" we should probably listen.
As we look north to the troubles of our Canadian friends, we can see familiar features, and recognize a general problem. It is perfectly legitimate for have different views on questions of public policy, and to express them. But social media and dark money favor the extremes against the center, and seem to whet appetite for violating the rights of millions of fellow citizens in the name of what turns out to have been a senseless idea. Forces that well up in the internet can take surprising form in real life, at the heart of physical spaces that democracies require not just for their functioning but for their sense of themselves.