OTTAWA — Canadians were shocked when a group of truck drivers rolled their platforms into the nation’s capital earlier this year, paralyzing the downtown area for weeks and demanding the government lift all pandemic-related restrictions.
The demonstrations spread to border crossings, forcing auto plants to close and disrupting billions of dollars in trade with the United States. In the end, the prime minister took the extraordinary step of invoking an emergency law that would allow the government, among other things, to freeze protesters’ bank accounts.
But that was then.
Now the truck drivers and their supporters have become a major constituency and are courted by the country’s Conservative Party, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s main political opposition.
Many in the party are rewriting what happened on those chaotic days in February, covering up the illegality of the blockades and a stockpile of weapons found at a protest in Alberta, where authorities said protesters were willing to use force. to block a border crossing there.
And several would-be conservative leaders are fighting each other to be seen as the real defenders of truck drivers and their claims that Canadians have lost their freedoms.
“The truck drivers have more integrity in their little finger than you’ve had in your entire scandal-ridden cabinet,” said Pierre Poilievre, the frontrunner for the now-vacant party leadership when he challenged a former Quebec prime minister, Jean Charest, in a debate last week.
With its multi-party system, Canada is not known for the kind of zero-sum politics that has come to define political life in the United States. But that’s a story that obscures the struggles and intrigues that fuel the struggle for power in the country. This is especially true after the last election in October, when Trudeau returned to power for a third term as prime minister, with the far-right party again failing to secure seats in parliament.
The Conservatives, the only other party to form a government in Canada, are gearing up for a fight, seeing the truck drivers and their followers not as outcasts, but as political currency that can earn votes — and money.
“We must support our truck drivers and stand up for their freedoms,” Mr Poilievre said at a recent meeting in Ottawa.
Canada’s next federal election is expected in 2025, which is an eternity in the world of politics. Anything can happen between now and then. But there are two factors that have upset some of those close to the current Liberal Party government.
One is simply the matter of time in power. Gerald Butts, a close friend of Mr. Trudeau and a former top political adviser, noted that Mr. Trudeau will be in power for 10 years by then.
“If the Liberal Party is looking old and tired at the time, voters will look very closely at the alternatives available,” he said.
The second factor is in one word: Truckers (or at least what they represent).
The truckers may have a relatively small following and may be seen as outsiders politically. But they have a highly motivated following that is angry, excited, engaged, and eager for change.
All things considered, Mr Butts said, is a cause for concern among Liberals.
“In that scenario, the public will really be looking for change,” Mr Butts said.
But for now, the battle is unfolding within the Conservative Party itself, as Mr. Poilievre presents himself as the true heir to the trucking movement.
And it seems to work.
During last week’s debate, several of the five candidates in attendance argued that they were the truckers’ biggest supporters.
“You didn’t speak until it suited you,” Leslyn Lewis, a social conservative now in her second campaign for leader, told Mr Poilievre.
The only candidate opposed to the protests, Mr Charest, the former Quebec Prime Minister who left his political retirement to seek leadership of the party, was booed for condemning the truck drivers.
“There’s a very real line to draw here: if you’re a legislator, you can’t support a blockade, you can’t support people who break the law,” Mr Charest said in a recent interview.
During the debate, he was the only one to make that point clear. An absentee candidate, Patrick Brown, the Toronto suburban mayor and former MP, spoke out against the blockade in February.
The blockade began as a modest convoy of truck drivers and camp followers departing from Western Canada with a specific purpose: a Canadian rule that mirrored US law by requiring truck drivers returning from the United States to be vaccinated.
As the blockade moved east toward Ottawa and spurred imitators in other regions, members’ complaints spread to all of the pandemic restrictions and general disaffection with the government and Mr. Trudeau.
Understand the trucker protests in Canada
Express complaints. A demonstration by truck drivers protesting vaccine mandates earlier this year slowed the economy and for a time brought life to a standstill in parts of Canada. Months later, the protesters have grown into an important political base. Here’s what you need to know:
Ottawa police thought the group would only be staying for a weekend and waved the trucks in the direction of the streets surrounding Parliament.
That assumption was devastatingly wrong. The police chief, who resigned during the nearly month-long blockade, admitted that his overwhelmed force had lost control of the city. The city’s mayor and Ontario’s premier both declared a state of emergency as the protest spread to a vital bridge crossing from Detroit that carries more than $300 million worth of commerce a day.
After Mr Trudeau turned to the Emergencies Act for the first time in history and reinforcements from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other law enforcement agencies from across the country poured into the city, the streets were finally cleared in two days. More than 200 people were arrested, including some of the convoy organizers, and the money raised by the group was seized. No case has yet been brought to court.
Outside of Canada, the protesters were greeted by far-right groups as far as the Netherlands, which staged sympathy protests and donated millions of dollars to the protest online in the United States and elsewhere, with little of which ultimately made it to the protesters.
The weeks-long paralysis of the national capital and the prolonged failure of the police to restore order attracted worldwide attention and stunned Canadians who generally had never seen anything like it.
“By a reasonable definition, this was a mass, illegal occupation,” public security minister Marco Mendicino told a parliamentary committee late last month, adding: “I would say the emergency was unprecedented in late January and through February. because all the blockades happened at the same time. We had never seen such a level of disruption on the streets of Ottawa.”
So it’s especially surprising to some to see mainstream conservatives, traditionally a law and order party, now pursuing the protest movement. One possible clue was to be found in last year’s vote. The party was led by a moderate who angered the right-wingers by backing away from things like easing gun controls, while at the same time largely failing to win over voters in the center.
Now conservatives like Mr. Poilievre are trying to follow the same kind of strategy as Republicans in the United States, targeting a loosely organized movement that claims to speak the truth to power, but whose supporters are concerned about what they see as a changing world are often fueled by conspiracy theories and nationalism.
That embrace can make Mr. Poilievre or anyone else to take over the party in which the vote for leadership is limited to a small number of Canadians who buy memberships. But some analysts warn that the general election will be less likely to resonate with the wider Canadian public.
“The key to Canadian politics is that no party wins on its grassroots alone,” said Melanee Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta. “This is a short-term strategy because the convoy rhetoric, the super charged language, the hyper-partisanship will be quite off-putting to someone who is impartial.”
Still, Mr Butts, the former Liberal strategist, said these kinds of arguments may not apply in the next vote.
“If I had my old job,” he said, “I wouldn’t assume that Poilievre can’t win a general election.”