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Canada’s ‘Freedom Rally’ is being watched by the world — and seen in very different ways


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Canada’s ‘Freedom Rally’ is being watched by the world — and seen in very different ways

As supporters of a truckers convoy with its sights set on Parliament Hill roared their support in Canada’s biggest city on Thursday, heads across this country and around the world continued to turn and watch.

Elon Musk, the richest man on the planet, proclaimed on Twitter that Canadian truckers “rule.” American podcaster Joe Rogan has called ours a “country in revolt.” Here at home, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, contends the convoy represents a “fringe minority holding unacceptable views.”

Everyone, it seems, has their take on what it all means as the “Freedom Rally” plows its way toward Ottawa, due to arrive Saturday.

When it began in the West this week, it was with the relatively narrow stated goal of protesting a vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers, the rule that they quarantine after crossing the Canada-U.S. border.

As it’s neared its destination, the meaning of the protest has seemingly ballooned to supporters and critics alike — becoming more ambiguous, and, for that reason, making its outcome less predictable.

Supporters carrying signs such as “You’ve helped our future” and chanting “freedom” showed up at a gathering at the edge of a Vaughan Mills mall parking lot Thursday.

Some were waving Canadian flags, or signs disparaging the prime minister, the media or Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam. Other signs, as well as an inflatable sheep, sported misinformation about COVID-19.

“There’s so many of us!” one woman exclaimed excitedly, as the looked at the crowd of a couple of hundred.

Evan Balgord, a researcher and the executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, recognizes that many supporters likely do believe it’s about vaccine mandates and “freedom,” but he sees something more ominous.

“A lot of people are supporting it from the sidelines,” says Balgord. “There’s a wide range of grievances that are bringing people to this thing — but it really is a far-right thing.”

In this protest, Balgord sees the latest iteration of 2019’s United We Roll convoy to Ottawa. That protest was launched as something of a yellow-vest movement in support of the Western provinces and the oil-and-gas industry, but finished with a more sinister tone after it became criticized as a platform some were using to spew hatred.

The difference between the United We Roll effort and this protest is the size of the movement and how well-funded it is, Balgord said.

“This convoy is an evolution of what the far-right has been doing since 2016,” said Balgord. “It just keeps going from one stunt, and one thing they call themselves, to another.”

“The organizers, they’re not truckers,” he added. “The truckers have condemned this.”

The “truckers,” of course, are not a monolithic group, but the Canadian Trucking Alliance has denounced the protest, stressing that almost 90 per cent of Canadian truckers have already elected to get the vaccine.

Mike Fabinski, who has been a trucker for 20 years, said the federal vaccine mandate means he won’t be able to work cross-border routes anymore.

“You want to be vaccinated, go ahead, your choice. I don’t want to be vaccinated, that’s my choice,” said the Barrie, Ont., resident. “I was going non-stop until they started last Saturday. Now I cannot go. I cannot work no more.”

On the sidelines of the convoy, critics say, more extreme anti-government forces have been hopping on its bandwagon without being pushed out.

A CBC journalist covering the convoy posted a screenshot of a text conversation with whom he said was a contact for the convoy, which used a racist phrase and said, “Traitors will swing.”

An Ontario organizer from the convoy, Jason LaFace, said the message didn’t come from him or anyone he knew, and he denounced the language as “garbage.”

An early promoter of the convoy was Pat King, a right-wing provocateur who espouses anti-government, freeman-on-the-land ideas and who has said Canada needs to have a “revolution.” The convoy’s GoFundMe fundraiser later added a note to distance their cause from King, saying he is not an organizer of the movement. Nevertheless, based on his videos he appears to be travelling with the convoy and keeping up his own fundraising at the same time.

Concerns about the inflammatory forces within the convoy have put police and Parliament Hill on alert in Ottawa.

Patrick McDonell, the sergeant-at-arms in charge of House of Commons security, wrote to MPs on Thursday warning of reports some demonstrators were seeking out home addresses for MPs in the Ottawa area. He said if their homes or constituency offices are targeted they should not engage, close and lock all exterior doors and get somewhere safe.

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Ottawa police warned Thursday they won’t tolerate criminal behaviour.

“Police and our partners are focused on providing a safe environment for the community and demonstrators,” the Ottawa Police Service said in a statement.

“We are aware of inappropriate and threatening language on social media related to this event. We welcome peaceful demonstrations. That said, public safety is paramount — there will be consequences for persons engaging in criminal conduct, violence and/or activities promoting hate.”

Several high-value donors to the convoy fundraiser reached by the Star, meanwhile, made it clear they donated to promote “freedom” and protest the mandates.

Len Sedge, a Chatham retiree who donated $15,000 to the campaign wrote in a Facebook message to the Star: “My freedom is worth a lot more than that.” (He declined to speak on the phone to the Star because he said he does not trust the media.)

Zach Arnusch from Vanderhoof, B.C., told the Star he would have liked to go with the convoy, but work and family responsibilities kept him at home, so he donated $2,500 instead.

“My understanding of it was initially the main purpose was to end the mandates for truckers crossing the border,” he said. “And then they swung it to end mandates for everyone. I don’t agree with the mandates and all this.”

Still, a full picture of the movement’s funding is not yet clear. GoFundMe on Thursday declined to share a full list of all donations that had been made, including how many of them were anonymous. An analysis of 1,000 recent donations accessed through the GoFundMe page publicly Thursday showed about a third of the donations were made anonymously.

Further donations have been made under pseudonyms, with one person or entity having donated $15,100 under the name of U of T epidemiologist David Fisman, who posted on Twitter that it did not come from him, and another high-value donation appearing under the name “Sophie Gregoire,” the name of Justin Trudeau’s wife.

The convoy started with a viral TikToker, and a coalition of freedom-oriented right-wing activists, including United We Roll proponents, jumping on his cause.

Trucker Chris Barber, of Swift Current, Sask., posted a video on TikTok about an Ontario trucker about to lose her job because of the mandate. That was seen by Tamara Lich, an Alberta woman who works as the secretary for the western separatist Maverick Party.

Lich told right-wing interviewer Marc Patrone that she saw the videos, and was able to connect with both Barber and some of the pro-pipeline activists who worked on the 2019 United We Roll campaign.

Together, they all started social media pages and a fundraiser.

The United We Roll organizers took the lead on organizing schedules and locations for the convoy, informed by the 2019 effort.

Lich set up the GoFundMe, which started with $30,000 in donations on Jan. 15, and, as of Thursday afternoon, had raised more than $6.3 million from more than 80,000 sources.

Barber has been adamant that the effort is not against vaccines — but against vaccine mandates — and told the Star on Monday that he refuses to speak with certain media outlets that claim the convoy is anti-vaccine.

“It’s just the truckers that started this,” he said. “Canadians have just joined with us.”

Political support for the convoy, meanwhile, has come from conservatives in this country who have said they are concerned about supply chain issues due to the vaccine mandates in place for truckers.

Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole has pledged to meet with the protesters and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Thursday that “everybody has the right for democratic and peaceful protest in our country.”

“I do hope that those organizing the convoy do everything they can to make sure that it’s safe,” said Kenney. “I hope that they disassociate themselves with anybody in the convoy who might have extreme or hateful views.”

With files from The Canadian Press

Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt

Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeenOlivia Bowden is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]

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