The fog of the right side of history

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.

The Winnipeg General Strike (1919).

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.

The On-to-Ottawa Trek – riding the rails (1935).

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.

A night with the untouchables

I live in downtown Ottawa, right in the middle of the trucker convoy protest. They are literally camped out below my bedroom window. My new neighbours moved in on Friday and they seem determined to stay. I have read a lot about what my new neighbours are supposedly like, mostly from reporters and columnists who write from distant vantage points somewhere in the media heartland of Canada. Apparently the people who inhabit the patch of asphalt next to my bedroom are white supremacists, racists, hatemongers, pseudo-Trumpian grifters, and even QAnon-style nutters. I have a perfect view down Kent Street – the absolute ground zero of the convoy. In the morning, I see some protesters emerge from their trucks to stretch their legs, but mostly throughout the day they remain in their cabs honking their horns. At night I see small groups huddled in quiet conversations in their new found companionship. There is no honking at night. What I haven’t noticed, not even once, are reporters from any of Canada’s news agencies walking among the trucks to find out who these people are. So last night, I decided to do just that – I introduced myself to my new neighbours.

The Convoy on Kent Street. February 2, 2022.

At 10pm I started my walk along – and in – Kent Street. I felt nervous. Would these people shout at me? My clothes, my demeanour, even the way I walk screamed that I’m an outsider. All the trucks were aglow in the late evening mist, idling to maintain warmth, but all with ominously dark interiors. Standing in the middle of the convoy, I felt completely alone as though these giant monsters weren’t piloted by people but were instead autonomous transformer robots from some science fiction universe that had gone into recharging mode for the night. As I moved along I started to notice smatterings of people grouped together between the cabs sharing cigarettes or enjoying light laughs. I kept quiet and moved on. Nearby, I spotted a heavy duty pickup truck, and seeing the silhouette of a person in the driver’s seat, I waved. A young man, probably in his mid 20s, rolled down the window, said hello and I introduced myself. His girlfriend was reclined against the passenger side door with a pillow to prop her up as she watched a movie on her phone. I could easily tell it’s been an uncomfortable few nights. I asked how they felt and I told them I lived across the street. Immediate surprise washed over the young man’s face. He said, “You must hate us. But no one honks past 6pm!” That’s true. As someone who lives right on top of the convoy, there is no noise at night. I said, “No, I don’t hate anyone, but I wanted to find out about you.” The two were from Sudbury Ontario, having arrived on Friday with the bulk of the truckers. I ask what they hoped to achieve, and what they wanted. The young woman in the passenger seat moved forward, excited to share. They said that they didn’t want a country that forced people to get medical treatments such as vaccines. There was no hint of conspiracy theories in their conversation with me, not a hint of racist overtones or hateful demagoguery. I didn’t ask them if they had taken the vaccine, but they were adamant that they were not anti-vaxers.

The next man I ran into was standing in front of the big trucks at the head of the intersection. Past middle age and slightly rotund, he had a face that suggests a lifetime of working outdoors. I introduced myself and he told me he was from Cochrane, Ontario. He also proudly pointed out that he was the block captain who helped maintain order. I thought, oh no, he might be the one person keeping a lid on things; is it all that precarious? I delicately asked how hard his job was to keep the peace but I quickly learned that’s not really what he did. He organized the garbage collection among the cabs, put together snow removal crews to shovel the sidewalks and clear the snow that accumulates on the road. He even has a salting crew for the sidewalks. He proudly bellowed in an irrepressible laugh “We’re taking care of the roads and sidewalks better than the city.” I waved goodbye and continued to the next block.

My next encounter was with a man dressed in dark blue shop-floor coveralls. A wiry man of upper middle age, he seemed taciturn and stood a bit separated from the small crowd that formed behind his cab for a late night smoke. He hailed from the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. He owned his own rig, but he only drove truck occasionally, his main job being a self-employed heavy duty mechanic. He closed his shop to drive to Ottawa, because he said, “I don’t want my new granddaughter to live in a country that would strip the livelihood from someone for not getting vaccinated.” He introduced me to the group beside us. A younger crowd, I can remember their bearded faces, from Athabasca, Alberta, and Swift Current Saskatchewan. The weather had warmed, and it began to rain slightly, but they too were excited to tell me why they came to Ottawa. They felt that they needed to stand up to a government that doesn’t understand what their lives are like. To be honest, I don’t know what their lives are like either – a group of young men who work outside all day with tools that they don’t even own. Vaccine mandates are a bridge too far for them. But again, not a hint of anti-vax conspiracy theories or deranged ideology.

I made my way back through the trucks, my next stop leading me to a man of East Indian descent in conversation with a young man from Sylvan Lake, Alberta. They told me how they were following the news of O’Toole’s departure from the Conservative leadership and that they didn’t like how in government so much power has pooled into so few hands.

The rain began to get harder; I moved quickly through the intersection to the next block. This time I waved at a driver in one of the big rigs. Through the rain it was hard to see him, but he introduced himself, an older man, he had driven up from New Brunswick to lend his support. Just behind him some young men from Gaspésie, Quebec introduced themselves to me in their best English. At that time people started to notice me – this man from Ottawa who lives across the street – just having honest conversations with the convoy. Many felt a deep sense of abuse by a powerful government and that no one thinks they matter.

Behind the crowd from Gaspésie sat a stretch van, the kind you often see associated with industrial cleaners. I could see the shadow of a man leaning out from the back as he placed a small charcoal BBQ on the sidewalk next to his vehicle. He introduced himself and told me he was from one of the reservations on Manitoulin Island. Here I was in conversation with an Indigenous man who was fiercely proud to be part of the convoy. He showed me his medicine wheel and he pointed to its colours, red, black, white, and yellow. He said there is a message of healing in there for all the human races, that we can come together because we are all human. He said, “If you ever find yourself on Manitoulin Island, come to my reserve, I would love to show you my community.” I realized that I was witnessing something profound; I don’t know how to fully express it.

As the night wore on and the rain turned to snow, those conversations repeated themselves. The man from Newfoundland with his bullmastiff, a young couple from British Columbia, the group from Winnipeg that together form what they call “Manitoba Corner ” all of them with similar stories. At Manitoba Corner a boisterous heavily tattooed man spoke to me from the cab of his dually pickup truck – a man who had a look that would have fit right in on the set of some motorcycle movie – pointed out that there are no symbols of hate in the convoy. He said, “Yes there was some clown with a Nazi flag on the weekend, and we don’t know where he’s from, but I’ll tell you what, if we see anyone with a Nazi flag or a Confederate flag, we’ll kick his fucking teeth in. No one’s a Nazi here.” Manitoba Corner all gave a shout out to that.

As I finally made my way back home, after talking to dozens of truckers into the night, I realized I met someone from every province except PEI. They all have a deep love for this country. They believe in it. They believe in Canadians. These are the people that Canada relies on to build its infrastructure, deliver its goods, and fill the ranks of its military in times of war. The overwhelming concern they have is that the vaccine mandates are creating an untouchable class of Canadians. They didn’t make high-falutin arguments from Plato’s Republic, Locke’s treatises, or Bagehot’s interpretation of Westminster parliamentary systems. Instead, they see their government willing to push a class of people outside the boundaries of society, deny them a livelihood, and deny them full membership in the most welcoming country in the world; and they said enough. Last night I learned my new neighbours are not a monstrous faceless occupying mob. They are our moral conscience reminding us – with every blow of their horns – what we should have never forgotten: We are not a country that makes an untouchable class out of our citizens.