Now that the convoy protest has largely ended and my street is clear of vehicles, I am filled with a confusing mix of sadness, relief, and disappointment.
This protest has centered almost exclusively on the Covid vaccine mandates. The media and some politicians have ascribed all kinds of other goals to the protesters, including overthrowing the government, but over the three weeks in my conversations with the protesters, reading hundreds of signs on their trucks and their handheld placards, nothing suggested a goal other than the end of the vaccine mandates. I am sure some people in the protest had zany demands, apparently even some of the higher profile figures, but I didn’t meet any myself. This protest was grassroots. No manifesto bound them; their opposition to the mandates forged their solidarity.
Polite society spilled a lot of ink (flipped bits?) telling Canadians that an unruly seditious mob inhabited my street and that nothing short of invoking the most extraordinary powers in the country could contain it. They told us the convoy represented an unprecedented threat to our nation. Whatever polite society has become, they are not students of Canadian history and it would serve us all well if we better understood the origins of modern Canada. What happened this month in Ottawa echoes two major disruptions from Canadian history: The Winnipeg General Strike, and the On-to-Ottawa Trek. While the parallels only go so far, they are worth exploring. Both involved working class people and both had a profound influence on the shape of our society.
In 1919, veterans returning from the front and working class people suffered from high unemployment and poor working conditions across Canada. Many workers demanded collective bargaining rights and better wages. The spring of 1919 saw Canada’s third largest city, Winnipeg, erupt into a full scale general strike triggered by failed labour negotiations in the metal and building trades. Virtually the entire city stopped working with 30,000 workers taking to the streets. As the strike continued to build, acting Minister of Justice Arthur Meighen and the Minister of Labour Gideon Robertson travelled to Winnipeg in an attempt to learn the facts on the ground. Both men refused to meet with the Strike Committee, and instead issued inflammatory statements portraying the strike as “a cloak for something far deeper—an effort to overturn the proper authority”, and “the motive behind this strike undoubtedly was the overthrow of Constitutional Government”. The conflict lasted six weeks, reaching its climax with violence on Bloody Saturday (June 21, 1919) in which government forces fired into the crowd. Strike leaders were brought up on seditious conspiracy charges, others were blacklisted, and some were even deported as foreign agitators. While the strike failed to achieve its immediate goals, it had a lasting influence on the labour movement in Canada. Some the strike leaders went on to form the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the progenitor of Canada’s New Democratic Party. Today, we celebrate the Winnipeg strikers and their “seditious” leaders in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.
During the height of the Depression, the Canadian government built a system of nationwide camps to provide work for single unemployed and often homeless men. Suffering under poor working conditions and low wages, resentment boiled over in 1935 when over a thousand men from camps in British Columbia went on strike and started the On-to-Ottawa Trek in the hopes of confronting the government. Hopping the rails – even commandeering freight trains – while adding to their ranks as they went, the men made it as far as Regina where they halted for initial negotiations. With the strikers moored at the Regina Exhibition Grounds, eight leaders continued on to Ottawa for further negotiations with Prime Minister Bennett. Nothing came of the talks, which quickly broke down, and upon the return of the strike leaders to Regina, Bennett decided to arrest them, even as the Trekkers were dispersing. A riot ensued and two people were killed. The ugliness of the incidence led in part to Bennett’s decline and a recognition that our approach to the Depression needed better efforts. Today, the location of the Regina Riot is a National Historic Site.
While these incidents from Canadian history have some similarities and stark differences from the events in Ottawa over the last three weeks, they share the common root of marginalization. The vaccine mandates cut people off from their livelihoods and prevent them from full participation in society, putting them on the fringes and making them desperate. These tactics have limited public health benefits – even UN vaccination initiatives in the developing world avoid them. If vaccinating the last 10% of Canada is of such paramount importance, culturally sensitive outreach is the only way to proceed with a recognition that no matter what we do, there will always be vaccine refusals. Insults and mandates not only fail to achieve public health goals, but they serve to divide us and erode trust.
A popular trope in the media today is “being on the right side of history”. If being on the right side of history was so easy, we wouldn’t have witnessed the near 40-year parade of Canadian prime ministers apologizing for historical state action which was propelled at the time by popular support. Reflecting on our history, I would not be surprised if the men and women on my street these last three weeks eventually end up in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. History is not obvious as it’s being made.
On Saturday I watched from my living room as the convoy slowly collected themselves for departure, piling leftover supplies for donation at the local church, and all of them moving with a deliberate intent that suggested a quiet resignation to the fate that awaits them. As the last truck exited from view with a low winter sun hanging over an empty Kent Street, I felt the whisper of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,
“To stand up for truth is nothing. For truth, you must sit in jail.”