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“Hold the line,” Freedom Convoy fundraiser Tamara Lich shouted as she was taken away in handcuffs by police last Thursday. That phrase had become a rallying cry for protesters in their three weeks in downtown Ottawa. But by Saturday afternoon, there was no more line to hold.
In less than 48 hours, police forced demonstrators off Wellington St. using a combination of batons, horses and indiscriminate pepper spray. (I personally experienced the latter).
It looked like defeat for the protesters. Indeed, by the time volunteer convoy organizer Tom Marazzo held a Saturday press conference asking them to peacefully withdraw from Ottawa, such a call seemed redundant.
The convoy organizers’ goal from the outset was an end to vaccine mandates and vaccine passports. In the absence of this, can the convoy – or the Bouncy Castle Revolution, as Mark Steyn put it – be declared victorious? I think so.
Within a week of the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole had been ousted and replaced by an interim leader, Candice Bergen, who was prepared to defend the truckers and forcefully speak out against vaccine mandates and restrictions. This was quite significant, as previously those opposed to lockdowns and restrictions had been without a voice among elected politicians in major parties. Facing no real political opposition, it’s been easy for Trudeau to marginalize those taking to the streets, as he routinely does.
Most provinces have tabled firmer plans to remove restrictions than they had previously announced, with some moving quite swiftly to scrap vaccine passports. They deny the convoy had any effect on this, though that honking in the distance suggests otherwise.
The convoy’s real victory is larger than these policy concessions, which, admittedly, don’t go nearly as far as the protesters sought.
The convoy united disparate groups who don’t often see eye to eye on politics – French Canadians and alienated westerners, Indigenous people and suburban Ontarians, libertarians and social conservatives – under the banner of freedom. It shifted the battle lines from left vs. right to free vs. unfree, allowing for the realization of that old Ronald Reagan line that an 80 per cent ally isn’t a 20 per cent enemy.
More fundamentally, a group Justin Trudeau maligned as a “fringe minority” proved itself to be anything but.
This coalition can be the convoy’s legacy in a more enduring way than simply ending all Covid restrictions (which still needs to happen).
Short of outright capitulation from the federal government, which was always unlikely, the only ways the convoy could ever have ended were through people getting tired and going home or through force. That the latter happened isn’t all that surprising. The convoy’s presence every day was more and more embarrassing for both Trudeau and the Ottawa Police Service.
Their ineptitude was a fair greater emergency than anything for which the truckers were responsible, but that didn’t stop Trudeau from invoking the Emergencies Act to justify a heavy-handed response. He still has to answer for how such a minuscule fringe group, as he puts it, was so powerful that thousands of police had to be deployed and hundreds of bank accounts needed to be frozen to stop it.
I predicted a few days before the convoy rolled into Ottawa that its critics needed it to be violent to delegitimize it. I can’t help but wonder if Trudeau was waiting it out at first in hopes there would be some violent clash that would justify an emergency so he didn’t have to invent one. In the absence of violence, the media was forced to cling to isolated appearances of things like a Confederate battle flag and a Nazi flag to malign protesters – even though it was the protesters who forced out anyone carrying such a thing.
While the convoy invariably lost some of its early supporters when it ended up being more than simply a weekend protest, it seemed to gain just as many, if not more. I ended up speaking to a number of people who showed up to “check it out” only to stick around when they realized they had been lied to about what was going on there.
Yet this peaceful protest has ended with people behind bars and livelihoods threatened even more than they already had been.
Lich remains in jail after being denied bail. Her fellow organizer Chris Barber was also arrested, though the judge released him on bail. Both said some weeks ago that they were prepared to be jailed over this protest, though I’m not sure martyrdom was what they set out for when they set out for Ottawa.
The convoy’s greatest contribution to the cause of freedom was revealing how far the state is prepared to go to stop those who seek it.
Politicians first tried to dismiss, then malign, then cast as violent insurrectionists. When this failed, they created an emergency – which has been criticized even by people fiercely opposed to the convoy.
As my pessimism over the last two years has increased, I’ve struggled to come up with hopeful messages when I’ve been asked. In one interview, I remarked that the silver lining of government overreach is that it ultimately gets so bad that people will push back.
Why it took a vaccine mandate for truckers to spark for this uprising when things like the air travel vaccine mandate or Quebec’s threat of tax on the unvaccinated didn’t, I still don’t know. But the moment chooses its leaders more than leaders choose a moment.
In that moment, the people stood for freedom while the government stood against them.
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